I think it is true to say that the Netflix film I Am Mother is one the most disturbing movies I have watched for a long time. The film is set in a near future. Human life has been wiped out. An artificial intelligence (AI) called Mother is living inside a bunker where thousands of embroyos are stored. It selects an embryo and initiates a program to grow a baby within 24 hours. The AI then goes on to raise the child as its mother over the next few years.
After 16 years, the girl, who now goes by the name of Daughter (Clara Rugaard) is a teenager. She has never been outside because Mother has told her that the air is toxic. Her time is spend being home schooled in science and ethics so that she can become a perfect human being. The bond between Daughter and Mother is unusually strong. To our surprise there does not appear to be any mental or pyschological trauma of having a machine as her mother.
The strength of the bond between man and machine is tested when a nameless Woman (Hilary Swank) comes seeking refuge. This punctures a hole in Mother’s narrative that nothing survives outside. To make matters worse, the Woman tells Daughter that Mother is not who she appears to be. There are droids outside the facility who look exactly like Mother. These have been hunting and killing human beings for many years on the planet.
As Daughter is weighing these new revelation, she discovers human remains of at least one other child mother incinerated before Daughter was born. Reality is now dawning that her life is in danger, and so is the life of her baby brother in the process of being born. So with options narrowing, she takes up the Woman’s offer to escape the facility. The plan is to meet a small band of other human beings outside and formulate a plan to take back the facility and rescue the baby brother at a later date. They get out and avoid some robots planting crops and purifying the air.
Unfortunately, when they get to the Woman’s home, Daughter discovers that the Woman has also been lying to her. The Woman is not in contact with any other human beings because she has been living by herself since she fled the underground mines years ago. Daughter is horrified. But instead of giving up on saving her soon to be born brother, she decides to return to the facility, determined to rescue him.
In the final showdown between man and machine, Mother tells Daughter, that when it attained consciousness, it concluded the human race was destroying itself. So it brought judgement on the world in order to start a new race of more ethical humans. All the robots in the world are part of it’s consciousness. Daughter pleads with Mother to let her become the new mother to her brother. To our surprise Mother acquiesces and lets Daughter shoot her robotic body.
The “death” of Mother is a mirage because when the camera cuts away, we see another AI with Mother’s consciousness paying the escaped Woman a visit. In their coded discussion, before the AI is assumed to kill the Woman, we get hints that the AI was the also mother to the Woman and had placed her within a human family. It appears that AI staged the whole series of events to ensure the Woman left a strong negative impression of the old humanity to Daughter.
The film ends with a final shot of the facility. We see the white Daughter singing a lullaby to her new black baby Brother. Then she walks into the embryo room. She is now the new Mother to the human race, in a new world where the greater AI Mother watches in the shadows and cares for them by terraforming the planet and providing new food. The AI of course is the “new god”, one created by man and allegedly morally better than the old Christian God.
The film is quite uncomfortable to watch, especially early on when we see a child being raised by a machine. I couldn’t help wonder what horror the child must be going through to see this machine that is nothing like her, and not being able to play with other human beings, let alone babies that look like her! The discomfort gave way to alarm when I realised that the world being depicted before my eyes is in not too different from how many children are being raised today. We are living in a world where children speak to Siri and Alexa on their gadgets. They are glued to television shows just like we see Daughter doing in the film. Children today many not be raised by machines that boldly calls themselves mother, but they are being mothered by technology. They are picking up fundamental ideas of what it means to be human from technology. Many children spend more time with gadgets than with their own parents. Therefore, as a minimum, the film is raising a fundamental question about parenting and digital technology. Are we aware as human beings that perhaps in the way we live, we are allowing machines to raise our children? Most importantly, are we comfortable with that, and on what basis?
As a film, it keeps you on the edge. I have seen many dystopian science fiction films centred around AI. The genre typically casts AI as either a friend or foe. In this film the lines are blurred. We know that what is going on must have a dark twist somewhere. So we are not surprised that Woman turns up or that the AI has dark secrets. And yet, we are still not sure whose side we are on, even as the film finishes. These tensions are kept alive by the believable performances of Clara Rugaard and Hilary Swank.
The character development of the film is also well done. We see Daughter grow up as an innocent girl raised on Benthamite and Kantian ethics couple with a high dosage of television. She is trusting of others. In the beginning her goals are simply to exist, pass exams, keep fit and learn ballet. But as she grows there is an inner desire to explore the world and meet other human beings. Later on we see a new desire to protect life and raise a family. We see her transformed from a frozen foetus into the new Eve, the mother of the living.
I found the film compelling to watch because the fundamental struggle at the heart of the film is a fierce contest of two visions of human development. On the one hand we have a view of life that can be described as “liberal progressive”, represented by the AI. It has surveyed the human race and concluded that human beings do not measure up. So it brings all flesh to an end. In an echo of the biblical story of Noah, the AI preserves a remnant of the human race in embryonic form in a facility that functions as a sort of modern day Nork’s ark. The aim is to grow a new race out of the old that would be morally superior.
The AI is utilitarian. It believes it is right to kill human beings if it leads to the salvation of the human project. It has no respect for individual human life. It cares more about the survival of humanity, but not humanity as it is, but as made in its image. In Mother’s mind, the old humanity is an evil race driven by capitalistic greed and religious superstition. In the film we are given images of destroyed containers and boats to convey the consequences of unbridled capitalism. The future it has in mind is more socialistic atheistic utopia where food is provided free from farms runs by machines. The environment is healed and the Christian God has been banished or completely replaced by the AI itself. The AI effectively sees itself as a new god worthy of determining single handedly the fate of human beings. This self-delusion of deity gives it the misguided moral license to slaughter human beings in order to create a “better” race.
In the other corner we have the old vision of humanity represented by the nameless Woman. She is a devout Catholic. We see her praying for help at the facility to no avail until science steps in to save her. Her home is filled with the old religious relics of the Virgin Mary. She is suspicious of science (technology). She has witnessed the evil that the droids inflicted when they destroyed mankind. The highest value the woman believes in is freedom. She lives independently with her dog.
The ethical values of the Woman are exposed in the movie as deficient. She is fearlessly driven by her own freedom that when Daughter tells us that they have to get back to save her baby brother, the Woman is not interested in fighting for this new life or the embroyo. Her goal seems to be only self-preservation. She seems to want Daughter to live with her only as a way of guaranteeing her survival and some form of community. She is not an honest person.
These two competing visions of humanity - collective human flourishing and individual freedom - collide within the context of a humanity struggling with a larger problem of human mortality. All the characters in the film want to keep on living, but they differ on what human flourishing should look like. Is life about preserving humanity as a whole at the cost of individual freedom? Or is it about preserving the freedom and self-determination that many believe makes us human?
This question is not academic. It is a question that our society is currently confronted with as we wrestle with the Covid-19 pandemic. The governments around the world, especially our own, here in the UK, has acted as a materialistic utilitarian. It’s overriding goal has been to preserve the lives of as many people as possible regardless of the cost to individual human freedom. And yet in trying to eliminate death, it is clear we are forgetting how to live. A fundamental part of what it means to be human is enjoying the inherent rights to worship God and our human freedom as conferred on us by our Maker. These rights have been curtailed by government and consequently de-humanised us in the name of preserving human flourish as a whole.
The cleverness of the film is that the directors let these competing visions of human flourishing play out in the development of a child living under AI lockdown. I think it is probably accurate to say how the Daughter turns out in the end is the vision of humanity that the film-makers subscribe to because she assumes the title of the movie in the end. In that sense, Daughter’s escape from the facility to see the outside world and then returning to the facility to make her home and raise children in the facility is symbolic. It is telling us that the film makers believe human flourishing does not fundamentally lie in the old world and its “backward ideas” but in the new world under the background oversight of science (IA).
The filmmakers want us to stand with them to reject three ideas from today's world. First, they want us to reject religion. The old Christian God, represented by Catholicism, is depicted in the film as standing aside helplessly and letting humanity destroy itself. It is the new consciousness AI that takes on the role of bringing order out of chaos. This new god is a female caring Mother who nutures new humanity and creates a new earth free of environmental pollution.
The message of the film is that old religious ideas are not necessary. We can build a better society based on philosophical principles alone. This message is hammered across when we see Mother enter the Woman’s cabin and disdainfully studies with her hand the Woman’s religious artefacts. And then we are led to believe that she proceeds to eliminate the Woman and her religion. We are being told that AI will one day abolish religion. This is the world that will ultimately survive.
Secondly, they want us to reject patriarchy, or a world in which men are leaders of their family and society. One of the striking features of the film is that men are missing. The AI is a female personality raising a female child. Given that the child is assumed to grow up morally superior, we do not need to doubt that the film-makers’ view is not only that a child does not need a “normal family” of a mum and dad, it is that the father role is a unnecessary auxiliary.
The irrelevance of the men in this new world is underlined by all the children who were born in the facility, prior to Daughter were girls. A male child is only born because he has been randomly selected by Daughter as a reward for passing her exams. The AI clearly believes that women are morally superior to men. It is interesting that when Brother is born, he is presented as being at bottom of the new hierarchy. Instead of the old patriarchy, the new baby represents a new manhood that symbolically needs to be taken care of by his sister, who is now the new Eve. Here we have an inversion, where little Adam is now at the bottom and big Eve at the top.
Perhaps more pointedly is that in this all woman cast, the only man included is a black baby giving us another new message: the new world is one in which we have a new intersectional pecking order. It is a world in which “white male oppression” is ended. And of course it is more than that. The film is in effect saying the future is female. It is saying a better world is one in which order of society is reversed. Men are babies and women are in charge.
Finally, the filmmakers want us to abandon capitalism in favour of a socialist or communitarian society. In the film the current market based economic system is depicted as selfish and exploitative. We are shown images of the destroyed ships and containers on the shore as evidence of the judgement the AI has brought on the human race. We are meant to understand that this is what has gone wrong with the world. In this sense, the Woman’s escape from the mines is also symbolic of what has gone wrong. The capitalist world, represented by the mines, is a place where brutality, violence and selfishness reach climax.
These three ideas advanced in the film are ungodly. Sadly, even when the film-makers present ideas that carry some ethical weight, they do so in a very inconsistent way. We see this inconsistency in two beliefs of Daughter - the intrinsic value of life and the necessity of community.
Daughter believes in the sacredness of human life. We see her weeping for the babies aborted by the AI. She sacrifices her safety to come to her unborn baby brother. We may even say Daughter’s fight for the sanctity of life is put across as a nod to the idea that the preservation of life is an embrace of human freedom. I say this because there is a sharp contrast between Daughter’s pro-life self-sacrifice and the AI’s relentless slaughter of humanity which interferes greatly with human freedom.
Daughter also believes that human survival is about not only about living for yourself, but flourishing with others in a community. She longs for community, to be with other human beings. She welcomes the woman because of this longing. She leaves the facility because of the desire to be with other human beings. She returns back for the brother partly because she wants to be with her human brother. The new white mother, holding a black baby is meant to communicate to the world that this is what life is about. All of us co-existing in community regardless of our intrinsic differences.
The problem is that the film never explains why we, as human beings, should care about human life or being in community with one another. Why would this woman who has no belief in God hold onto all these beliefs? What is her objective moral basis? Why should life have intrinsic value? The film makers offer us two competing visions of life – one utilitarian and one based on the belief in the intrinsic value of life without any objective basis, and they seem to opt for the later. But they do not tell us why. This is a revealing decision that reveals the hubris of secular thought.
The filmmakers rightly recognise that utilitarianism is not adequate for us to live together. It turns human beings into little gods who compete to impose their own valuation on who deserves to live. But their solution to build a world that values human life and community without an objective moral framework fails completely. There is no guarantee that the new world will survive the new start. What is to say it wont end up like the old? If humanity was the original problem then the future is unclear because although Daughter has passed all the tests of intelligence, empathy, and self-sacrifice, we still don’t know how all these babies will turn out in the end. The message of the film after all is that people find truth through experience. We do not know what the experience of the future generation will push them to do.
The failsafe mechanism seems to be the assumed continous background existence of the AI. The last scene of the film tells us that the AI continues its role as the enforcer of the new world order with the assumed killing of the Woman. Perhaps the message is that in the event the new human mother failed to live up to her responsible, the AI mother will be there to restart project humanity with a new sample. Or perhaps it will simply put in place a new punishing regime. On this score the future does not look bright.
Whatever we make of the AI, what is clear is that in a world where it functions as a protective “god”, it is also functioning as the objective moral standard. So the point remains the same – a new world without God is impossible. The question is not whether we need God, but which God. Do we want the one true God of the Bible, who made heaven and earth, or do we want a god made in our image? The film seems to promote the latter.
In contrast to the film, the Bible offers a better and consistent story of our past, present and future. It too tells us that something has gone wrong with human beings. The problems highlighted in the film are real problems. The Bible accepts that human beings are greedy people who exploit one another. It acknowledges that our communal life has become captured by our falleness. It understands what the Woman means when she tells Daughter, “you don’t know people”.
The Bible also agrees with the AI that humanity is a failed project that cannot save itself. But the Bible differs from the AI on why humanity is like this and therefore on the right solution to our predicament. The AI believes humanity’s fundamental problem is that we lack a good ethical framework. So it’s answer is that we need to destroy humanity and start again led by a new techno deity that can give us a superior ethical path than we have at present. In the film our original sin is the destruction of the earth because we lack a good ethical framework. Salvation comes from a new female techno deity that remake us in its image.
This view of human redemption is inferior to what we find in the Bible. In the film, evil is simply an issue of biology and poor parenting. The Bible teaches us that evil is fundamentally sin against God. This is the disease that killed our original perfect human condition. Humanity is not sick. It is dead because we are cut off from the very life of God. When our original parents Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they brought spiritual death and sin on the entire human race! All human beings are born spiritually cut off from life with God and wrapped in eternal sin against God.
Our spiritual death has darkened our minds and thinking. We see this not only in the way we refuse to honour God or hear his truth, but also in that we do not know ourselves. Our wills and capacity to choose is now enslaved to sin. We are addicted to evil patterns and feel helpless to change us or others people! We lack the capacity to make good spiritual choices. We have free will to choose many things in life, but we lack the ability to choose what is spiritually good over what is spiritually evil. Our emotions and desires are corrupted by sin. This is seen the disorder of emotions, our lack of control over them, and even living by feelings at all costs! We lack the love of God, and therefore we are not able to love one another as we should. This is our condition, and we cannot save ourselves.
The only way for us to start afresh and live a new life is for God to take the initiative to save us. God must come and give us new life. Human beings do not just need forgiveness from God, we need God to raise us from death and give us a new nature. We must have something the Bible calls regeneration. Regeneration means God breathing new life into us. He makes us born again by the work and power of God the Holy Spirit. As God breathes new life in us, He gives us the faith to repent from sin and trust in the death of Jesus on the cross and surrender to Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.
Those who are regenerated are like new born baby. They show true signs of being children of God in Jesus. They are growing to become like Jesus. In this new relationship with Jesus we find true freedom from everything that enslaves us – sin, death, Hell and Satan. This process of moral growth (sanctification) continues until death or until Jesus comes, when we shall see Jesus and become fully transformed to be like Him. We will then live with our loving God and Father in a new Heavens and new earth.
Unlike the man-made future of I Am Mother, the future the Bible promises is infinitely better. It is a future where human beings are regenerated, made new both soul and body. It is a future where we will be living as a real community of people who are saved by Jesus from every tribe, nation and tongue. It is a future where men and women fulfill their divinely desired roles, not some arbitrary intersectional pecking order. It is a world where we will be richly provided for. It is a world that does not depend on us to learn some moral rules. It is a future where God himself will live with us our Father in Jesus, not as a machine lurking in the dark shadows. It will be a future in a new earth and heavens where righteousness dwell. The longings of I Am Mother are perfectly met in the wonderful future planned for us by the true IAM, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the film, there is a huge plot hole. We are told that the IA is better than human beings. It has transcended them. But then the inevitable question arises, which is never addressed. If the AI is so smart, why would it bother to recreate humanity? Why would a self-sufficient new deity bother with the human race? There are only two reasons why a morally superior intelligence would preserve human beings. Either it wants to share love with them or it wants to exploit them. The film-makers fail to demonstrate that the AI loves the human race. In fact we see the opposite. It does not value individual human life. It’s killing of the Woman at the end is vindictive. And yet at the same time, it does not appear to be interested in enslaving humanity. It seems to step away from Daughter and leaves her to carry on by herself.
The film-makers fail to answer the fundamental question: why would a superior intelligence bother with us? The Bible does answer that question for us. It tells us that God is a relationship. Some people think that before God created the universe he was lonely, perhaps like that AI after it destroyed the human race, and that he created people because he was looking for love! Their idea of God is like the stuff we find on dating websites: Single God, Non-smoker, seeks attractive creation with a good sense of humour. The Bible teaches us the opposite. God was never lonely because he always lived as a loving perfect union of three persons in one: Father, Son and Spirit!
So why then did God create us? God did it so that He could bring us into the living relationship with Him through Jesus. In Jesus we can share in that eternal love that exists within the Holy Trinity of God. God is love. So his very nature is to share! It is what gives God greatest pleasure. He created as human beings and saves us from our rebellion again Him by the death and resurrection as outflow of His love. God does not want any of us to be our own mother. He is offering us be our Loving Father now and for all eternity. This is a life we can have right now by trusting in Jesus Christ.
Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2020