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A review of
I Am Mother
Directed by Grant Sputore
(Streaming on Netflix, TV-14, 2019)
Editors Note: Warning! This article contains plot spoilers for the film I Am Mother.
Green’s screenplay, originally entitled Mother, was featured on Hollywood’s 2016 “Black List,” a list of film executives’ most-liked yet currently unproduced screenplays. That same year, Green was hailed as one of the best up-and-coming screenplay writers. Since then, the film was produced and premiered at the 2019 Sundance Festival. Reviews of I Am Mother have been somewhat mixed, but the consensus seems to be that it’s a bit better than mediocre. Critics have analyzed the usual — the acting, the CGI, the plausibility of the technology, the coherence of the storyline, and the level of satisfaction with the ending. What is most interesting, however, is the absence of any mention of the noticeable theme in the film — the humanity and intrinsic value of the unborn. It is entirely unknown whether the filmmakers intended this subtle yet discernible message. If it is inadvertent, that is not at all a bad thing; it suggests interesting things about the subconscious intuitions we, as human beings, have about the unborn. Still, as will be seen, some of the precise language used in the characters’ dialogue seems quite purposive.
I Am Mother opens with a shot of something called the UNU-HWK Repopulation Facility a single day after a mysterious mass extinction event that has apparently wiped out the human race. Superimposed text informs the viewer that this facility has 63,000 human embryos stored on site. It turns out that the facility is run by a single, somewhat humanoid robot that oversees the cultivation of a new race of human beings. The first action scene, which follows the droid’s activities in the laboratory, contains powerful, provocative imagery. When the droid lifts a section out of one of the storage units, the column is shown to contain a stunning array of tiny human beings — each suspended in a crystalline sphere at approximately twelve weeks of development. The realism is incredible and intricate details are visible — perfectly formed little limbs with hands and feet, the outline of the spinal column, the silhouette of the brain, and the miniature face with developing eyes. This artistic decision is high-impact from a philosophical perspective; the humanity of the embryo is visually unmistakable. Once an embryo is selected, it is placed inside one of several artificial wombs, and the distinct sound of a heartbeat is heard shortly thereafter. Again, this is a bold nod to the humanity of the unborn at a relatively early stage of prenatal development. The gestation clock begins counting down (apparently, it only takes twenty-four hours in this technological scenario).
In the next scene, a baby girl is “born,” and some of her infancy, toddlerhood, and young childhood is portrayed in endearing snapshot scenes of her and the parenting droid. The story then skips forward a noted number of days (pausing to do the math will come in handy later in the film), and viewers meet a young Daughter, aged nine or ten, who refers to the droid as Mother.
One day, Daughter asks, “Why aren’t there anymore children, Mother?” In response, Mother takes her to the embryo storage room.
“My brothers and sisters are in those?” Daughter asks.
Mother responds, “Would you like to meet them?”
Mother pulls a column from one of the units so that Daughter can see the embryos up close. Mother says, “They’re small now, but one day they’ll be as big as you.”
The remarkable thing about this dialogue is that it distinctly personifies the embryos and alludes to what philosophers call the substance view of human persons — basically, the idea that a human being remains the same kind of thing from the moment he or she physically comes into existence (conception) and throughout his or her life, despite any changes in physical attributes such as size and level of development. Moreover, the embryos are referred to as “brothers and sisters,” even though they’ve yet to be born and are very small. (They are referred to collectively at least once in the film as “the unborns” in a manner that suggests they are being thought of as a people group.)
The value of human life is emphasized later in the film, during what appears to be Daughter’s seventeenth or eighteenth year. She’s in a classroom setting, having a Socratic discussion with Mother about Jeremy Bentham and human ethics. Mother presents a fascinating thought experiment that will remind some philosophically savvy viewers of the famous Trolley Experiment. Imagine, Mother says, a doctor who is caring for five patients, each of whom is experiencing the failure of a different vital organ. Along comes a sixth patient who has healthy organs but is in imminent danger of death from a curable condition. The question is, Should the doctor allow the sixth patient to die so that his or her organs can be used to save the other five? Daughter is asked how best to solve the moral dilemma, but she hesitates, not having completed all of the assigned reading.
Mother reminds Daughter of Bentham’s utilitarian position: “The fundamental axiom suggests that a person is morally obligated to minimize the pain to the greatest number possible.” Then, a new spin on the problem is introduced: what if you were the doctor, and are a perfect match for the five patients that require different organ transplants to survive? Do you sacrifice yourself so that all six may live?
“Well,” Daughter replies, “Do I know these five patients? Are they good humans? Honest, dishonest, lazy, hardworking? I, a life-saving doctor might be giving my life for people who are murderers or thieves who end up harming more people due to my sacrifice.”
“You don’t feel that every human has intrinsic value and an equal right to life and happiness?” Mother asks. (Considering all the humanizing of the “unborns” that precedes this scene, it’s difficult not to understand this statement as including them.) Daughter quips, “I did last month, when you were teaching Kant.” As the film goes on, however, it is revealed that Mother operates according to Bentham’s utilitarian axiom rather than the Kantian principle (further details on this point would give away too much of the plot), while Daughter — despite her comment — demonstrates a strong sympathy with the Kantian principle.
The crisis of the film occurs when an injured human woman shows up at the air-locked entrance of the facility, shocking Daughter, who thought the outside world was devoid of people. The woman, who appears to be in her late thirties, has been shot, and Daughter desires to help her. Without giving too much away here, suffice it to say that the woman is entirely distrustful of Mother, and refuses its help. As the woman’s condition rapidly declines, the camera zooms in on her hand, which is rubbing a homemade rosary made of old twine as she entreats the Virgin Mary to pray for her. In a scene that soon follows, Daughter is going through the woman’s backpack, and discovers a variety of items, one of which appears to be a page out of a Bible (the format of the text on the paper suggests this, but it’s impossible to say for certain). Incidentally, another instance of religious imagery occurs when Daughter is taking what seems to be a psychological evaluation exam. Once she completes the test, several images appear in quick succession on a screen in front of her, including animals, a human baby, the Virgin Mary, and Christ on a cross. No explanation is offered for these images.
As a reward for scoring high on her “exam,” Mother gives Daughter the opportunity to select an embryo and initiate the growth of her own sibling. “Would you please choose the next member of our family?” Mother says, with a simulated smile in her voice. Daughter chooses a boy, and the gestation countdown clock is activated. Again, we see the beautiful detail of the embryos and hear the beating of the heart once the boy embryo is placed in the artificial womb.
On the same day, the woman, who is being held captive in a medical laboratory post-treatment, tries to convince Daughter to escape with her, arguing that all droids ultimately are dangerous to humans. Daughter desires to go join the other humans in the “mines,” yet insists, “We’d have to wait for my brother.”
After a bit more discussion about the impending birth of the baby boy, Daughter says, “Once Mother hands over the baby for the night, we can leave while she recharges. Then come back for the others.” Notice once again the intrinsic human value ascribed to the soon-to-be-born baby and how this is extended, without reserve, to “the others,” the embryos whom Daughter classifies in the same way. The scene shifts and shows Daughter lovingly placing her hand on the artificial womb that contains her brother, and the baby’s heartbeat can be distinctly heard.
Intentionally or not, the theme of the sanctity of unborn (and born) human life pervades I Am Mother with wonderfully executed artistry. Despite its alleged weaknesses (according to various critics), the film has aesthetic and verbal philosophical content that inspires the thoughtful viewer to consider the nature and value of all human beings, no matter their size, location, or degree of development.
Melissa Cain Travis, PhD, is an assistant professor at Houston Baptist University, where she teaches graduate courses in science and faith and philosophy of religion. She is the author of Science and the Mind of the Maker: What the Conversation between Faith and Science Reveals about God (Harvest House, 2018).