It’s great to see a director coming further into their own, realizing the potential established when they started. Gareth Edwards hit the scene in 2010 with his first feature film, Monsters. Shot using some guerilla filmmaking tactics to deliver a unique alien invasion story, it’s a sharp little film that already felt bigger than it was. Since then, Edwards’ work on 2014’s Godzilla and 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story made one thing very clear – he’s very good at visually communicating a true sense of scale that I often find missing in blockbusters. The Creator feels like the best of all the worlds Edwards has been a part of, with additional points of reference and a healthy dose of societal commentary. The result is an original sci-fi action film with plenty of ideas on its mind, a terrific use of visual effects, and further evidence of what Edwards can bring by way of spectacle to help him continue to stand out.
Almost feeling ripped straight from the headlines, the plot involves a war between humans and artificial intelligence. The film’s characters live in a future where AI was developed to the point of existing as humanoid robots with enough of a mind to want to live their own lives and not be discriminated against. One can use whatever example they want as the other end of this analogy for today. Naturally, however, a nuke went off, destroying Los Angeles, and it led America and much of the world to ban this advanced AI’s existence. The remaining robots live in New Asia, where they are accepted amongst the population.
The Creator is very much the type of film where world-building is critical. It’s not hard to see the influences, but it is difficult not to call out Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner when considering the look and feel of this film. Regardless, there’s so much to be gained from watching the movie unfold while visiting the various locations utilized for this film. While there is sci-fi production design to enjoy, Edwards deploys visual effects by having teams film all over Asia and essentially layer in the future world on top of it. As a result, this film features footage from Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, and Nepal, and it never feels inauthentic when seeing this film’s futuristic depiction of those places.
It is all quite worthwhile, as the film’s plot and characters can be seen as familiar, even if the choices made by the performers are not without weight, let alone the overall stakes of the story. John David Washington is Joshua, an ex-special forces agent recruited to join Howell (an against-type Allison Janney) and a team of elite operatives to cross enemy lines to destroy a weapon that could be a significant threat to humanity. As it turns out, that weapon is an AI in the form of a young child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles).
Regardless of where the story goes, the main character arc is not all too surprising. Joshua begins the film seeing AI as nothing but machines that cannot feel. Once he’s forced to go on the run with Alfie (the name he gives to the young AI), his allegiances shift. There’s an additional motive (Joshua is hoping he can find his rebel girlfriend (Gemma Chan), whom he thought to be dead), but there are interesting layers to consider regarding what this film wants from the audience.
For all his efforts, Washington is great here. He provides enough of his own behaviors to make Joshua interesting enough, while Edwards continues to show why deep characterization does not necessarily need to be the primary aspect to look at when it comes to certain films. With that in mind, seeing Joshua’s goals, how he evolves, and what’s happening with the other characters (human and AI), I kept thinking about where this film stands. Obviously, this film wants us to root for the survival of the innocent AI robots being slaughtered by human armies (specifically American), so I need to clarify my curiosity. How does this film choose to factor in its understanding of AI at a time when artificial intelligence is being looked at by many as a major threat to the earth’s landscape?
Given that we have a likable young child AI and Ken Watanabe portraying an AI figure who can deliver sage advice when he’s not battling as if he’s in a reincarnated state of his Last Samurai character, The Creator seems to have an optimistic idea of what AI can bring. One harrowing sequence has a large battalion of humans going after a small group of AI bots, forcing one of these robots to run for cover. Being targeted, the machine knows that if it hides among other innocent humans, a whole area will be bombed, so it chooses to stay in the open, away from those people. Is this morality and compassion the result of self-actualized artificial intelligence or an information-based understanding of a situation that allows programming to resolve?
Meanwhile, humans use large machines of all kinds to aid in the destruction of these free-living AI creations. One particularly creative/morbid idea is a robot bomb that can act like a linebacker that charges into the battlefield, with enough shielding to keep it from being taken out until it reaches its target. These areas of the film are compelling thanks to how it’s all shot to satisfy on a visceral level. Still, I could appreciate how much is left out there for audiences to consider regarding the mentality one must have to take drastic actions.
Granted, one can piece together what’s needed to get to the main plotline involving Joshua and Alfie, but I did wonder what we’re missing out on as far as the steps required for humans to see AI as a real threat. There are some helpful sequences at the beginning to set things up, and the fact that a nuclear weapon went off is used as a clear shortcut to get audiences up to speed. As with most things, however, there’s always more to understand. If anything, given the routine of having our heroes show up at a location, only to be discovered by the enemy, which results in a shootout and escape, perhaps one of those setups could have been traded in for a bit more discovery on the cerebral side.
Ultimately, given how much there is to like about The Creator, it is a minor issue. It’s a genre film with plenty of intelligence in its construction. There are a variety of setups and payoffs that have the level of impact clearly desired by the filmmakers. The work done to maintain momentum, whether the characters are learning about their situation and environment or fighting to survive, is mostly excellent. If anything, with so many blockbuster films pushing their runtimes higher and higher, at 133 minutes, The Creator could have been a little longer to help satisfy some of my modest qualms.
Having seen multiple multi-hundred-million-dollar movies this year that hardly felt memorable in terms of their visual design alone, at $80 million, The Creator feels like a steal given the sheer amount of cinematic audacity on display. Having a smart enough screenplay from Edwards and Chris Weitz adds to what kind of value is being given to an original film that one can only hope audiences embrace (because if you complain about sequels and remakes, it only makes sense to actually see the new ideas when they’re available). And between this and Tenet, if Washington is leading the charge on getting movie star performances coupled with innovative sci-fi tales for the modern age, so be it. The Creator was built to last, and it delivers.