I Am Mother

Release: Friday, June 7, 2019 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Michael Lloyd Green

Directed by: Grant Sputore

Starring: Clara Rugaard; Rose Byrne; Hilary Swank

Distributor: Netflix

 

****/*****

I Am Mother is another movie ideally suited for those of us already harboring a healthy distrust of robots. An often disconcerting experience, this post-apocalyptic thriller from Australian and first-time director Grant Sputore uses the relationship between a matronly AI and her flesh-and-blood daughter to create a fascinating allegory for parenthood.

The DNA of some undisputed sci fi classics is infused into the core of this dystopian family drama. While I Am Mother nods toward The Matrix in the climactic moments and a pretty cool rug-pulling moment wherein our perception of the truth gets inverted, and on more than one occasion evokes Skynet’s ubiquitous presence and ruthless determination, the newbie director blends the familiarly awesome and uniquely eerie in a satisfying way, threading plot twists through a claustrophobic, stainless steel environment where not everything is as it seems.

Stripping the world down to a fail-safe bunker and a single automaton (voiced by Rose Byrne, ambulated by Luke Hawker), the story begins in the immediate aftermath of a cataclysmic event that has wiped out all of mankind. Mother awakens and promptly sets about her duties, making breakfast, reading the morning news and, oh yeah, seeing to the pretty important task of repopulating Earth. She’s in charge of some 60,000 human embryos, all waiting to be “born” into a decidedly more austere life where Mother’s many rules are a sophisticated calculus to keep everyone safe. From what, exactly, we’re not sure. A relatively fresh face in acting, Danish singer Clara Rugaard plays the first human occupant of the bunker, and to keep things simple awkwardly formal (and no doubt symbolic) she’s only ever referred to as “Daughter.”

Her formative years — halcyon days captured beautifully in a brilliant usage of Bette Midler’s “Baby Of Mine” — appear lonely but the structure is not unlike that afforded a child raised in a loving, well-to-do, albeit more traditionally fleshy family. Limited though they may be she develops passions outside of her schooling, overseen by, who else, Mother. A cute little montage has a young Daughter covering her robo-mommy with stickers. Birthdays are celebrated. For a time, the world is perfect. As she grows she develops a curiosity about the world around her: “Why are there no other children?”

I Am Mother‘s man-machine conflict revolves around trust, something to which I’m sure those who are more qualified to speak on such matters might attest (i.e. actual parents), is a real mother of a challenge. Life’s a harrowing, endlessly twisting tunnel full of unexpected right and left turns. Raising a child is more complicated than the inner gizmos driving a machine. Often it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Unlike for AI making mistakes is part-and-parcel of the human experience. You can be great at nurturing but you won’t ever be perfect.

Which is why it’s so difficult for Mother when an uninvited human guest (an intense Hilary Swank) shows up, seeking shelter from the wasteland and bringing some alarming news with her. Daughter lets her in under certain conditions and in brazen defiance of house rules. “We’ve talked about this. No potentially hostile, gun-wielding guests after 9, got it?”

It’s a point of no return in which I Am Mother‘s fascinating moral conundrum goes from simmering to full blaze. It’s also where Swank essentially wrestles the film away from the erstwhile stars of the show, her wounded-outside-and-in Woman jolting the film with an urgent energy — an adrenaline rush we kind of needed right as the prolonged first act begins to drag a little. All the while the soothing in Byrne’s voice takes on more menace, the native Aussie never inflecting so much as a blip of emotion. It’s brilliant work from a performer you never see. Rugaard remains a sympathetic presence, selling her character’s ingenuity and intelligence, her compassion and her confusion. It’s a complex performance that she handles well, even if her rapport with Woman develops a little too quickly. (I’ll lay more of the blame there on the direction.)

Minor flaws aside, I Am Mother is a meticulous work of art. There are a lot of details that need to come together in just the right way to create that gutsy cliff-hanger-like ending — one that’s sure to keep viewers talking for awhile after. And let’s not overlook the production design, for it’s a character unto itself. The clinical setting of the domicile never makes one feel like they’re at home, while Peter Jackson’s own visual effects company Weta Workshop render the homemaker as a cross between Alicia Vikander’s Ava (from Ex Machina, a movie you could consider the more polished British cousin to I Am Mother), the T-800 (especially when she’s in full-on crisis control mode) and that single, unblinking eye just screams Hal-9000, arguably the mother of all cinematic AI.

Nobody told me raising a kid would be THIS hard

Moral of the Story: I Am Mother is catnip for fans of intelligent sci fi, with a trio of strong female performances leading the charge and the dystopian aesthetic pulling from a number of big-time (and male-dominated) sci fi of years past. There’s also touches of more contemporary pieces like Ex Machina and 10 Cloverfield Lane as well. And it’s a movie whose ambiguous ending has and will continue to divide opinion. After nearly a month of sitting on this movie I am still unsure what to think of it. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “Mothers need time to learn, too. Raising a good child is no small task.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Annihilation

Release: Friday, February 23, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Alex Garland

Directed by: Alex Garland

Annihilation is the reason for many things. It is the reason why science fiction is my cinematic genre of choice — there is something thrilling about breaking the rules and getting away with it, and here is a world in which the laws of nature really don’t apply. It is the reason why in British director Alex Garland I trust, blindly, from here on out.* But Annihilation is as much a disturbing spectacle as it is a confounding one, and so it is also the reason why I’ve been having such strange dreams lately.

Nightmares. They’re called nightmares.

Annihilation‘s poor box office performance is the reason why it won’t hang out in theaters for long, and why it will be making its international debut on Netflix after America is through with it. It wasn’t as though 2016 was anything to shout about for Paramount, but apparently this past year found the American distributor for Garland’s latest cerebral test piece, an adaptation of the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, enduring one of its worst financial years on record. In attempting to avoid yet another financial face-palmer, Paramount decided to restrict Annihilation‘s theatrical run, electing for the old ‘(in)direct-to-streaming’ method to help soften the blow in international markets.

The financial realities facing movies often have no place in my reviews — I find it boring if not depressing to bring up numbers and statistics, and I’m sure I’ve already lost people here — but I feel an obligation to come to the defense of producer Scott Rudin, who said damn the torpedoes and pushed through Garland’s original vision for the film, despite fears from Paramount over Annihilation posing too much of an intellectual challenge for the general moviegoing public. Rudin did this in the face of Paramount’s competitors making money hand-over-fist with Star Wars and Star Wars spinoffs.

Predictably, the studio’s gamble has been rewarded with a net loss worth tens of millions. As much as we I like to be bombastic in my chastising of those same people for trotting out nine hundred Michael Bay movies a summer, they are inevitably not going to receive anywhere near the credit they deserve for taking a financial risk on something a little out of the ordinary. And Annihilation is way, way, way out in left field. You won’t see anything else like it this year.

The story, as it were, focuses on an all-female expedition into the depths of the unknown — it’s The Descent, but instead of spelunking into hell we’re just going to walk there, armed only with assault rifles and PhDs in various applicable fields of study. Natalie Portman‘s Lena, a professor of cellular biology at Johns Hopkins University who has also served seven years in the Army, is recruited into a team led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, and comprised of paramedics (Gina Rodriguez), physicists (Tessa Thompson) and geologists (Tuva Novotny). Their mission, like all the ones before that have failed, is to find the source of ‘The Shimmer,’ an iridescent bubble that has been slowly encroaching over the marshlands near the American coast after a strange atmospheric phenomenon. They must breach the bubble and prevent it from spreading further, ideally before Wonderland subsumes Manhattan.

Unlike with Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole, however, almost everything inside The Shimmer has the potential to mutilate and eviscerate and — he’s going to say it, isn’t he? — annihilate. The Shimmer is a place where all living things have taken on the DNA of other living things. Genetic mutation has rendered the flora as beautiful as the fauna is terrifying. But the bizarreness doesn’t stop there. Humans trespassing into the unknown themselves begin suffering horrifying transformations, and we know that the last expedition that came here — which involved someone near and dear to Lena’s heart — certifiably went insane. (Anyone else unable to get that footage from the camcorder out of their head?)

The Briton, first a novelist, then a screenwriter and now a director, is one of those storytellers that recognizes that the brain is a muscle and that, like all muscles, it needs to be flexed. This has already been proven true in his directorial debut, a secret-lab-experiment-gone-awry in Ex Machina — a film that took a very scientific approach to proving differences between man and machine. Though far from being the first to broach the subject, Garland fleshed out his drama through nuanced explorations of the human psyche, relying upon established scientific techniques like the Turing Test — a method for measuring a computer’s intelligence and awareness. In the process he created a journey that was both profoundly relatable and distressing.

The best of Annihilation, the spectacular ascension (or descent, if you prefer) into the abstract in the third movement — aptly titled “The Lighthouse” — similarly plays upon the deepest recesses of the mind, opening the floodgates for extrapolation and interpretation. What has created The Shimmer also seems to have exposed the fragility and vulnerability of man — refreshingly represented here by a group of steely-nerved women — in the face of something much bigger, more intelligent, and, unlike in Ex Machina, something entirely unfamiliar. Those climactic moments — wherein Jennifer Jason Leigh vomits a bunch of light in a cave and Natalie Portman dances with a weird duplicate of herself as produced by that same Vomit Light — collectively represent the epitome of why science fiction cinema has such a hold on me.

Annihilation is the reason why I love not only going to the movies, but writing about my experiences with them as well. I felt transformed by this.

* Maybe . . .

Recommendation: A cerebral puzzle left to be deciphered by lovers of smart science fiction/fantasy, Annihilation is what happens when The Thing is cross-bred with the DNA of Predator and The Descent. If you were hooked by Alex Garland’s first directorial outing, get a ticket to this one. In my opinion he has avoided the sophomore slump by producing one of the most exciting and surprising movies of the year. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Can you describe its form?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Morgan

'Morgan' movie poster

Release: Friday, September 2, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Seth W. Owen

Directed by: Luke Scott

No movie, especially one dabbling in the science fiction genre, has an obligation to make the viewer feel all warm and cuddly inside. You can be both the coldhearted bastard and The Year’s Best Movie, but if you plan on being as brutally dispassionate as this year’s attempt at Ex Machina-ing the AI subgenre back to life, you better have something interesting to say.

Morgan‘s got nothing. What it does have though are 90 of the most unpleasant, uninteresting minutes I’ve spent at the movies this year.

There were only four of us in my 3:45 screening and the film played out as though it were anticipating as much. You might attribute the film’s disinterest in engaging the viewer to Scott W. Owen’s thoroughly unoriginal screenplay, a story about the dark side of cutting-edge science so bland you sit there realizing that you’re thinking about how bland it is. Annoyingly that meta thought begets another. And then another, and soon enough, twenty minutes have gone by and still nothing’s happened. Oh, look. Time to refill the coke and popcorn. (Spoiler alert: do it in the first 45 minutes because you won’t miss a thing.)

Unfortunately though it’s a real team effort, as the son of the great Ridley Scott doesn’t steer the project in any meaningful direction with an uninspired vision that substitutes substantive scientific and/or philosophical questioning for grisly and pretty cruel action sequences. There are so many questions. What makes Morgan special? Why should we believe she’s the AI creation of the cinematic year? What is her true potential, what is her purpose? Can she really be controlled? Should she be? And the million dollar one: why should we care, about her or this world she inhabits?

If foreshadowing doesn’t destroy Morgan‘s shot at profundity, then it’s a lack of depth and substance. There’s no extrapolation as to what this says about where we are in society, only easy answers — solutions tailor-made for this specific narrative. All the bloody hand-to-hand combat reserved for the ending is an overt solution to the problems introduced in this dreary, monochromatic world. What makes Morgan special? This karate chop! That crazy look in her eyes. (It sure isn’t that fucking boring hoodie.) Why should we believe she’s the year’s coolest AI creation? Because she’s a murderer, with a lust for blood not seen since Ted Bundy. What is her true potential? To be more Ted Bundy than Ted Bundy. Why should we care? Um . . .

The story takes a more political/business approach to the world of scientific endeavors, one of its few distinctive features. Morgan focuses on the tension between a corporate entity seeking total control and the idealistic virtues of those working directly on the company-funded Morgan Project. It pits Kate Mara‘s supremely unfriendly risk manager Lee Weathers against the strangely more sociable project overseers, a group that includes doctors Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones), husband-and-wife duo Darren and Brenda Finch (Chris Sullivan and Vinette Robinson), Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), and Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh). After an incident in which Morgan attacked another scientist, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the second role this year that has required her to cover her face in physical-abuse make-up, Lee is called in to assess whether the project is one still worth pursuing or if it needs to be terminated.

Mara may not look the part, but she kind of does feel like The Terminator, and Leigh’s bedridden scientist even calls her “a goddamn assassin.” She’s here on business and won’t leave until that’s finished. From the moment she appears Mara delivers each of her lines in the same monotone, several inflections away from sounding like a real person. It’s actually a pretty terrible performance from a reliable thesp. (But not as terrible as the ending.) Corporate red tape wears out its welcome quickly with Ziegler and his colleagues. Perpetually on the defensive, the team continues trying to justify Morgan’s sudden outburst as anomalous. Morgan describes it as “an error.” Nonetheless, a psychiatrist is brought in for an evaluation. It’s Paul Giamatti, so at least you know what you’re going to get out of him. And he surely delivers, pushing Morgan to the limits as he questions why she thinks she is alive. Why she thinks the people around her are her friends.

Judged through a tedious first section and an even slower second act, Morgan isn’t very eventful but it’s well-crafted. A reasonable amount of tension is generated from our ignorance to what Morgan is capable of doing or what she is actually going to do to her captors once she gets loose. (An event we await with bated breaths.) Mara is a constant bummer but the rest of the characters are fairly likable in their restricted capacities. Anya Taylor-Joy (the break-out star from this year’s The Witch) is for some time empathetic and her distinctive features make for a suitable alien-like presence. Boyd Holbrook plays a hunk with serious culinary skills. Because we needed that for levity, I guess, but I’ll take it if everyone else is just going to be a misery to be around.

But when we’re exposed to what the filmmakers have in store for us having waded through a lot of nothingness, the wheels fall right off the wagon, spectacularly. Who had M. Night Shyamalan on speed dial for that big reveal? It has his fingerprints all over it. In fact his sense of atmosphere and ability to maintain tension makes it feel like Morgan doesn’t have any Scott blood running in its veins at all. Slavishly adhering to structure and with no personality of its own, this Ex Machina wannabe has been conditioned to not think for itself.

Recommendation: Slow, unoriginal and featuring an uneasy mix of cerebral meditation and shocking violence, Morgan gives me too many reasons to call this just a total freaking mess. As I personally wasn’t hugely anticipating it, calling it a disappointment might be a stretch but it certainly is disappointING that good actors and a reliable premise, granted a thoroughly worn out one at this point, aren’t enough to bring it around. Film also finishes on one of the lamest notes I have seen since Now You See Me, so unless you’re willing to risk leaving a movie wondering why you even bothered, I’d have to say keep a respectable distance from this one.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

Quoted: “There was joy in her heart, before we shoved her back into that box.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.screenrant.com; http://www.foxmovies.com