“Mother/Android” Review: The Apocalypse is a Real Downer

Earlier this year, I happened across Little Fish, an indie sci-fi romance that I now count as one of my favorite films of 2021. Little Fish follows a couple, deeply in love, struggling to maintain their relationship in the face of a slow-burning viral apocalypse. When I learned that Mattson Tomlin, the screenwriter who adapted Little Fish, would also be making his directorial debut this year, I was immediately interested. Mother/Android, which Tomlin both wrote and directed, is also centered around a young couple living through the end of the world, this time an A.I. uprising. Both films have incredibly bleak settings, but where Little Fish is ultimately beautiful and life-affirming, Mother/Android left me feeling hollowed out and tired. It’s not that Mother/Android is a bad movie, it’s just not good enough to balance out how miserable it might make you feel. It’s a competent directorial debut with admirable aims and influences, but if you come for Children of Men, you best not miss.

Two Blue Lines Means You’re Pregnant, Three Means It’s the Robot Apocalypse

During Christmas break, college students Georgia (Chloë Grace Moretz, Shadow in the Cloud) and Sam (Algee Smith, Euphoria) receive what they think will be the most dramatic news of their evening — Georgia is pregnant. Hours later, a strange signal blasts from every electronic device in earshot and turns every lifelike android servant — a common American appliance in this universe — into a killing machine, murdering every human it sees. It’s a tense, panicky prologue containing traces of Dawn of the Dead, as the sounds of screams and gunshots echo through upper-middle-class suburbia. Roughly nine months later, Georgia and Sam hike alone through the woods of Massachusetts, evading killer androids and searching for a safe place for Georgia to give birth. They’ve heard that there are boats leaving out of Boston that will take refugees out of the country to somewhere less ravaged by the human/machine war. Concerned that it’ll be too dangerous to navigate around android-controlled territory once they have a screaming infant, the couple decides to cut a path through the no man’s land in the hopes of arriving in Boston before Georgia goes into labor.

Mother/Android is essentially a zombie movie in plot, tone, and theme, with superintelligent, networked androids in place of the undead. Like your common zombie flick, this film uses the backdrop of a societal collapse to reflect on the base elements of human nature, both good and bad. Our characters are under stress, clinging to love and hope while confronted with the cruelty of both man and machine. But the choice to make this a robot apocalypse isn’t just aesthetic, it also creates an instant reversal of the dynamic between the Global North and South. Countries with the technological hubris to mass-produce a mechanical slave class are finished, while those once considered “less advanced” struggle to manage a flood of incoming refugees. Much of this world building is implied rather than explicit, but it has the same Rod Serling-esque effect, taking a real experience that many viewers could not imagine living through themselves and bringing it closer to home. 

The androids’ cold, ruthless efficiency also forces Georgia to ponder the film’s central question, whether or not getting attached to people is worth the risk of getting hurt, physically or emotionally. The world of Mother/Android is one in which cruelty nearly always prevails and love causes at least as much pain as it does joy, but the only thing worse than living through with someone is living through it alone. This is certainly a valid perspective for a work of art to convey, but the ratio of misery to beauty in Mother/Android doesn’t balance out enough to convince me of its thesis. Mattson Tomlin’s explanation of the real-life story that inspired the film paints the ending as hopeful (be warned that it’s something of a spoiler), but I didn’t get that impression from watching the film alone. It takes exceptional direction and/or exceptional performances to give a soul to a story this bleak — everyone seems to be giving it an honest try, but it’s just not there. 

Mother/Android

Family Ties

Mother/Android is tightly focused on the relationship between Georgia and Sam, a young couple in over their heads both practically and emotionally. Chloë Grace Moretz ably conveys Georgia as a quiet, internal character who isn’t sure what she wants most of the time and is doing her best to hold it together under truly horrible circumstances. Sam runs into trouble on a few occasions by blaming Georgia’s mood swings on her hormones, when really they’re built on uncertainty as to whether or not she really wants to spend her life with the college boyfriend who knocked her up. They’re two young people traveling alone through the wasteland, tied together by an obligation they didn’t choose to enter into. One can hardly blame her for being frustrated. The trouble is, when Georgia finally makes up her mind, I don’t believe her, and the rest of the story only works if the viewer is invested in her getting what she wants. Something about the chemistry between Moretz and Algee Smith is at cross purposes with the outcome of the story.

Sam has his own internal journey, though he’s a more active character and is more open to expressing himself and therefore much simpler to read. From the moment we’re introduced to Sam, sitting opposite his girlfriend and her three positive pregnancy tests, he is completely dedicated to doing the right thing. The trouble is that he’s just a college-aged kid and “the right thing” is not always so clear-cut. His efforts to be good trip him up immediately. Within a minute of learning that Georgia is pregnant, he both affirms that what happens next is her decision and says “Listen, let’s get married.” Months later, Sam’s eagerness to demonstrate that he’s a great guy continues to frustrate Georgia, who feels as if she never knows what he actually wants because he only ever says what he thinks she wants to hear. Sam’s challenge is to prove his sincerity, that he’s acting not only out of obligation but out of love.

As much as the core story of Mother/Android falls short, Sam’s corner of the narrative offers an interesting examination of Millennials’ & Gen-Y’s struggle to redefine and detoxify masculinity. Early in the film, Sam and Georgia briefly take refuge at a military outpost, where Sam has a run-in with a platoon of macho soldiers who look down on him for not enlisting in the entirely futile battle with the androids. One of them agrees to help him and Georgia get to Boston if he can best him in a fistfight, set against a roaring fire surrounded by half-naked grunts. Sam is a sweet guy and doesn’t give off the impression that he’s ever been in a fight before, but he agrees because that’s what he thinks a man is supposed to do, fight for his family. The exercise ultimately accomplishes nothing but to demonstrate the absurdity of masculine contests of violence and domination.

There are moments in Mother/Android that make me interested in seeing what else Tomlin can do behind the camera. He clearly has a knack for horror and suspense, able to make even a large open space feel tight and claustrophobic. A second-act chase scene manages to be pretty exciting despite obvious budget constraints. The truth is, I’ve recommended worse movies than Mother/Android, and I should give credit to a film that left me feeling depressed, because that means it made me feel something. But there’s a certain “it” factor that makes a bummer sci-fi drama worth watching and Mother/Android doesn’t have it. Mattson makes a much clearer statement on love, loss, and our terrifying world in Little Fish, with director Chad Hartigan at the helm. And since both films are currently on Hulu, I’d recommend Little Fish as a far more fulfilling use of your hour and forty minutes. 

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