Please welcome writer, Alexis Lantgen to Reads & Reels!
Recently, I watched a thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining flick on Netflix, called I Am Mother. Literally the next day, Alexis had reached out to me about writing a piece on the film, so I jumped at the chance to have a Speculative Fiction writer’s interpretation of it.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, here’s the gist…
A teenage girl is raised underground by a kindly robot “Mother” — designed to repopulate the earth following the extinction of mankind. But their unique bond is threatened when an inexplicable stranger arrives with alarming news.
Religious Allegory in I Am Mother by Alexis Lantgen
Netflix’s “I Am Mother” is a thought-provoking science fiction thriller about AI and the human survival after an apocalypse. It’s a tense movie, full of uncomfortable juxtapositions and difficult questions about AI, our relationship to technology, and perhaps about the nature of Mother-Daughter relationships everywhere. What’s more, on a closer look, it offers haunting religious imagery and a disturbing allegory.
*Spoilers Ahead–Seriously, go watch “I Am Mother,” then come back and read this. It’s totally worth watching*
The movie opens with a robot, Mother, cradling a human infant she has grown from a machine as bombs explode outside their bunker. It seems at first that this child is the same one we see growing up, playing and learning alongside Mother, showing a surprising tenderness to her robot parent. But we learn as the movie goes along (or right away, if you did the math on the number of months since the apocalypse), the girl we know as Daughter is not Mother’s first child. I think the earlier children, and their horrific fates, are actually part of the religious allegory that the movie creates.
All of the children Mother grows are literally “virgin births” created by her. In the bible, there are five people who are created directly by God and at least initially untouched by original sin–Adam and Eve, Lilith, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus. Though we don’t know if Mother previously tried raising a boy, it’s clear that she’s had at least two other “daughters” before the main Daughter we see in the movie. In perhaps the most shocking and harrowing scene in the movie, Daughter finds the incinerated remains of one of her predecessors in a locked drawer. This horrible discovery reflects the fate of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who refused to submit to him and was sent to hell. It seems likely then, that Mother disposed of this daughter for being too willful or defiant.
Hilary Swank’s character, called Woman in the credits, claims to have come from a group of humans that survived the slaughter by hiding in mines or caves. But there are many reasons to doubt her story, or at least her understanding of it. For one thing, she remembers Johnny Carson–when she sees Daughter watching the show, she mentions remembering it from “a long time ago.” Later, when Mother confronts her in the shipping container, Mother taunts her— “why do you think you survived for so long when others didn’t? Why can’t you remember your parents?” That line is key, as are a few other subtle hints–Woman is another of Mother’s children, but one cast out to survive on her own just as Eve was cast out of the Garden of Eden. Think about it–my own daughter would have no idea who Johnny Carson was. So not only has Woman seen a TV show before, she’s just happened to see the same ones that Daughter is watching?
Eve was cast out of Eden for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, usually understood to be sexual knowledge, or the knowledge of good and evil. And of course, in the bible Eve is also depicted as a temptress. Like Eve, Woman brings Daughter knowledge, informing her of what’s really happening in the world outside the bunker, and Mother’s role in it. But she also brings a different kind of temptation, one that perhaps reflects the reason for her own exile from the bunker–other people, or at least pictures of them. And of course, one of the pictures she’s drawn shows an attractive boy, one close to Daughter’s own age. This is the picture that Daughter steals out of the book, reflecting her desire.
But Daughter is reluctant to leave with Woman, and she insists that they wait for her “brother,” who Mother is growing in a mechanical room. She repeatedly asks, “What about my brother?” a haunting question reminiscent of the famous verse from Genesis, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” She suggests that instead of permanently leaving the safety of the bunker, she and Woman bring the others back there, or at least that they return to rescue the embryos from Mother.
Ultimately, it’s Daughter’s love for her brother, and her decision to come back for him that perhaps saves her from Woman’s terrible fate. In the harrowing ending, Daughter puts down her ax, the tool of revenge, so that she can pick up the baby, her brother/son. Her decision to sacrifice potential freedom for love makes her good enough, in the eyes of the terrible AI Mother, to take her place. In becoming a virgin mother to an immaculately conceived son, Daughter represents the Virgin Mary (interestingly, there’s tons of images of the Virgin Mary throughout the movie–including a shrine to her in Woman’s shipping container).
None of this analysis is to suggest that “I Am Mother” is a religious movie. If anything, it’s quite the opposite–a potent criticism of traditional religious dogma. It’s hard to see Mother as anything other than a horrifying and brutal dictator, who ruthlessly murders any humans she finds deficient. Woman, who recoils in horror at the site of the robot, says, “I’ve seen those things torch infants.” Is that a reference to the old Catholic belief that unbaptized babies go to hell, because they have original sin (symbolically burning them)? And Mother’s cruel taunt to Woman as she prepares to kill her that now her “purpose” has been served? It’s hard not to hear a bitter echo of the religious platitude that “God has a purpose.” If “God” was a hyper intelligent artificial intelligence, would we feel the same way about a plan that involved the whole scale slaughter of the human race? Yet many evangelical Christians pray fervently for the “rapture,” which amounts to the same thing.
Of course, much is left ambiguous in the movie as well. Daughter’s determined look as she eyes the vast store of embryos–does that mean she’ll be as cold and ruthless a mother as the AI? Or does it mean she has a plan of her own to resist Mother’s tyranny?
Overall, “I Am Mother” is a fascinating and thought-provoking movie, one that lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Like the best science fiction, it makes us think deeply, not just about the future, but about the present as well.
Alexis Lantgen is a writer, teacher, and classical musician. She loves Renaissance Faires and all things science fiction and fantasy. She has had her short stories appear in Kzine, the Gallery of Curiosities, Phantaxis, Red Sun Magazine, and Swords and Sorcery Magazine, and has had nonfiction published in Renaissance Magazine. She has collected many of her science fiction and fantasy stories into her books Sapience and Saints and Curses. Alexis is on twitter @TheWiseSerpent and has been spotted once in a blue moon on Instagram, @LunarianPress. She lives with her husband, her spirited five-year-old daughter, her toddler son, and two very patient cats in Texas.