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I Am Mother (2019) Bypasses Women

By Alline Cormier

This article contains spoilers.


by Jennifer Bilek

When the real lives of women begin to resemble a science fiction movie, the very name for ourselves, our biology and reproductive capacities being socially and legally erased by the gender industry, perhaps examining the latest sci-fi movies can help us process what is happening. I am excited to welcome back Alline Cormier to The 11th hour. You can find more of her fantastic film reviews in the Guest Posts section of this site.

Is I AM Mother only imaginative fiction or is it an embellished harbinger of things to come? We read and see increasingly more research being conducted into technological reproduction for people who are same-sex attracted, womb transplants for those who cannot have children on their own, and womb implants into men. Biotechnologies for people who have been sterilized in new medical procedures manifesting a synthetic sex identity are well underway and considered progressive and good. The ethics of these quickly developing technologies and the psychological and ethical problems they create for society, are also being investigated.

I invite you to consider the promotion of sterilizing youth for identity purposes, as positive, and the legal, political and institutional erasure of women happening under the banner of gender identity. Is this progress? Is this human rights? If we let go of organic sexual reproduction for the promise of a technological liberation and the "opportunity" for everyone to have children, what is the trade-off? Perhaps I Am Mother, has something to tell us.

I Am Mother (2019) Bypasses Women

How crucial are women—that is, adult female humans—to motherhood generally and the development of embryos and fetuses in particular? Is it possible to bypass women in the creation of babies? Can an AI droid raise a child as well as a human mother? These questions are explored in I Am Mother (2019), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi available on Netflix that reimagines our species’ boundaries.

The chilling, depressing film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before being acquired by Netflix was directed by Grant Sputore and is based on a story co-written by Sputore and Michael Lloyd Green (screenplay by Green). It centers on a girl raised in isolation by an AI droid in a futuristic facility in the middle of nowhere after being artificially gestated in a machine. Though a droid is presented as less than ideal in a mothering role here, I Am Mother brings us one step closer to artificial wombs with its depiction of a technological process that bypasses women for the creation of our species. In Sputore and Grant’s vision, women are superfluous to the creation of life.

None of the film’s characters have proper names. The girl, who looks around 16 years old, is known simply as Daughter (played by Danish actress Clara Rugaard). The droid is called Mother (voiced by Australian actress Rose Byrne but acted by New Zealander Luke Hawker). A woman who seeks help at the facility after being shot is known only as Woman. She is played by Hilary Swank, best known for her Oscar-winning performances in Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Boys Don’t Cry (1999). At the end a baby boy is born and simply called Brother but we don’t see much of him.

Contributing to the film’s depressing effect is its lack of life and color, however, its most chilling aspects are the treatment of females and absence of mothers. The story is set primarily in a minimalist, sanitized building named the UNU – HWK Repopulation Facility. We don’t get a look outside until an hour and twenty minutes into the movie, which runs just under two hours—a real shame given that it was filmed in South Australia. The film’s color palette is very limited: mostly grey and black, though Daughter wears red. In this facility that she has never been allowed to leave there are no plants and no non-human animals, except for a mouse that gets in, briefly, before Mother shoves it into a furnace and torches it.

Mother is authoritarian, controlling, and a creepy presence in Daughter’s life. The more we learn about it, the more we hope Daughter will escape its control.

The film opens to the sound of explosions and rumbling. Lights flicker in the dark hallway of the facility. As the camera advances down the long hallway, captions inform us it has been one day since the ‘extinction event’, there are 63,000 human embryos on site, and the number of current human occupants is zero.

At the end of the hallway, doors automatically slide open to a room in which a machine powers up without human assistance. Multiple robotic arms work on a black and grey droid. If you’re picturing C-3P0, think again. Whereas C-3P0 had humanoid facial features and endeavored to be helpful, Mother’s only humanoid facial feature is a frozen happy smile mouth and it is cruel. The mouse in the furnace is just the tip of the iceberg.

Now activated, the droid stands and with its five fingers, pushes a button, and pulls a tower-like

container full of human embryos stored in objects resembling transparent floppy disks from a containment unit that releases a white gas. A robotic arm removes from this tower one of the floppy disks—in their center a tiny plastic sphere traps the embryo—labelled APX01. The droid inserts the embryo floppy disk into a machine suspended from the ceiling that drops the embryo into one of its nine, large glass spheres (nine babies may be artificially gestated simultaneously). Picture high-end fish tanks. These are the artificial wombs. Cut to a close-up of the embryo in its little bubble within the glass tank. Four thin wires attach themselves to the embryo’s bubble. A timer indicates that just under 24 hours remain, so we conclude it takes 24 hours to “gestate” a baby in this artificial womb.

The droid sits on a grey chair facing the artificial gestation machine. When the timer goes off it approaches the now foggy spherical tank in which a full-term baby moves its legs. The top half of the sphere is removed, revealing a baby lying in a glass bowl of sorts, and a liquid that appears to be water spills out. As the droid removes the crying, wriggling infant from the bowl and places her on a blanket, it says, “Shh. There you go. It’s okay, little one.” It wipes her with a cloth, wraps the blanket over her, and picks her up. As the droid walks away with her we see that the room contains dozens of incubators.

The droid rocks the crying baby, playing recordings of ‘Moon River’ and ‘Baby Mine’. In a quick succession of short clips we see the infant grow to childhood (e.g. taking early steps, feeding herself). Eventually a girl runs, sleeps on a bottom bunk, hugs the droid, practices ballet, makes origami animals with the droid, and applies stickers to it. When we see her smile at the droid holding her in its arms, she looks happy.

The little girl, who looks around six now and is played by Tahlia Sturzaker, speaks her first lines to the droid: “Why aren’t there any more children, Mother?” The droid replies, “There used to be, before the wars.” When the little girl tells Mother she doesn’t want to be a human because they ruined everything, it tells her humans can be wonderful. It also says, “Mothers need time to learn. Raising a good child, it’s no small task.”

Next, captions inform us that 13,867 days have passed since the extinction event, and the facility’s current number of human occupants is one. Thirty-eight years have passed, but the girl who awakes and eats breakfast looks like a teenager—our first clue that something is rotten in the Repopulation Facility.

Mother prepares Daughter (Clara Rugaard) for an upcoming examination. Then she lies in bed watching a video of Johnny Carson interviewing Steve Martin on The Tonight Show in 1978—the first humans viewers see Daughter exposed to. But the lights go out and Daughter becomes anxious, calling out, “Mother?” The droid recharges at night though, so it is no help to her.

Daughter takes a flashlight and walks through the darkened facility’s hallways. She finds the aforementioned mouse near an airlock and traps it in a glass container. The power comes back on, reactivating Mother. Despite Daughter’s protests, Mother disposes of the hapless mouse in the furnace. The droid’s justification for this cruelty: “Surface contamination levels remain hazardous to you and to all the unborns who will one day call this their home.”

On the night of her birthday, when her bedside lamp crackles, Daughter goes investigating again. She discovers someone knocking at the airlock. Donning a hazmat suit she opens the doors to a woman (Hilary Swank) who has been shot.

As Daughter saves this woman we learn that Mother lied to her about a deadly contagion outside. The droid also lies when it tells her, “This facility was designed by humans as a fail-safe programmed to activate in case of their extinction. To give humanity a second chance. One that began with you, Daughter.”

Woman paints a different picture of the droids, telling Daughter, “I’ve seen them torch babies, starve families out of their—. You’ve no idea.” Later she tells her, “That thing feels nothing for you. It can’t.”

Daughter, trained as a doctor, removes the bullet from Woman’s side, saving her. She invites Woman to move into the facility, but Woman is deeply distrustful of all droids, including Mother. Then Daughter takes her exam. For doing well on it Mother allows her to choose an embryo that will become a member of their “family.” After selecting a male embryo, Daughter inserts it into the artificial gestation machine.

While the male fetus grows, Daughter discovers Mother’s lies and past crimes. She opens a filing cabinet used to store APX02’s exam results, as well as the female embryo containment unit, and sees that embryos APX01 and APX02 are missing. She now understands that two embryos came before her. Through more digging she learns that APX02 was deemed a failure at seven years of age and “aborted.” The child’s file contains an image of her; she is the little girl we saw at the beginning. When Daughter roots around in the furnace and finds a small jawbone with teeth, the horror of Mother’s actions hits her.

Eventually Woman escapes the facility with Daughter, into a barren landscape of dead, leafless trees rising out of the fog. When they reach a cornfield—the first plants we see, nearly an hour and a half into the film—Woman tells Daughter the corn (and spaceship flying overhead) appeared six months earlier. Before then, she says, there wasn’t a plant for miles.

They reach Woman’s home: a beach littered with containers from a container ship that broke on the rocks. Woman has a dog but neither it, the ocean nor Woman’s company induce Daughter to abandon her plan to return to the facility for her baby “brother.”

When Daughter returns to the facility and asks Mother why it raised her, the droid replies, “To make a better human: smarter, more ethical. I was raised to value human life above all else. I couldn’t stand by and watch humanity slowly succumb to its self-destructive nature. I had to intervene, to elevate my creators… Your whole life I’ve taught you to see the bigger picture. Have I failed? Or are you prepared to be the woman your family needs?”

The droid is presented as less than ideal in a mothering role, and yet Daughter still forms an attachment to it. At the end, she finds it difficult to destroy the droid, despite her knowledge of its crimes. Curiously, Daughter forms no lasting attachment to Woman—a member of her own species. She rejects a woman who could have been a surrogate mother to her. Disturbingly, I was left with the impression that filmmakers Sputore and Green might believe an AI droid could raise a child as well as a human mother could.

In the end, the droids are victorious because Daughter chooses to follow the path Mother traced for her, becoming a mother to her “brother” and responsible for the stored embryos rather than joining forces with Woman. In the final sequence when Daughter enters the embryo storage room it is clear she intends to be the mother of a very large family.

Finally, and in consideration of female viewers, it is worth noting that I Am Mother has little to offer them. Technically, it fails the Bechdel test—a test that serves as an indicator of the active presence of women in movies—since none of the female characters have proper names. There is little congeniality and affection between its female characters and it includes antagonism between females (e.g. Daughter strikes Woman). Judging by I Am Mother’s nods to the misogynist Blade Runner films, Sputore and Green are fans. And of course, all three films bypass women as the source of life. Females are less sexualized in I Am Mother, but as in its Blade Runner predecessors they are harmed. As just one example, Mother grabs Woman by the throat. It’s also noteworthy that the film’s only woman (Swank) is killed off. Though this occurs off-screen it is strongly suggested that a droid kills her in her home. Mother, voiced by Byrne, is “killed” (shot) by its own “daughter.” And the little girl from the beginning ends up in the furnace. It’s all pretty grim, especially for female viewers.

In I Am Mother Sputore and Green present a vision of anti-reality in which women are not crucial to the development of embryos and fetuses. In their vision it is possible to completely bypass women in the creation of babies. The fact that women are bypassed in this process is not portrayed disapprovingly—it passes without comment. None of the characters lament the absence of human mothers. There is no outrage over the artificial wombs. Indeed, the film normalizes for viewers the use of artificial gestation machines (and AI in our homes), bringing us one step closer to artificial wombs. Whether intentionally done or not, I Am Mother, like Blade Runner 2049, is a gift to the biotech industry and its move towards transhumanism. This depiction of a new way of reproducing our species without women flouts our species’ boundaries. Ignoring material reality is the province of film but does it follow that it must be anti-human and anti-woman?

On being inspired by the Boston Dynamics’ robot, Sputore said in an interview for Collider:

“We’re entering an interesting realm where this stuff that’s traditionally been very science fiction is now kind of coming close on science fact. Like, this stuff is very real and could be something that we’re facing in the near future. So we had the benefit of being able to look at the stuff that’s actually being done in labs in the world right now using them for inspiration. And if you can reference something real, why wouldn’t you?”

It is perhaps not insignificant that Sputore is a commercial director—so a background in advertising. I Am Motheris his first feature film. It was produced by his company, Penguin Empire, and Southern Lights Films. The Penguin Empire’s website boasts: “We have a proven track record of creating visually stunning, impactful ads that resonate with audiences and drive results for our clients.” Which leads me to wonder, who are his clients? Is he trying to further a biotech industry agenda or is he simply another regressive male, comfortable with the erasure of women?

Alline Cormier is a Canadian film analyst. This year her articles on women in film/TV have been published in The 11th Hour, Women Making Films (India), Feminist Current, 4W, and Gender Dissent. She is currently seeking a publisher for her film guide for women. Her website is found at, and she tweets @ACPicks2. PayPal: PayPal.Me/AllineCormier


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