1 of 3
The Sundance Institute
Clara Rugaard in a scene from the film "I Am Mother."

PARK CITY — Filmmaker Grant Sputore remembers having all-night Skype conversations with his screenwriting partner, Michael Lloyd Green. They’d stay up talking about the problems of the world, and the problems in their own personal lives.

Their new film, the dystopian sci-fi thriller “I Am Mother,” is very much an outgrowth of those conversations — and a faithful heir to some of cinema’s most beloved robot-centric sci-fi films.

“It was sort of lightning bolt moment: What would it be like to be raised by robots, and not have human parents? And what would the values of that machine be, and how would they go about parenting?,” Sputore told the Deseret News after the film’s Friday night premiere at Park City’s Eccles Center. “And from there, a lot of it came together very quickly.”

The Sundance Institute
A scene from the film "I Am Mother."

“I Am Mother” is set in a high-security bunker sometime in the distant future, when mankind has supposedly been wiped out. (By climate change, and apparently by its own worst impulses.) Mother — a robot tasked with raising a new generation of humans and voiced by Rose Byrne — lives in the bunker, along with thousands of human embryos. Mother raises one of those embryos, simply named Daughter (Clara Rugaard), and the two of them live a quiet life in the bunker. Daughter becomes a teen, and she wonders when she and Mother will raise another human.

Their otherwise uneventful life gets disrupted when someone from the outside world (Hilary Swank) knocks on the bunker doors seeking medical treatment. Daughter realizes Mother’s been keeping some secrets. How many humans exist outside the bunker? And how just hospitable is this outside world?

While Swank’s character — an untrusting, gun-toting survivor — comes across a bit too one-dimensionally (especially given Swank’s Oscar pedigree), she gives “I Am Mother” the name recognition it probably needs if it becomes a hit. This is Sputore’s first feature-length film.

“I like taking a risk on first-time filmmakers, because I think it’s so important — at one point someone believed in me and gave me my first opportunity,” Swank told the Eccles audience during a post-screening Q&A. “I’m always looking for something special. And it was very special. It was very unique. I’m not generally a sci-fi fan, and I was hooked. And I just think it’s timely. It brings up a lot of things that we talk about.”

The Sundance Institute
Hilary Swank in a scene from the film "I Am Mother."

The film’s real star is Rugaard. In what will likely be the young actress’s breakout performance, she displays a keen mix of vulnerability and measured caution. A lesser actress might over-emote at times, but her character was raised by a robot, after all. As such, potent displays of teen emotion are often dampened. Mother didn’t raise Daughter to be a robot — she raised her to be a “better” human than those that destroyed the planet. Daughter’s humanity is unavoidable, though, and “I Am Mother” explores questions about what it means to be truly human.

Comment on this story

Mother, Sputore said, was fashioned after the real-life robots being developed at Boston Dynamics — which have become YouTube famous for their eerily human movements. Mother isn’t CGI — there’s a real human underneath its metal exterior — but, as intended, there’s an undoubtedly creepy coldness to the way Mother imitates humans. In the post-screening Q&A, Sputore said we naturally worry about what’s happening in the world, and the existential fate of the human race as technology moves forward. Will it resemble the world of “I Am Mother”?

“Robots will either save us from that, or they’ll probably expedite that,” Sputore told the audience. “So this movie is sort of a discussion and rumination on that.”