The Creator, the latest film from director and co-writer Gareth Edwards, is a perfect example of what a first class filmmaker can do with bits and pieces of familiar material. Although the futuristic story itself carries with it a sense of timeliness in terms of humans and their relationship with artificial intelligence, most of the story beats in The Creator will seem familiar to anyone well versed in sci-fi. While some of The Creator is sophisticated and philosophical, and other parts are thrilling popcorn movie fodder, it all adds up to a satisfying whole.
The Creator starts off in 2065 – fifteen years after a nuclear blast devastated the city of Los Angeles – and the United States has declared war on all robots and other forms of artificial intelligence, most of them located in The Republic of New Asia, where the use of AI hasn’t been outlawed. Undercover military operative Joshua (John David Washington) has been called back into duty to locate a super-weapon that could be the key to AI winning the war against the human race. Joshua initially wants no part of the mission, because he was emotionally scarred after a previous bit of undercover work to find Nirmata (the elusive, almost mythical human leader of the AI uprising) went horribly awry. He begrudgingly agrees (and doesn’t really have much choice in the matter) because he believes it can bring him closer to finding his lost love (Gemma Chan). Things get emotionally complicated when Joshua discovers that the robot he has been assigned to destroy has taken the appearance of a young, innocent looking human girl (Madeleine Yuna Voyles).
While a plot revolving around robots and their relationships to humans that can grow emotional attachments isn’t anything new – providing the basis for everything from Blade Runner to Short Circuit – The Creator finds a narrative sweet spot, never feeling like a carbon copy and creatively subverting viewer expectations. If you subscribe to the belief that there are really only a handful of original plots that every story spawns from, you’ll certainly appreciate what Edwards (Godzilla, Rogue One) and co-writer Chris Weitz are doing with The Creator. The story and its post-apocalyptic setting aren’t anything new on paper, but in terms of character development and stylistic execution, The Creator is a breath of fresh air amid a blockbuster cinematic landscape littered with subpar usage of stale intellectual properties. (The fact that The Creator cost a fraction of what last week’s thoroughly useless Expen4ables did is mind boggling.)
Visually, The Creator blends breathtaking cinematography with haunting, elegantly composed visual effects. It also retrofits the futuristic setting into feeling a bit like an alternate timeline version of the world, with Edwards nicely leaning into bits and pieces of antiquated technology that wouldn’t feel out of place in the 60s, 70s, or 80s. That ability to look backwards and forwards at the same time, combined with the largely South Asian setting, gives Edwards’ work here subtext that recalls the ill advised American involvement in the Vietnam war, something that’s a lot more pointed and interesting than the current discourse surrounding the movie coming out at a point where the debate around the usage of AI in the world has reached unforeseen heights. The Creator is more pleasingly about the parsing of past mistakes – both personal for the characters and more global in terms of larger implications – than it is about where we see ourselves in the world today.
Edwards moves the plot along at a measured pace, but never to a point of being slow or lethargic. The Creator revels in both emotion and spectacle with equal aplomb, raising questions about its story at every turn. Philosophically speaking, a lot of these questions have been brought up in various forms of media before, but the one that rings loudest is posed in a unique and subtle way: if all things are formed in the image of their creator, what does it mean when those creators have streaks of cruelty and malice in them? Does that give the creator the right to turn on their creation, like Dr. Frankenstein? It’s not so much that the question is an original one, but rather that the steps Edwards takes to address it are well thought out, reasoned, and realized. Even when The Creator tiptoes over the line occasionally into silly contrivances to move things along (try not to ask how some characters can get from one place to another in such a hurry), or when it offers up a twist that’s not so much a reveal but more of a foregone conclusion, Edwards grounds things upon a thoughtful base.
Washington is a perfect fit for Edwards’ material, capable of being both heroic and emotionally wounded with a natural ease, providing further balance for the filmmaker’s unique tone. Washington also has terrific chemistry in his scenes with Chan – who gives her best performance to date here in a smaller, but pivotal role – and especially with young Voyles, who’s a revelation as the childlike Alphie, the robot Joshua can’t decide whether to destroy or protect. But perhaps the most welcome and surprising performance here comes courtesy of Allison Janney, cast way against type as a military leader overseeing Joshua’s mission and clearly revelling in the chance to play a badass and the film’s most obvious villain.
The Creator might not change the cinematic game, but it more than holds its own when placed against some of the genre’s biggest heavyweights. It’s a pleasing bit of mainstream sci-fi-action fodder that values the viewer’s intelligence. It’s a thrill ride when it wants to be, and smart enough to be taken seriously. There’s even a nice streak of wittiness that keeps The Creator from being dour and humourless. Everything feels perfectly put into place in The Creator. Not everything that happens in the film is much of a surprise, but The Creator is such a fine piece of entertainment that it never becomes a concern.
The Creator opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, September 29, 2023.
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