Principal Cast : John David Washington, Madeline Yuna Voyles, Gemma Chan, Ken Watanabe, Sturgill Simpson, Allison Janney, Amar Chada-Patel, Marc Menchaca, Robbie Tann, Ralph Ineson, Michael Esper, Veronica Ngo.
Synopsis: Against the backdrop of a war between humans and robots with artificial intelligence, a former soldier finds the secret weapon, a robot in the form of a young child.
There’s part of me that chuckled to myself when I realised I had the opportunity to do something as rapacious as publishing a review for a film titled The Creator on a day as holy as December 25th. While religion forms little of The Creator’s tableau in any sense, a film about the rise of a global extinction level threat, in Artificial Intelligence, is an aspect worshiped by current progenitors of all things technological, and mirrors humanity’s desire not just to survive but to extinguish all potential for its own oblivion. Themes of ethical and moral humanistic grey permeate Gareth Edward’s superbly mounted film, a tonal mixture of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, James Cameron’s Aliens and Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, and while those themes lean heavily into the superficial there’s just enough pulse-pounding entertainment and remarkable visual effects to overcome much of the generic character work Edwards and co-screenwriter Chris Weitz throw at the viewer.
Set in 2055, The Creator sees Washington play augmented cripple US Army Sergeant Joshua Taylor, whose wife Maya (Gemma Chan) is killed following an airstrike from an orbiting weapons station known as NOMAD. In flashback, we learn that Artificial Intelligence, developed to co-exist peacefully with humanity and assist us in our day-to-day lives, detonated a nuclear warhead in Los Angeles, and spurred the West to wage war against these once peaceful machines. Robots now live with friendly humans in the nation of New Asia, and are near helpless against the insurgent attacks by American forces seeking to wipe the robotic threat out. After a mission to locate a new and powerful AI weapon goes wrong, Joshua and a young robot child, Alphie (Madeline Yuna Voyles) try to locate the not-as-dead-as-she-seems Maya somewhere in New Asia, pursued by Joshua’s commanding officer Colonel Howell (Allison Janney), while a group of AI resistance fighters, led by Harun (Ken Watanabe) also try to co-opt the child for their own uses.
Gareth Edwards’ career has been rooted firmly in the realm of science fiction, perhaps most notably with 2016’s Rogue One, although his debut in Hollywood came with the criminally underseen ultra-low-budget Monsters in 2010, a film that garnered widespread acclaim even though it never quite found a mainstream audience. Whereupon Rogue One and his remake of Godzilla in 2014 were obviously franchise entries, Edwards seems to work best when he’s handling original ideas and, while it might not be a perfect film, there’s enough intelligence in The Creator to overcome many of the movie’s minor shortcomings. Edwards co-writes with Chris Weitz (American Pie, About A Boy) and crafts a film that takes an interesting look at grief and loss through the filter of a futuristic dystopian hellscape, namely an America at war with Asia over refugee population of robotic creatures whose only mission is to live peaceably on this planet. The film takes some nice sci-fi twists on well known tropes, and the design work on the film is absolutely superb throughout – the look of the ubiquitous robots is very Spielbergian (appropriately, given the link to AI here) and the world’s tech feels very lived in and utilitarian, much like the block designs of James Cameron’s Aliens or the functionality of Akira, while the film spends a lot of time on location – gorgeous locations – in Thailand and gives the exotic landscapes a real ethereal quality.
The film’s obvious Quest narrative seeks a higher purpose but never quite manages it, threading John David Washington’s mournful warrior-figure chasing a fantasy of the wife he lost while escorting a small child through trials as he seeks redemption of some kind. While Washington is a solid actor and the role suits him perfectly, as a vague Asimovian analogue (see also Will Smith in I Robot for a similarly written character) his eyes as ours within this world are glazed with trauma and anger. His journey of self-discovery isn’t very nuanced or interesting, to be honest, with the actor struggling to develop any meaningful emotional connection with the story as it progresses between concussive action sequences; this isn’t the first time I’ve been less than enamoured with Washington’s talents, with dour turns in Tenet and Beckett leaving me with startlingly dispiriting opinions of his career trajectory. Washington is likeable enough as he struts around in action-man mode here, and he has a sweet chemistry with young co-star Madeline Voyles, but this is yet another film I’ve seen in which he never connects with me as a viewer.
In contrast, Madeline Voyles’ work as the film’s Chosen One analogue is quite wonderful, an a natural and effortless a screen performer as we’ve seen in a long time. Despite being a functional robot, her character has quite an emotional and emotive arc through the film, and the actress has a strong screen presence when the tension ramps up. The film’s supporting roster, including a steely Allison Janney, solid but underwritten Ken Watanabe, and an amusing Sturgill Simpson, make a fine trio of forces around which Washington swirls, while Gemma Chan gets to waft in and out of the story as the somewhat mythical wife lost in a firestorm. Chan is a better actress than this film allows her to be, and since she spends a great deal of time either offscreen or appearing in flashback the connection between her and Washington, and subsequently us, never feels as genuine as the movie asks her to be.
By far the most jaw-dropping aspect to The Creator is the film’s visual effects, all of which look superb and far in excess of a single 80-million dollar production budget – this film looks like it cost Avatar money and that ain’t no lie. The way Edwards’ VFX blend seamlessly into the landscapes and sets is exquisite, and as an exercise in visual world-building it’s arguably one of the most densely packed examples of its kind this decade. I refer again to the various sequences in Spielberg’s AI, a fully fleshed-out (ha) world of depth and realism in which robots live among us, and suggest that this grimy, somewhat fascistic American lawfulness echoes a number of classics of the genre – again, some of the city designs in The Creator looks like they were torn from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – and it really does make you gasp at just how detailed the visual information here is. If only the underlying story was strong enough to support such effort, because it really is fairly bland compared to the world the filmmakers have given it to exist within. The film’s cinematography, by Greig Fraser and Oren Soffer, is sublime, with incredible use of shadows and light, capturing the beauty and horror of this not-quite-too-dissimilar world with precision and crisp realism.
The Creator, much like its robotic creations, might lack the emotional heft it so desperately aspires to but as a work of original fiction, design and storytelling I applaud Gareth Edwards for taking us on a journey such as this. After the Rubicon of Rogue One, Edwards’ career appeared stalled, but if he continues to deliver spectacle such as this, that gives people something to think about or consider – especially in relation to our fascination with Artificial Intelligence – then I hope we get to see much more from him in the future. The Creator might not be perfect, but it’s a journey worth taking.