It feels strange to frame The Creator as an underdog. A science fiction war movie from director Gareth Edwards (Rogue One, the 2014 Godzilla), The Creator has all the markers of a blockbuster: a marquee star, spectacular visual effects, a PG-13 rating, and a bunch of toyetic robots. And yet, in a landscape dominated by recognizable corporate brands, The Creator is a rare original, unknown quantity in the genre world, opening this weekend against the tenth installment of the Saw franchise. It’s not based on a comic book, video game, novel, or toy line with an existing fanbase that can promote it on social media in the absence of its striking cast, and in contrast to Zack Snyder’s upcoming original space epic for Netflix, Rebel Moon, The Creator is not being positioned as the launchpad for an ongoing multimedia universe. It’s just a movie, which puts it at a major marketing disadvantage in the modern movie business. And while it’s being distributed by the Disney (DIS)-owned 20th Century Studios, it’s actually a co-production of the much smaller studios Regency and eOne.
THE CREATOR ★★★ (3/4 stars)
It’s with this context that I want to recommend seeing The Creator—a solid, intelligent, great-looking science fiction film—on the big screen. It is not the messiah of genre cinema; it’s a very good, perhaps great, futuristic epic that will leave you with something to talk about afterwards.
John David Washington stars as Sgt. Joshua Taylor, an American soldier in the year 2070. The US war machine, along with what the film always refers to as “the West,” is hard at work exterminating artificial intelligence in retaliation for the destruction of Los Angeles, 15 years prior. Though disillusioned with the military and wounded by a personal tragedy, Taylor is drawn back into the war on a mission to find and destroy a superweapon being developed in New Asia, the only remaining nation where sentient machines are given safe harbor and the same rights as human citizens. When Taylor’s target turns out to be a robot with the form and the personality of a human child, Taylor and the machine he calls “Alphie” (Madeleine Yuna Voyles in her screen debut) go on the run, pursued by both the ruthless US forces and the AI resistance. The ensuing chase is a blend of Spielberg’s A.I. and Minority Report, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and popular turn-of-the-century cyberpunk anime like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. The tone, color palette, and even a handful of shot compositions, however, are straight out of Rogue One, which will be good news for fans of the divisive Star Wars spin-off film.
Like Rogue One, The Creator is a war movie, and a bleak and brutal one at that. The Creator spends no time hemming or hawing about whether or not we are the baddies. While artificial intelligence is a stand-in for America’s enemies overseas, there is no fictional proxy for our own military, who are depicted plainly as aggressors whose “with us or against us” foreign policy allows them to justify the unilateral invasion of sovereign countries and demolition of labeled terrorists, with little regard for collateral damage. The film’s central conflict has echoes of both Vietnam (particularly given the East Asian setting) and the ongoing War on Terror, with the massive NOMAD sub-orbital weapons platform looming ominously above, a manifestation of the constant threat of drone strikes. There is no effort to dress up or tone down the senselessness or cruelty of war. Soldiers and civilians, man and machine alike beg for their lives and mourn over comrades. The unfiltered misery of the combat is so pervasive that the film’s occasional swings at traditional action-adventure levity seem out of place. Regardless, though “fun” isn’t the first word I’d use to describe The Creator, moments in which villainous characters received their comeuppance elicited cheers and laughs at my screening.
There is, however, a good deal of warmth to balance out The Creator’s sense of loss. The film’s working title was True Love, and it’s as much about the longing for connection as it is about destruction. The familial chemistry between Washington’s wiseass soldier and Voyles’ precocious “simulant” is immediate and palpable, even when the script doesn’t justify it as effectively. Taylor as a character floats by largely on Washington’s charisma; he spends most of the story motivated purely by self-interest, but still reads as a hero thanks to his actor’s innate likability. Voyles makes a terrific debut in a role whose sweetness could easily throw the film off balance. And veteran character actor Allison Janney is, predictably, excellent as the cutthroat Colonel Howell. Co-stars Gemma Chan and Ken Watanabe don’t get quite as much to chew on, but the film is so packed with memorable bit parts and minor characters that their slight roles would not feel noticeable had they not been filled by such recognizable actors. Lesser-known supporting players such as Amar Chadha-Patel, who plays a mostly silent but instantly striking simulant character, leave the sort of impression that, if part of a major franchise, would probably spawn a tie-in comic or at least a deluge of fan art.
It’s remarkable that The Creator actually rises above the production standards of most big brand genre fare, particularly given that this effects-heavy war film was produced for a relatively modest $80 million. That’s less than half of what Rogue One cost, and its action, environments, and digital characters look every bit as good. Director Gareth Edwards, a former visual effects artist who made his debut feature Monsters for $500k, sought to apply the principles of low-budget indie filmmaking to a studio production, shooting on location using high-end consumer-grade equipment and enhancing real environments and actors with visual effects rather than building from scratch. Cinematographer Greig Fraser, who won an Oscar for Dune, achieves a similarly lived-in future here, again, at half the cost. Edwards told Variety that he hopes that The Creator inspires more studios and independent filmmakers to take chances on ambitious genre projects, knowing that they don’t have to count on a billion-dollar gross to turn a profit.
If there’s a complaint, it’s that The Creator’s robot allegory feels out of step with the current conversation about artificial intelligence. While AI has long served as a narrative device through which to explore scientific overreach or the exploitation of marginalized peoples, today it’s a tool of exploitation, by which corporations like 20th Century Studios’ parent company hope to cut costs and hoard profits. At the present moment, debates about the ethics of giving birth to sentient AI feel trivial compared to the urgent matter of replacing humans with machines that, so far, can’t actually think for themselves. In the context of the film, it’s an act of kindness for a human to “donate their likeness” so that simulants can wear a friendly face, but one of the very reasons that the cast of The Creator has been on strike is to prevent studios from scanning background actors’ faces and using them in perpetuity without consent or compensation. What “AI” means in these two cases is totally different, but the language is the same, and that creates complications for the audience that didn’t exist as recently as ten years ago.
In all honesty, seeing what modern language learning models can and can’t do has made me less afraid of the robot uprising or the human backlash against it than I’ve ever been in my life. I do not lie awake at night wondering whether the Internet will gain sentience, or whether mankind will doom itself by trying to deny it the dignity owed to all sapient life. In recent months, I’ve been far more worried that the people in charge of media conglomerates will decide it’s not worth risking $80 million on a new story when they can have a computer spit out another chapter in a franchise based on the 50 that already exist, and that audiences will thank them for it. If the news of a forthcoming agreement between the AMPTP and the WGA has eases the fear that studios will replace new stories (and pesky humans) with artificially grown narratives, there’s a part of me that worries whether or not audiences are willing to invest in the new and unproven. Does an original film have to be life-changingly great to earn the same $16 as a mediocre entry in a familiar franchise? Will audiences — particularly those young enough not to have seen Blade Runner or entertained anti-imperialist thought, and therefore most likely to find The Creator fresh and exciting — be willing to give it a shot?
As Vulture’s film critic Bilge Ebiri tweeted last week, “When we’re finally replaced by A.I, it won’t be because A.I. became more human, it will be because we became more robotic, predictable, and monotonous.” If we, as an audience, want to see more new and ambitious stories, we have to be willing to take a few risks ourselves.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.