Firstpost at Sundance: First impression reviews of dystopian thriller I am Mother, Naomi Watts' The Wolf Hour
The Wolf Hour is a sombre indie exercise in psychological drama with plenty of potential but sadly, none of it pays off.
The 2019 Sundance Film Festival runs from 24 January to 3 February and Firstpost is at the quaint ski town of Park City, Utah to bring you the latest news, reviews and interviews from America's largest independent film festival.
Clash of the matriarchs
An artificially intelligent droid, known simply as Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne), wakes up after an extinction-level event in a sealed repopulation facility. Programmed to raise and preserve the human race in this underground bunker, it begins by inserting one of 63,000 embryos into a makeshift microwave-like uterus. We see the embryo develop into an infant girl in an expedited gestation in a 24-hour cycle. The mechanical matriarch then nurtures and tutors her Daughter into a smart, virtuous teenager (Clara Rugaard) to prepare her to lead the human race. But, with her whole life confined to this deserted hideout, Daughter begins to wonder about the world outside.
When a woman (Hilary Swank) bleeding from a gunshot wound arrives at the facility, Daughter lets her in without Mother's knowledge. The woman's story about how humanity perished casts a doubt on everything Mother has taught her about the world outside. So, is Mother really the humanitarian we all thought she was or has she gone all Skynet? Is the Woman telling the truth or is she just trying to upend their world?
It's a riveting premise but I am Mother fails to live up to its promise. It lets you marinate in suspense and keeps you guessing till the end by taking so many twists and turns to sustain the tension. It winds you tighter and tighter before its secrets come slowly tumbling out. But, unfortunately, the film disappoints with a highly derivative third act. While the early jitters are rooted in psychology, it soon turns to all the usual tropes and gimmicks found in most sci-fi films featuring AI. In the end, it's just another examination of mankind's experiments with a technology they don't yet fully understand and director Grant Sputore doesn't offer anything new to the topic that hasn't been explored already.
However, it is a sci-fi film that gives equal importance to character-driven drama as its visual effects. Clara Rugaard is phenomenal in her breakthrough performance as a daughter forced to choose between two not-entirely-trustworthy maternal figures. And the world truly needs more Hilary Swank than it is currently getting.
I am Mother is a commendable enough entry into the sci-fi genre but it lacks the kind of thought-provoking speculative ideas found in minimalist dramas like Ex Machina or big-budget productions like Blade Runner 2049. It has a problem of too much atmosphere and not enough gravity to ground its story, which stretches a bit thin over feature length. It would have worked even better as a short film with just the Up-like opening sequence of Mother and Daughter.
I am Mother may not offer any thing fresh or novel but it's worth seeing nonetheless.
Director: Grant Sputore
Cast: Clara Rugaard, Rose Byrne, Hilary Swank
An impotent allegory
It's the summer of 1977. Amid the sweltering heat wave, soaring crime rates and widespread paranoia about the Son of Sam murders, an agoraphobic counterculture novelist, June Leigh (Naomi Watts), hides out in a rundown South Bronx apartment. Refusing to step out of her home following a tragedy resulting from her hit novel, The Patriarch, June orders groceries, cigarettes and booze through a phone call and even pays others to take out the trash. Her already fragile mental state is worsened by an unknown person who keeps ringing the door intercom throughout the day. Her downward spiral eventually culminates in an all too predictable climax after the infamous New York City blackout of 1977, which saw thousands of lootings, arson and other criminal activities.
From Roman Polanski's Repulsion to Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan to Steven Soderbergh's Unsane, psychological thrillers are filled with damaged, emotionally unstable women. Storytellers, both indie and mainstream, have been making films about a woman's descent into madness virtually every year. Though the genre sometimes receives criticism for reducing women to bunny boilers and getting both the science and the realities of mental illness wrong, it also offers an opportunity to explore the more difficult topics of alienation, paranoia and our irrational fears. Films that tease our brains to differentiate between reality and illusion can often be scarier than ones that splatter them all over the walls.
The emotional minefield that an agoraphobe stuck in a claustrophobic apartment offers is limitless but The Wolf Hour wastes all its potential. It draws out an exceptional performance from Watts as she sweats, shudders and strives to sustain the film for its full duration by herself. The sound design too is praise-worthy and tries to make up for the lack of persistent tension and existential dread in the muddled narrative. But the film really inspires more yawns than scares and settles for a generic and needlessly protracted ending.
Writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin hopes the film to resonate with our times, to illustrate our fears and anxieties in a world on the brink of collapse. But it's hardly a potent allegory. The Wolf Hour is a sombre indie exercise in psychological drama with plenty of potential but sadly, none of it pays off.
Director: Alistair Banks Griffin
Cast: Naomi Watts, Jennifer Ehle, Emory Cohen, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Brennan Brown, Jeremy Bobb
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To see a couple of privileged folk, frantically trying to scramble their way to safety, their faces whiter than their original white after what they have just seen. It is oddly satisfying to see how it ends for them, because I know it will.
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