As we sit in the midst of the holidays, it is a small joy to find Mother/Android opens in the midst of a holiday party. Slyly, and humorously, the film establishes a universe of robot servants: the apparent butler requires an override code to add shots to the hot chocolate. Enter Georgia, a young woman grappling with the revelation of a new pregnancy. Soon the lights dim, cell phones go on the fritz, and the screaming begins. In an effective scene setter, Georgia and her boyfriend Sam escape the ravages of the party – complete with some satisfyingly graphic baseball bat vs android violence – and enter a world that feels distinctly similar to a great many zombie movies.
Flash forward a few months, Georgia is now nine months pregnant and our heroes are now in the midst of a journey through the wilderness. I’ll admit feeling a pang of disappointment at this jump – the film’s opening sequence was an effective enough table setter that I found myself longing for writer/director’s Mattson Tomlin’s (writer of Project Power and the forthcoming The Batman) chaotic robotic uprising movie. The film’s focus, and scale, are more tightly defined. Soon Georgia and Sam happen upon a military base and the screenplay effectively doles out information about the prior months and the state of humankind in the war against the machines. There are moments, purposeful I suspect, where the film feels like a lost episode from the good years of The Walking Dead as two people fight for survival in a dilapidated version of society while bloodthirsty creatures loom just off camera.
Much of the film must rest on the young shoulders of Chloë Grace Moretz. Moretz is only 24 but somehow has over 70 acting credits, a great many as a lead performer. She’s become something of a stalwart in genre films from Kick-Ass and Let Me In over a decade ago to just this year in the effective WW2 monster thriller Shadow in the Cloud or as a game foil for the animated hijinks of Tom & Jerry. Moretz seems perpetually game to buy-in on concepts that might not offer the most appeal on paper. As mother-to-be Georgia on the run during the robotic apocalypse, Moretz carries an edge of desperation to her performance, seeming to perpetually have to hold herself back from abject panic. As the couple are expelled from one military base with the baby due any day, a doctor tells Georgia that women have given birth to children long before the word doctor even existed. Moretz’s face conveys anger, panic, frustration, and resolve all in a quick beat.
Algee Smith is fast becoming a name to watch. With strong turns on his resume in HBO’s Euphoria, Detroit, and Judas and the Black Messiah, it’s easy to imagine him as a future star. He has an easy charisma which makes him a readily watchable screen presence. His Sam and Moretz’s Georgia have a sweet lived-in chemistry such as when they banter about if the baby will be a boy or girl, which makes the story’s inevitable and effectively foreshadowed conclusion all the more moving. Raul Castillo, a personal favorite dating back to HBO’s Looking, also appears in a few amusingly go-for-broke scenes.
What becomes increasingly clear over Mother/Android’s runtime is that writer/director Mattson Tomlin has a lot more on his mind than just a simple zombie story recast with robots. When Georgia first sees her boyfriend Sam holding his child she wonders how the relationship is so natural and Sam responds “because it’s what dads are supposed to be.” It is a lovely sentiment all alone, and perhaps a broader statement about the industry in which the film exists. Unmarried black fathers are not often given kind treatment in Hollywood stories, and here we have an aspirational figure willing to sacrifice everything for the safety of his child.
The film resolves not with the typical action-filled finale one might expect from the genre, but rather in a moment of raw emotion. I was surprised to find myself quite moved by the conflict as Tomlin effectively repurposes a classic immigrant narrative into his genre film. At heart, Mother/Android becomes a parable for the sacrifices parents must make for their children. The film shines a light on the dilemma far too many parents face in war torn or impoverished countries. It is a moving conclusion that helps elevate the entire film.
Is Mother/Android going to make my top 10 list for the year? No. But it may well signal the arrival of an interesting voice in genre filmmaking. I had quibbles with the first film he wrote, Project Power, but I thought Tomlin managed to craft a compelling sci-fi idea in a well-drawn New Orleans setting. And if producer Matt Reeves (War of the Planet of the Apes, Cloverfield, The Batman) is buying stock in this young filmmaker, we should certainly take notice. All told, Tomlin has achieved the classic trick of using genre storytelling to share a more searing, important statement about the world.
Mother/Android debuts on December 17 on Hulu in the United States and on January 7 on Netflix internationally.