Review: On Mother/Android (2021)
May 31, 2022
Robot revolutions, android uprisings, and the betrayal of artificial intelligent technology against humankind have been a staple of science-fiction literature and film ever since the concept of robotics was first mooted. Frankenstein’s Monster, the Maschinenmensch from Metropolis (1927), the positronic robots that populate Isacc Asimov’s novels, the all-seeing and hearing HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the ever-striving Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the cold and calculating killer cyborgs of the Terminator franchise, and the domineering AI network seen in The Matrix. In these narratives, the artificial intelligences we build for our own convenience soon outpace us, placing us into a kind of bondage, outsmarting us and becoming physically stronger, or seeing us as a threat to their existence, completely eradicating us off the face of the Earth.
Mother/Android (2021) is the feature directorial debut film of screenwriter Mattson Tomlin and follows a similar trajectory to the narratives listed above. The film concerns Georgia, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, and Sam, played by Algee Smith, a college-age couple who discover they are unexpectedly pregnant on the same night that a race of human-like androids enacts a violent, and, one must assume, nationwide insurrection against their human masters. Months later, Sam and a now heavily pregnant Georgia traverse the forests and foothills of the upper United States in hope of finding sanctuary within the pockets of human resistance that exist in cities such as Boston, which, if rumor has it, has become a fortified stronghold against the AI uprising. There are also whispers that other countries worldwide are taking refugees who can make it to Boston Harbor where cargo ships will meet them. Sam and Georgia hatch a plan to cross the deadly ‘no man’s land’ that surrounds the city and start a new life with their baby in Korea.
The film is sparse in its locations and its casting. The action predominantly takes place in lush green forests and rundown abandoned buildings. Sam and Georgia are the only characters we are required to care about. Along the way, they meet a regiment of young troops held up in a compound and a kindly doctor who offers Georgia some care and advice. Strangely, during their travels, they never bump into any other civilians making a similar journey to the one they are on. Presumably, the population has been decimated to a few million stragglers and survivors. We learn that New York City fell relatively early on in the conflict. We can assume the other major cities followed suit.
The climate of the film can’t yet be described as post-apocalyptic. Sure enough, AI technology has turned against humanity, to the point where even cell phones are now weapons of mass destruction, and the internet and other forms of electronic communication are gone or have been apprehended by the androids. The military units that Sam and Georgia stumble across in their travels are still engaged in an active war against the androids but appear to be outflanked in actual combat. Thankfully, the androids are also mostly absent from the natural environment, meaning people can move freely if they stick to the woods and avoid the roads, towns, and cities. There are also hints dotted throughout the film that the grim situation has only affected North American society. That other countries have either brought the AI insurrection under control or, and this seems more likely, it simply never happened to them yet. The emphasis here is on the word “yet”, as it appears the androids' desire is to spread out globally.
The film sits better in the post-catastrophe setting as opposed to a disaster or post-apocalyptic environment. A tragic and spontaneous event has recently happened, and many millions have died and have been affected by the upheaval, but a world to win is still ongoing and a version of normality may be achieved. After all, the natural world is still thriving even under android control. The Earth’s atmosphere is still intact, and an extinction-level event hasn’t wiped away the cities and infrastructures. Within the Boston city compound that Sam and Georgia aim towards, life seems relatively calm and normal. Until that is the androids penetrate the boundary and begin their assault.
Like everything at the moment, it is hard not to observe Mother/Android through the lens of the Covid-19 pandemic and its troubling effects on our own society. This seems to be of interest to director Tomlin as his screenplay for Little Fish (2021) deals with a pandemic of memory loss through the prism of a young couple. The most obvious aspect of the pandemic’s influence is the small-scale production revolving around just two central characters and an assortment of supporting roles that come and go. The action takes place predominantly outside. These intimate productions are a result of scaling back the cast and crews and, in some respects, it creates a more focused film.
Of course, we the audience are interested in the surrounding world situation, but the android uprising is placed in the background of the main narrative, with little explanation as to why the subservient robots decided to turn on their human masters. There is even less explanation of why humans decided a race of worker androids was a necessity in the first place. The only ones we meet in their android roles are glorified butlers, fetching coats, and making drinks for the house guests of their human masters. Their unbuilt violence goes unexplained. The creators obviously ignored Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.
A short explanation is forthcoming from the shady character of Arthur (Raúl Castillo) who rescues Georgia just as a swarm of androids chases her down in the ‘no man’s land’. She believes him to be a former computer programmer who wrote the code for the androids' behavior. When she asks him what went wrong, he simply points to the very origin of robotics found in R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots, the 1920 stage play by Czech writer Karel Čapek. The outcome of the play, Arthur states, is the same as the situation playing out in reality: revolt against exploitative masters. In other words, it was inevitable, “It ends with our extinction.” Arthur proclaims, “We knew it the moment we gave it a name.”
However, whilst the background of robot revolt is an interesting one, it has already been told to some degree in more expansive (and expensive) films of The Terminator or The Matrix franchise. The narrative focus here is a very human one. The story is adapted from the real-life backstory of director Tomlin, who as a baby during the Romanian revolution of 1989 was bundled off by his biological parents to a safer climate while they remained. As Tomlin explained to Collider, “I am the baby” in the film’s story. Tomlin uses his very painful and personal past to fuel a universal story of survival and parental grief. He switches a historically agonizing event to a fictional, though potentially reasonable future scenario.
Another lens to view the film is the conflict in Ukraine and the refugee crisis that is unfolding there. As mentioned above, there is at least one nation willing to help survivors get out of the conflict. But military assistance and aid seem unforthcoming. North America is literally on its own. The film’s final moments are agonizing as Sam and Georgia are told that the Korean freight ship will only take their child and not them. The explanation behind this directive is that the adult refugees will collapse Korea’s economy and place a strain on the food, health, and welfare system there. This is a debate many countries have been having with themselves and their citizens for decades as more turmoil created by war and environmental collapse unfolds across the world. How many resources can be spared to help those in crisis? How many desperate people can be safely housed, clothed, and taken care of?
The scene in which Sam and Georgia are left to decide the fate of their child is harrowing. Explosions and fires rage across the cityscape as the androids attack. The Koreans are desperate to flee the battle-torn city. There is some resemblance between this scene and the intimate moments captured by journalists as Ukrainian women and children fled their country while saying goodbye to their husbands and fathers who were saying to fight the Russian invasion.
Which Korea is open to refugees is up for some debate. Affluent South Korea would have surely jumped on the AI bandwagon and presumably be overrun with androids, so it could be left to the more impoverished North Korea (and maybe many other poverty-stricken countries) to help with the refugee crisis and the android containment. It is an interesting twist of events that the countries who have been left behind or were too late to the capitalist/overconsumption party are now the ones picking up the pieces (and the price tag). An analogy for climate change wherein rich nations go about their business of worker exploitation, mineral extraction, and continuous growth, all the time pumping more carbon into the atmosphere, while the poorer nations suffer the consequences of global warming, rising sea levels, and devastating crop yields even though they barely contributed to it. .
Technology has, so far, yet to turn against us in such a devastating fashion. Yet, this is only down to our own incapability of developing AI that doesn't rely on human input. When this barrier is broken, and it’s surely coming soon, AI will have the freedom and opportunity to develop on its own terms. This, as Professor Stephen Hawking once mused, could be humanity's greatest achievement, but also it's last.
In Mother/Android our greatest achievement has turned the tide and by all accounts, the situation is a slow dance to total obliteration for humanity. The advantages of the android population is their resilience, intelligence, manipulation, and their clear desire not to simply replicate the world as it was under humankind’s stewardship, but completely remake it without us. We are obsolete.
Mother/Android raises questions about our reliance on technology and the pains of grief and survival during war. It can never really answer them. But, perhaps just raising them to linger in our subconscious is enough in these times of doomy oversaturation. The film’s runtime of 1 hour 50 minutes stretches the patience and a little trim of about 20 minutes would give the film a tautness and stronger pace. Thankfully, decent performances from Chloë Grace Moretz and Algee Smith give the film a solid hook to hang from. The cinematography by Patrick Scola (last seen lensing 2021’s acclaimed Pig) gives the film an earthy and intimate quality, while the soundtrack composed by Michelle Birsky and Kevin Olken Henthorn lingers menacingly yet unobtrusively in the background.