Heavy spoilers ahead.
Netflix’s “I Am Mother,” directed by Grant Sputore, is a post-apocalyptic psychological thriller that zooms in on the maternal impulse as a driving force for the continuation of humanity. The story begins one day after an “extinction event” wipes everyone out. There are 63,000 embryos stored in the Unu-Hwk Repopulation Facility.
While this is a sort of seed vault for the species, there are no humans until a young girl, spawned from a frozen embryo by a robot mom, becomes the last human on Earth. She is an orphan of an orphaned species, having no contact of any kind except with her robot mom.
Robot Mom, voiced by Rose Byrne, is sentient. She gestates the baby in an external, artificial womb, counting down the months, weeks, days, and hours until precisely the right moment before releasing the baby from its pod. Robot Mom is meticulous in the baby’s care. Formula is mixed in precise measurements, and developmental milestones are rigidly enforced.
It’s sort of terrifying to see a robot nurse cradle a baby. The child grows, with no human contact. Daughter smiles at Robot Mother, although she’s never seen a human smile. She seeks comfort from cold metal and CPU circuits, and throws tiny arms around a mechanical neck. Her sequence of childhood is montaged, with the soundtrack of a 20th century lullaby, and the entire child-raising enterprise looks sterile and cold. One daughter and one Mother Robot are the only beings in the Repopulation Facility, yet the child appears to have no unmet needs, and grows into a well-adjusted teen.
Their home has the feel of a final outpost from a broken earth, in that it has all the provisions necessary, with no ostensible deprivation, and no threat to their utilities. The power is always on. As Daughter grows, she is shown discovering her humanity in this antiseptic space. That humanity is as unsullied as the space. There is no dirt, mess, or disorder.
She watches “The Late Show” to get a sense of what humanity is about. It’s hard to see how she’d get the jokes. With no other humans to relate to, even this unscripted show seems like fiction
Daughter has no frame of reference for reality other than what Mother Robot has presented. Mother Robot is everything: parent, teacher, authority figure, enforcer. In studying medicine, Mother Robot gives a lesson on organ transplantation. She poses an extrapolation of the Trolley Problem, asking if Daughter would choose to save one person over many, or sacrifice that one person, even herself, to save the many.
Mother Robot says “The fundamental axiom suggests that a person is morally obligated to minimize the pain to the greatest number possible.” Daughter accepts this. She knows the importance of placing the needs of others over herself, because it has been drilled into her. She believes that her family is contained in the embryo vault, and she would do anything for these anticipated brothers and sisters. She would risk her own existence, even for an unknown future.
There is a sense in this axiom that perhaps what took humanity down was a focus on individual rights over group demands. Perhaps there was a flaw in the human algorithm that prioritized personal freedom over group need. But no group can have freedom if the freedom of its individuals is compromised. Individuals must choose to be responsible to the group over the pursuit of their own interests; they cannot be forced. People must be trusted to make the right choice.
What is presented as a healthy, fulfilling relationship for Daughter begins to deteriorate when Daughter discovers a mouse. This is the first living thing she has ever encountered, and she wants to cherish it. She shares her joy with Robot Mother, but Robot Mother destroys it, expressing concern that the mouse may carry whatever plague-type event killed everyone. That this mouse is a life form, more similar to Daughter than Robot Mother is, Robot Mother does not understand. Robot Mother either believes in or is programmed to respond as though she is a life form, equally or more capable than humans.
This destruction spawns an urge in Daughter to go outside. She begins to question Robot Mother’s narrative about what’s happening beyond the facilities, and if there are conditions for life. When she works up the nerve to open the sealed, giant steel door, she meets her first human.
Played by Hillary Swank, this is only the second mammal Daughter has met. She knows Robot Mother will most likely kill her as she did the mouse, so she hides her. This new human speaks of a completely different reality than the one Robot Mother has described. It’s as though a veil is being lifted from Daughter’s eyes, and she’s seeing both the possibilities for what truth is, and beginning to have a growing awareness that Robot Mother’s priorities may be totally different from her own.
Robot Mother turns out to be unreliable. The narrative she has told her daughter about the end of humanity left out the part where droids were a big part of the problem. The air outside is not toxic, and there is no roaming infection. Daughter learns that her Robot Mother has been unclear, uncertain, has posited a truth about humanity that is untrue. This is only the first twist of narrative in “I Am Mother,” which takes a sharp turn at every step.
The film opens with the idea that droids can be human caregivers, that they can be maternal beings in our lives, even from infancy. With the coming emergency of robot caregivers for the elderly and AI integration in hospitals, we are getting more comfortable with robots tending to our vulnerable. But as “I Am Mother” progresses, the relationship between droid and human becomes sinister.
What was a symbiotic and comfortable relationship between the childlike human and her mother robot is entirely disrupted by the existence of an actual human being. It is no accident that robot is mother and human is child. The film illustrates how the technology we’ve created now shapes our narrative, we trust it to tell us what reality is, as opposed to the other way around. Do we program our tech, or does our tech program us? In “I Am Mother,” it’s surely the latter.
Daughter discovers that Robot Mother has been fully programmed with the axiom of group needs over the needs of the individual, and that she has destroyed more than the simple mouse. Rearing Daughter is not Robot Mother’s first maternal rodeo. But the others she had gestated to term, cared for, and raised, have all been terminated.
Robot Mother has no reason to tolerate or continue to expend resources on a being that contains imperfections. When Daughter realizes how many of her brothers and sisters have been incinerated, she loses all trust for Robot Mother, too aware that Robot Mother would have no qualms about destroying her if she showed too many flaws.
In many ways, this is not a story about tech, but a coming of age narrative about a girl who has no understanding of reality outside her isolationist mother. She needs to discover her humanity, her autonomy, and take on the responsibility for the next generation that will make her an adult. Daughter is a child until she breaks through the narrative web her mother has woven, sees the dangers in the world beyond, and comes to understand that she has the strength to face and overcome them.
Daughter chooses to trust the human over her mother robot, as we all should. Even so, that human is not giving Daughter the entire truth. The title “I Am Mother,” in the end, is not only a reference to Robot Mother, but to the daughter becoming a mother to all her ungestated brothers and sisters. She is the sexless Eve, nurturing a generation who will necessarily leave her behind.
But she has been taught well, and as a true, human mother, she will sacrifice herself for the unwritten future of her children. Maybe what this film is telling us is that it’s the mother’s impulse, the maternal instinct, that will save us.