The creator of “The Creator,” Gareth Edwards, started his filmmaking career teaching himself VFX at home. He’s an innovator on that front, devising ways to generate creepy CG monsters for “Monsters” more than a dozen years ago, then overseeing deceptively massive blockbusters, like “Godzilla,” ever since (deceptive because much of that stunning scale comes from virtual detail added in post). Edwards’ problem all along has been with the human side of his stories — “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” being the lone exception — as the characters often feel like an afterthought and the acting ruptures the reality he’s trying to establish.
“The Creator” introduces an elaborate sci-fi future in which the U.S. Army wages a second war in Vietnam, this time against the perceived threat of artificial intelligence — a timely premise, given the panic over AI getting so much press attention these days. The Vietnam idea feels less inspired, if not downright offensive, as Edwards channels images of napalmed villages and innocent citizens terrorized by American troops (at one point, a soldier holds a gun to a puppy’s head). Technically, America has a beef with the entire Eastern Hemisphere, the message being that America learned nothing from its last conflict on that turf.
Edwards casts as his leading man John David Washington (son of Denzel and star of “BlacKkKlansman”), which should excite fans of “Tenet” while registering as a red flag to those who’ve noticed the actor’s rather limited range. Washington plays Joshua, an undercover Army operative, who’s assigned to locate an incredibly advanced AI weapon, which he’s surprised to find packaged as a 6-year-old girl, whom he names Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles).
Because Alphie is cute, and because her creator is a meaningful person from Joshua’s past, he spends the rest of the movie guiding the robot he was tasked to destroy up to the hovering headquarters — the U.S.S. Nomad — that surveils and mercilessly bombs Asian targets.
This means the emotional core of “The Creator” rests on the shoulders of a star who has just one gear: angry. The rest wants to be “Blade Runner,” but plays more like a cross between “Elysium” (with its floating futuristic fortress and specious political message) and “The Golden Child” (about an all-powerful Asian kiddo in desperate need of protecting).
Alphie, who’s presented as a robot that “grows” as it learns, doesn’t seem nearly advanced enough for a movie set in 2065. We’ll have more sophisticated AI two years from now, though who’s to say if those virtual brains will be as adorable, capable of both shedding and jerking tears as effectively as Alphie.
A retro-style opening newsreel establishes the technological boom — followed by the nuclear one — that got us here: In 2055, America was all about robots. Then an atomic blast went off in Los Angeles. The government blamed the disaster on AI, outlawing the technology entirely in the West. (If you believe robots were responsible, then you haven’t learned anything from establish-a-faulty-premise-then-prove-it-wrong sci-fi movies.)
“The Creator” picks up a decade later. Los Angeles has been rebuilt (there’s even a spaceport that sends shuttles to the moon), but good soldiers like Joshua are committed to eradicating AI wherever it’s being developed and hunting down the “Nirmata,” or godlike inventor of advanced AI. Per the movie’s stereotype-based notions of East and West, the AI labs seem to be concentrated in incredibly lo-fi parts of Asia, like rice fields and scenic karst-studded coastlines — all the better to amplify the clunky colonialist critique.
Early in the film, we see Joshua working undercover and married to pregnant robotics wiz Maya (Gemma Chan). She’s supposed to lead the U.S. Army to Nirmata, but a raid disrupts his assignment. For five years, he believes her dead. A word of advice: Be wary of anything else the movie asks you to believe.
“The Creator” can hardly even keep its premise straight. The script, which Edwards co-wrote with Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) for that special mix of sci-fi and schmaltz, tells us that Americans think AI is dangerous. Never mind that the U.S. Army uses tons of AI tools, from translators to scanners to kamikaze robots. Joshua lost an arm and a leg in Los Angeles, and now he wears prosthetic robot limbs.
So, is AI illegal or not? It’s not worth wasting too much brain power on the movie’s many plot holes, since the “twist” is that AI isn’t bad after all. Humans are. The robots want peace. Only humans want to destroy. As in James Cameron’s “Avatar,” the villains here are the growling warmongers who can’t see that their adversaries have souls.
Approached by Army brass (including Allison Janney, intriguingly cast against type), Joshua learns that Maya might actually be alive. Still looking angry, he embarks upon this romantic mission to find her. Ask yourself: Why would Maya want to see the man who betrayed her? Also confusing: the way animals, like dogs and monkeys, fit into this futuristic war.
Along the way, he finds Alphie. To do what’s right (which involves blowing up the Death Star-like Nomad), Joshua must wrap his mind around the idea that AI are sentient, emotional life-forms. This is a stretch for him, since he doesn’t think of snuffing robots as killing. In his mind, they’re either “off” or they’re “on.” Conveniently enough, all robot cops have the same face (that of actor Amar Chadha-Patel) and come with an easy-to-reach “standby” switch, which means soldiers can either shoot big Looney Tunes-style holes in their chests or just flip the switch and put them to sleep.
Ever since “Monsters,” Edwards has specialized in shooting real-world locations and then embellishing that footage with convincing visual effects. “The Creator” boasts a gritty, immersive aesthetic, captured by Greig Fraser (the MVP DP behind “Dune” and “Rogue One”) and handed off to Industrial Light & Magic, where CGI artists add the sci-fi elements.
That works well enough for the military vehicles and more primitive droids (the ones with heads that look like garage door drives). But a great many of the robots have human faces, and the gimmick is distractingly fake: It’s obvious that we’re watching human actors who’ve had gears grafted onto the [repeat backs of their heads] in post-production, as opposed to robots with lifelike expressions.
This goes for Alphie too. Maya’s special “child” isn’t so much a weapon as a powerful EMP. Her abilities are unclear, and scenes where she holds up her palms to control electronics — or worse, blesses robots with a laying on of hands — feel like cringey examples of Asian appropriation. By the time the movie reaches a mountaintop monk’s retreat it calls “heaven,” it’s hard to take much of anything seriously. Probably best just to set your brains to standby mode and focus on the fireworks.