Is I Am Mother a Prequel to Portal?

So last night I watched the new Netflix-exclusive, claustrophobic sci-fi thriller I Am Mother – the directorial debut for Grant Sputore and the first feature-length screenwriting outing for Michael Lloyd Green. Neither of the two creative headliners had made particular waves in the industry until the release of I Am Mother, but the script appeared on the Black List in 2016 – a list of the top-voted screenplays yet to be produced – and is currently sitting at a rather fresh 91% on Rotten Tomatoes. The script has been floating around for some time now and Netflix were quick to seize it when they realised it fits neatly into that tried and tested formula most recently exercised by 10 Cloverfield Lane.

As much as the film is a tightly-wound, engaging sci-fi thriller that touches on some prescient themes around what it means to be human, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen it all before – and I don’t just mean the film’s recycled formula. The character designs, their personalities, as well as the overarching narrative all bear a striking resemblance to Valve’s Portal series. I’m ready to be stood corrected and perhaps I just have Portal on the mind and it has clouded my judgement, but I am convinced of foul-play and hopefully I can convince you too. Be warned, there will be multiple spoilers here but if you don’t mind try and stay with me as I break down the slew of similarities between these two science fiction tales.

First off here are the synopses for both I Am Mother and Portal so as to not lead anyone with my own biases; I’ll then try to deconstruct where I feel the similarities lie throughout the film and you can make up your own minds whether or not these are intentional. First up, I Am Mother:

A teenage girl is raised underground by a kindly robot “Mother” — designed to repopulate the earth following the extinction of mankind. But their unique bond is threatened when an inexplicable stranger arrives with alarming news.

Next up, the synopses for Portal and Portal 2 respectively; I have inserted both here as they have a relevance which I will delve into later on:

A test subject wakes up in a scientific facility controlled by a sadistic artificial intelligence and must escape with the help of the only instrument she has–a gun that makes portals.

Many years after “Portal,” Chell reawakens at Aperture Science and tries to stop GLADoS once again with the help of Wheatley, who has his own plans for the historical facility.

Right off the bat, the film’s titular character Mother, the matriarchal droid that cares for the protagonist Daughter is conspicuously similar to the Portal series’ infamous antagonist GLaDOS. Both in design and demeanor the two characters display that over-bearing and claustrophobic motherly charm reminiscent of Carrie’s religious Mother and the robotic, yet unnervingly insidious tone for which GLAdOS is so infamous. Not to mention both characters are caretakers of a secret underground facility that nurtures a young woman for the supposed “greater good” of humanity. Factor in the overtly similar character designs (albeit Mother has an anthropomorphic body whereas GLAdOS is less so) and you have a recipe with more than a couple of similar tasting ingredients. Here’s a comparison of the two characters to try illustrate how similar their designs are:

This was the first comparison that I noticed, and as the story of I Am Mother progresses it became clearer to me that Portal’s GLAdOS was more than just an inspiration or passing nod to the series. I Am Mother begins in the aforementioned underground facility, where the viewer is to believe that humanity has been wiped from the face of the earth; nuclear war and a contagion that followed has caused the extinction of the human race, and Mother has been tasked with repopulating the Earth; starting with Daughter.

The first thirty minutes or so of the film serves to show how Mother nurtures Daughter throughout her childhood – educating her, playing games and generally carrying out the duties any Mother would. It is not until Daughter reaches adolescence that the film’s second act takes off, and the not-so caring side of Mother begins to show. After a mouse that Daughter finds is unceremoniously incinerated, Mother suggests that it is time to complete another seemingly regular examination – a test of Mother’s abilities as much as her “daughter’s”. Although dissimilar enough to Portal here not to turn too many heads, the overarching idea that the caretaker robot of a secret underground facility in which only one human lives – who is subjected to regular testing for the sake of its own merit – is a narrative thread pivotal to the relationship between Chell (Portal’s protagonist and the player-character) and GLAdOS.

Mother’s control over Daughter is tested when a stranger known only as The Drifter threatens to shatter the reality carefully orchestrated by the film’s leading robot; ultimately to the point where Daughter has no choice but to question everything she knows. Now, although the first entry in the Portal series does not see a third character brought into the mix, the second entry Portal 2 introduces Wheatley, a damaged artificially intelligent core that acts as the player’s sidekick/navigator – until its ulterior motives are laid bare in the game’s second act. Wheatley’s understanding of the true nature of the facility’s ins-and-outs allow the player to navigate environments not seen in the first title, and reveal another side to GLAdOS that completely changes how Chell (or the player) views the in-game world. Not dissimilar to the effect The Drifter has on Daughter; her opinion of the droids and access to the outside world have irreparably changed her perspective on the facility in which she now feels trapped. Admittedly, at this point the two plots deviate for a time, in which Portal 2 sees GLAdOS attached to a potato as Wheatley becomes the new all-seeing eye of the facility, building hamstrung tests for the player to navigate. However, the introduction of both characters happens at a similar turning point in the narrative, and sets up a final act that uses not only tellingly identical imagery and design, but concludes in a all-too congruous fashion.

The films final act sees Daughter escape Mother and the underground facility to discover that The Drifter – although truthful in her explanation that the world is not in fact stricken with contagion – was lying about the group of friends she was supposed to be holed up with in a nearby mining tunnel. Daughter is in fact the only survivor she knows of, and is living in a shipping container with a dog. In realising this, Daughter dashes through a series of corn fields camouflaging the facility to confront Mother one last time, in the hopes of nurturing her newborn “brother” – another embryo from the facility that has been artificially conceived. She is met by an army of similar droids who after focusing their laser sights on her, agree to let her pass when she insists of speaking to Mother.

The final sequence sees Daughter realise that the anthropomorphic form that Mother inhabits is but a vessel, and that she in fact spearheads the entire operation; a single consciousness that controls all the droids and machines on Earth. In a touching scene, Mother agrees to let Daughter raise the child on her own, and inherit the facility in order to repopulate Earth in her image.

Now, there are a number of points here – specifically relating to the film’s design and imagery – that are incredibly reminiscent of those used in Portal. First off, the outfit that Daughter wears in the final scenes – her overalls with the top half tied round her waist – is almost identical to that worn by Chell:

On top of this, in the final scene of Portal 2 the player sees Chell face an army of turrets who agree to let her pass, despite their red laser sights focused ready to fire:

In an endearing scene that sees GLAdOS empathise with the game’s protagonist in an unseen act of kindness, she is thrust from the facility into…you guessed it – cornfields. This may seem like a pedantic parallel to draw here but considering the other striking resemblances it is not a huge stretch to assume that the setting could have also been pulled straight from the video game series’ final act. Looking at other similarities in the imagery used by both Portal and I Am Mother, there are clear commonalities between the Portal series’ Ratman character and his den (only alluded to through a series of drawings) and the religious and portrait scribblings on the walls of The Drifter’s shipping container:

The as yet growing cornfields, technology that is not quite as new-age as Portal and Mother’s lack of sadistic pleasure in forcing test subjects to complete complex puzzles ad infinum suggest that perhaps this was intended to be a prequel to Portal rather than a direct copy. This would make a lot of sense as it is quite common for screenwriters to spitball ideas based on twisting pre-existing stories to their liking – Netflix’s Bright (although it did not have quite the same critical success…) was a musing on what the Lord of the Rings universe would look like in the modern day. This idea seems to ring true with a lot of what is presented in I Am Mother as much of what Mother is trying to do with the facility still seems very much in its infancy. It’s possible that as time passes and Mother becomes less tolerant of humans and their desire for trivial things like freedom, food and sleep, the mundane tests that Daughter is forced to complete begin to morph into something more insidious (and involving portals). The Drifter is a sign of things to come, as more subjects are cast out of the facility for not following orders, or simply descend into madness living inside the facility, just like Ratman in Portal. Either way, the similarities here are too prevalent to ignore, but as yet I have been unable to source a comment from either Sputore or Green on the “inspiration” that Portal has clearly given them.

Now, all these comparisons that I have made could be chalked down to the aesthetics being typical of the genre, especially the similar design of the facility as well as the robot itself – but when you consider the parallels that can be drawn from the personalities of the main characters, their actions and the setup of the plot, there are undeniable similarities that are difficult to un-see if you are a fan of the Portal series. The plot of I Am Mother is not something entirely new – recent efforts like 10 Cloverfield Lane, Panic Room, and Room all revolve around similar plot devices and setups, and the undeniable inspiration of science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey is present in both the Portal series and I Am Mother. However, the narrative beats and timing of both of these stories seems far too similar to acknowledge as simply a trope or homage. Whether this was the intention of the screenwriter Michael Lloyd Green, or the work of Grant Sputore in his directorial vision for the film’s aesthetic – I’m hesitant to believe that the (albeit thrilling and enjoyable) science fiction tale of claustrophobia and motherhood is any less than inspired by Valve’s iconic Portal series.

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3 thoughts on “Is I Am Mother a Prequel to Portal?”

  1. Great article, I’m glad it wasn’t just me that noticed this. Another similarity is the incinerator. Both GlaDos and Mother like to incinerate their test subjects when they no longer prove useful. I was looking everywhere to see if I could spot an Aperture Science logo! Perhaps mother started her cleansing of the human race within the facility itself much like GlaDos did with the staff of Aperture Science…

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    1. Thank you so much, glad to hear that people are enjoying it. Another great similarity, we know how GLAdOS has a penchant for burning! There are also a couple of references in Portal 2 to GLAdOS (or at least Cave Johnsons wife whose personality was used to create GLAdOS) was actually Chell’s Mother! As enjoyable as the film was this is bordering on copyright infringement – especially considering neither writer nor director has even once credited Valve or the Portal series as an inspiration.

      My blog is full of other gaming articles as well, including the first episode of a (hopefully) regular podcast so check that out if you liked this one! Thanks again for the kind words.

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  2. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one thinking this throughout the entire film. Most importantly, right before the Daughter is about to take her tests for her birthday, Mother promises her some cake, which Daughter never actually gets to eat!

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