'I Am Mother' Review: Sci-Fi Thriller Features An Unforgettable Robot And An Out Of This World Performance From Newcomer Clara Rugaard [Sundance]

Raised in total isolation by a robot, a young woman's world is turned upside down when a survivor from the outside bangs on their airlock door one day. What is true? What is real? Is there a difference between the two?

I Am Mother takes a familiar premise and executes it to near-perfection, with first-time feature filmmaker Grant Sputore aided by a fantastic script, a star-making performance from UK actress Clara Rugaard, a strong supporting turn from Hilary Swank, and a brilliantly realized new robot that instantly cements its status in the pantheon of classic genre creations. Put this on your radar – you don't want to miss it.

After an extinction-level event on Earth, a robot (voiced by Rose Byrne) in a protected repopulation facility designed to preserve humanity takes one of the 60,000+ human embryos and raises it as her child. Known only as Daughter, the girl (Clara Rugaard) is kept inside for fear of contamination and grows up to be a cheerful, intelligent teenager. She practices ballet, watches old videos of The Tonight Show, and undergoes a rigorous education, learning everything from anatomy to philosophy (an early discussion of utilitarianism provides the thematic underpinning for the rest of the movie).

The story is tried-and-true: Daughter believes the outside world is uninhabitable, but is shocked when a mouse gets into the facility. Their guest is quickly destroyed by Mother, but the wounded woman (Swank) who shows up outside the airlock isn't as easily disposed of, and Daughter's humanity and compassion wins out as she attempts to take her in and nurse her back to health. Swank's character has been shot, and she claims an army of oppressive droids who look just like Mother are the culprits. We're with Daughter every step of the way as the film enters into a series of escalating twists and turns that reveal whether Mother or Woman is telling the truth – and why.

The Mother character is a triumph of design, an efficient, bi-pedal entity with a slim, anthropomorphized face that "smiles" by moving a pair of lights in unison. Mother's head tilts and light patterns are evocative and emotional, almost like a less whimsical WALL*E. It's a practical suit worn by WETA Workshop's Luke Hawker (who also designed it) and digitally enhanced by the team at Fin Design + Effects. Inspired by actual robots at Boston Dynamics, Mother is 100% believable at all times – so perfectly realized that all of the artifice immediately slips away. Like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mother can be both sensitive and dangerous; unlike HAL, she can unnervingly sprint through corridors at breakneck speed and get your pulse racing at the thought of what her metallic hands might do to a human in her path.

Rugaard (Teen Spirit) is a magnetic screen presence, giving Daughter a strength and intelligence that makes it easy to root for her. Swank is like a wounded animal backed into a corner, fierce and ready to lash out at a moment's notice. Hugh Bateup's sleek production design and Steve Annis's beautiful cinematography are top-notch, and without giving too much away, when the film ventures outside the confines of its bunker setting, the outside world is hauntingly visualized. But it'd all be for naught if not for the excellent script by Michael Lloyd Green, who puts us so firmly in Daughter's shoes that it almost doesn't matter that we've seen several of these tropes before. The visual effects are accomplished and extraordinarily impressive, and the fact that this is the first feature from Sputore has me very excited to see what he does next.

Electrifying, thought-provoking, and unforgettable, I Am Mother is a new sci-fi classic.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

Correction: An earlier version of this article failed to mention Fin Design + Effects' contributions to the movie. The review has been updated to reflect their work.