It's an intriguing premise: Following a global extinction "event", a robot is tasked with repopulating the earth from deep within a hidden bunker. The robot, called simply Mother, creates a young female who it then raises with very specific tasks and goals in mind. However, once the girl becomes a teenager, she begins to wonder about the world outside their bunker. That becomes very evident following a confrontation with someone on the outside -- a woman (Hilary Swank), badly injured and in need of medical attention. Do they help her? Should they help her? Can they help her?
The film is called I Am Mother, and it was one of the most buzzed-about sci-fi discoveries at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. With clear nods to icons in the genre space like James Cameron and Ridley Scott, I Am Mother has the brains of a film like Ex Machina and the grit of a film like Terminator. It's small and intimate in its excution, but big and brave in its storytelling.
"We were trying to find the silver bullet that could be our first feature," director Grant Sputore told Fandango during a lengthy conversation alongside writer Michael Lloyd Green. "We were just talking about what was going on in our lives and what was going on in the world, and the two largest forces pushing and pulling us in different directions was the looming question of whether we were ready to be parents, and also the emergence of artificial intelligence. And we just felt that there was a story we could tell about bringing those two strands together. What would it be like to be raised by an artificial intelligence and to not have a human parent? As soon as we had that thought, a whole world sprung forth of what would the values in such a machine be. How could it be a good parent? And then, coming out of that, what does it even mean to be a good parent? What does it mean to be good? And all the questions were really fascinating to us."
The results are a film that's reminscent of the kind of nerdy sci-fi produced in the '80s, where emerging filmmakers took risks on stories about our future that were both smart and sophisticated, and were a showcase for new and veteran talent. "It's one of those things where we're both children of the '80s and grew up with your James Cameron, your Ridley Scott's and all the stuff that we know and love," writer Michael Lloyd Green said. "Like the Blade Runner's of the world, and Alien. We knew a sandbox that we wanted to play in, just because that's the stuff we love. So, when you start exploring themes or ideas and the day to day life stuff that we do, it just became this marriage of the world with the ideas.
The world of I Am Mother is a bleak one, thought to be completely ruined on the outside, but within this bunker it would appear humanity had it all worked out. Thousands of human embryos sit waiting to be born, assuming Mother properly raises the first of those to be born, a child simply called Daughter, played by Clara Ruggard. Mother is hiding certain truths from Daughter, though, even if Mother is there to protect and nurture and raise her to be the very best version of herself. Those truths, however, will eventually present themselves in the form of Hilary Swank's character, Woman. But who is it that knows best for young Daughter? Is it the robot that raised her, or the human that knows what's really going on?
"We're in a really interesting crossroads in history, where we don't really know what effect technology will have on future generations. We can guess and we can do early childhood development research and stuff like that. But, I think, this movie, in as much as anything, is an exploration of our ever growing relationship to technology and where it could potentially lead.
In the film, it's assumed that our relationship with technology eventually leads to the creation of a robot with the most soothing of voices (provided by Rose Byrne) who doesn't look human, but is programmed to nurture and protect the ways humans do. The robot itself was created by the masterminds at Weta, the company behind the Lord of the Rings films, Blade Runner 2049, Pacific Rim and so much more.
"That was the biggest challenge that we faced," Sputore said, as it pertained to the creation of Mother. "Getting that right was so important. It was there from the outset, though, the idea that this would be a robot with a capital R, not an android, which is what we're more familiar with seeing. I think, if you ask the general public to name their favorite robot movie, they might say Terminator or they might say Blade Runner. And for the most part, those are android films."
"The difference between an android film is that androids typically look like humans, and so a human actor is cast and simply told to act like an android. "What we've seen less of in movies and what we're seeing more of in the real world are robots," Sputore said. "Hard-shelled mechanical entities that can navigate the world that we live in. And when you pair that with AI, you've got a whole new character that we felt hadn't been properly explored on screen. We wanted the robot to be benign. That was the word that I would always explain."
"And yet, it's a tricky balancing act, right?" Lloyd Green added. "Because you don't want to watch a microwave for two hours. You're trying to find the humanity within the metal in a way so you have some empathy for this thing."
Considering Weta creates practical designs for major blockbusters, it's unique to see them so involved in a film from a first-time filmmaker. So how, exactly, did they become involved?
"Weta can't get enough credit for their help in making this film happen, because they signed on almost before anyone else," Sputore said. "We had Weta before we had some of our producers involved. And the way to get them involved is... well, because we love the same stuff. They're passionate about filmmaking, passionate about films, and they're passionate about this particular type of filmmaking that we wanted to do in this movie. So, I think, when we put an email in their inbox that said, "Guys, we want to have a film with three characters, one of which is a robot that we want to do practically." They flip for it. They loved it. They supported it out of the box."
"They literally said, on a phone call, "This is why we do what we do. The thought of making robots is why I'm all of us are at Weta," Lloyd Green added. "That kind of stuff. And to date, they hadn't necessarily done a robot of this nature. So it was new terrain, and a very exciting terrain to explore."
MAKING IT TO THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
You have your cast. You have your robot. But how do you bring this film to the masses? How do get into the Sundance Film Festival?
For many, it's a long way. "You enter however many months in advance, and then it's just radio silence, and you're just living every day with this question in the back of your mind," Sputore said. For the director of I Am Mother, the news they had been accepted to Sundance arrived at the perfect time. "I just happened to be at drinks with an editor friend in LA. The phone rings and it's your producer who's usually the most level-headed calm guy [and he's] screaming at you that you got into Sundance. The best thing about it was that I already had a drink in hand. So, I just immediately got into a celebratory cheers, and had a great night.
For writer Michael Lloyd Green, it was different. He had been on a plane, unaware of the news. "So, I'm on the plane, and then as you do, you turn your phone back on and the phone rings immediately, and all three of them are on conference call," he said. "I almost went through the roof of the plane. It was unbelievable. Everyone around me is like, "Why is that guy freaking out?"
Getting into Sundance is one thing, but selling your film at Sundance is an entirely different battle. At the time of this interview, Sputore and Green weren't as involved in those conversations, but they did reveal that offers for the film had already come in prior to the festival. They hadn't accepted any of those offers, though, in the hopes of attracting greater deals at the festival. They were, in a sense, letting it all ride on Sundance.
"We have the benefit of what we hope is a commercial film," Sputore said. "Coming to Sundance, you certainly got a bit of a spotlight on you as part of that. We had buyers interested in making offers on the film before we came, but there's a long lineage of films coming to Sundance and being recognized on a whole other level, and we thought "Well, let's do that. Let's go to Sundance. Let's see the audience reaction. Let's see how this plays. And let's see how that affects these offers to get the best possible deal. I get the impression that it's exciting times, but I haven't found out exactly where we've landed just yet."
The next chapter in the life of I Am Mother hasn't been written yet. Sputore and Green already have ideas for a sequel, should audiences want to see more of this story and world. They've also wisely identified that building your movie and building your fanbase are two distinctly deparate challenges. Interestingly, I Am Mother was the only film at Sundance that leaned into what we'd call "The Comic-Con Factor," going so far as to bring the robot Mother to the premiere screening to have it on display for people to take pictures of as they exited the theater.
In addition the robot, they had sticker sheets for people, which directly tie into a memorable scene from the movie. They had pins to hand out, too, knowing that the way this movie is going to live on in the hearts and minds of the audience is by giving them something to hold onto - giving them something to remember their experience.
"We want them to live beyond their runtime," Sputore said. "We want people to have Twitter debates. We want people to love the character, and see it roll out and exist in different forms. I love the alternate-poster scene. I love the fan art scene. I just want that to exist for my film, and then I want to share that with people. I collect enamel pins, and I want an enamel pin of Mother. There's just a self-satisfaction that comes from seeing the film completed within the runtime of the movie, but then also letting it have a life beyond that."
As of this moment, I Am Mother does not have a release date, but we expect that to change very soon. Stay tuned to Fandango for more.