With disruptive artificially intelligent technologies transforming the shape of our world, 20th Century Studios’ The Creator from writer / director Gareth Edwards seems like the sort of movie that might have some sage wisdom to impart about the dystopian future it sometimes seems like we’re hurtling toward. With its story of a global war between humanity and machines, a messiah figure, and a wealth of captivating visuals, The Creator has all the makings of a classic sci-fi epic.
But despite having the look of robust action / adventure and impressive set pieces to spare, The Creator feels like it has very little to say outside of rehashing a handful of the man versus killer (but maybe friend) robot genre’s bigger tropes.
Set in a war-torn future where new international borders have been drawn to reflect differing stances on the existence of humanoid machines known as “simulants,” The Creator tells the story of how ex-special forces soldier Joshua (John David Washington) is pulled back onto the battlefield years after swearing he’d leave it behind. As an American born decades into simulants becoming integral parts of society as specialized AI-powered workers of all sorts, Joshua understands clearly the shock and terror his fellow citizens felt the day when the machines dropped a nuclear bomb on Los Angeles of their own volition years before The Creator begins.
Image: 20th Century Studios
For many people of Joshua’s generation, the attack on Los Angeles was the end of the world because of how it swiftly led the US (and seemingly most of the Western world) to outlaw artificial intelligence full stop. But Joshua’s reality doesn’t truly begin to fall apart until one of his covert missions goes awry and inadvertently leads to the death of his wife Maya (Gemma Chan) and their unborn child.
Despite opening with a dense info dump detailing the broad strokes of how simulants came to have such a large presence, The Creator makes the curious choice of glossing over any concrete definition of what “artificial intelligence” is in this reality where most everyone seems to still regularly interact with robots or knows someone with cybernetic limbs.
In flashbacks and scenes set in the Republic of New Asia where simulants are still manufactured in secret, The Creator shows you that its world is teeming with the obviously mechanical, delightfully insect-like beings who work as caregivers, cops, and laborers capable of lifting heavy equipment with ease. But while it’s easy enough to understand how The Creator’s simpler, job-focused simulants were created with no capacity to exist (or dream of existing) beyond their basic purposes, that’s not quite true of the film’s more technologically sophisticated androids, which are designed to look, think, and feel emotions like human beings.
Image: 20th Century Studios
By spotlighting early on how many simulants really are just ordinary (nonorganic) people programmed to feel emotions like love and compassion for their families, The Creator’s trying to present you with a taste of the ethical dilemma weighing on Joshua in the present. In doing so, though, the movie telegraphs the predictable emotional beats of Joshua’s journey and raises plenty of questions that never end up being answered, like why the rest of the world seems mostly okay letting the US fly a massive simulant-hunting bombship around the planet.
The movie also never exactly touches on why — common as humanoid simulants are — the existence of one crafted to resemble a child rather than an adult might be notable to trained soldiers. But when Joshua’s sent on a mission to find both the fabled Creator of simulant technology and a new weapon with the power to end the human / AI war once and for all, he’s shocked when his intel leads him to Alfie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), a young girl simulant who has a variety of unique abilities.
As promisingly rich with detail as The Creator’s set design and costuming choices are, those bright spots take a back seat to Joshua and Alfie’s awkward, thorny relationship as the pair are forced to rely on one another for survival. After frontloading its backstory with so much tragedy and illustrating how brutal the US’s war on simulants is, The Creator intends for Joshua’s bond with Alfie — a character whose quietness doesn’t afford Voyles much opportunity to emote — to be its compelling emotional core.
But Alfie’s near-muteness and Washington’s acting decision to consistently come in (temperamentally) hotter than scenes call for make it so that The Creator’s leads are often hard to get a lock on, which makes it difficult to become invested in them as a begrudging team. More than occasionally, a pointed lack of chemistry between Joshua and Alfie keeps The Creator from coming alive, especially as the film drifts into a somewhat family-friendly comedic territory that feels at odds with its otherwise grim and bleak subject matter.
Image: 20th Century Studios
What really ends up making The Creator feel more like an expensively shot proof of concept than a feature from the same filmmaker who directed Rogue One, though, is the jarring way it tries to split the difference between being both a quiet story about grief and the sort of high-octane race that ends up taking you to space. As occasionally moving as The Creator’s framing of Joshua and Alfie manages to be, they’re hard to take seriously with characters running around them saying things like “at full power, the weapon will be able to control all technology.”
Lines like that land with especially leaden thuds here because of how seriously The Creator takes itself and its general message about artificial intelligence being a reflection of its creators rather than an innately malevolent presence. And it’s a shame that those lines are such a big part of The Creator because it’s not all that hard to see how it could have worked as a much stronger, more gripping kind of film.
The Creator also stars Ken Watanabe, Allison Janney, Ralph Ineson, and Veronica Ngo. The movie hits theaters on September 29th.
Source: The Verge