Ambitious Sci-Fi Spectacular The Creator Finds Humanity in Artificial Intelligence
After two successful efforts for Warner Bros. (Godzilla) and Lucasfilm/Disney (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), director Gareth Edwards returns to his small-scale Monsters roots with the bracingly heartfelt science fiction thriller The Creator. But he’s still working on the same large-scale canvas of his previous two franchise endeavors, only now presenting an entirely original story that plays like an intelligently ambitious amalgamation of everything from Blade Runner, Platoon, and The Terminator to Ghost in the Shell and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
And it works. Primarily shot by cinematographers Greig Fraser and Oren Soffer at locations around the globe (with much of the stunning outdoor footage in Cambodia) and with most of the digital effects seamlessly added afterward (utilizing many of the techniques Edwards employed on Monsters), The Creator is mind-blowing from a purely visual perspective. But it is the masterful human saga at the film’s center that makes it special, and even if this story isn’t especially innovative, the emotions fueling the action are so intimately satisfying that they lingered with me for hours afterward.
The setup is sci-fi simplicity: In the near future, humans find themselves at war with the artificial intelligence they invented after an atomic bomb goes off in New York. Led by the United States, Western forces are up against AI rebels and their human supporters based in Southeast Asia. The US military has developed a powerful weapons platform nicknamed Nomad, a missile station located in the Earth’s upper atmosphere that gives the West an almost unbeatable advantage.
Ex-special forces operative Joshua (John David Washington) had been sent undercover behind enemy lines to uncover the identity of the AI’s leader, Nirmata, aka “The Creator,” a human scientist who has been devising a secret weapon that could turn the tide of the ongoing war. But after his wife Maya (Gemma Chan) is apparently killed during an air strike, Joshua begins to wonder if he’s fighting on the right side. Even when Colonel Howell (Allison Janney) and General Andrews (Ralph Ineson) coerce him out of retirement for one last mission, the soldier’s uncertainty remains, especially after he discovers that the AI’s ultimate weapon is an innocent android child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles).
Few would blame Edwards (who co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Weitz) if he had kept things as unpretentious as that synopsis. There’s nothing unwieldy about the road the filmmaker travels to get to his destination. It’s a given how the relationship between Joshua and his new charge will turn out, nor is the link between her, his late wife Maya, or the secretive Nirmata much of a mystery.
But Edwards digs deeper. Taking his cues from Samuel Fuller, Harlan Ellison, and Satoshi Kon, the filmmaker crafts a not-so-thinly-veiled Vietnam or Iraq War parable and crosses it with the technological conundrums the advancements in artificial intelligence production have inevitably led to. He asks about the nature of mortality (and morality) and attempts to examine the impenetrable ambiguities of the human soul. Edwards wants to know if love can transcend death — and doesn’t seem to care one bit if the audience gets angry at him if he refuses to supply a definitive answer.
Not all of the film works, but I have a sneaky suspicion that much of that is by design. Edwards knows his central plot is fairly rudimentary, so he plays fast and loose with some of the connective tissues, trusting viewers will figure things out for themselves. But it also means that, especially in regard to several of the supporting players, few characters make a lasting impression. Outside of Washington, Janney, the always reliable Ken Watanabe (whose character I am not going to spoil), and the spellbinding youngster Voyles, I’d be hard-pressed to recollect what most members of the large ensemble were doing or why it was supposed to matter.
Yet I was okay with all of this. I was in almost continuous awe while watching the film. Even though they share little screen time, Washington and Chan have instantaneous, almost overwhelming chemistry. As for the actor’s give-and-take with Voyles, they make magic. The bond between the pair borders on familial, and the ease in which their patter grows in resonant strength is nearly otherworldly.
Edwards also stages some of the best action sequences of 2023, mainly because he keeps them entirely character-focused. Most of the time, the more astonishing visuals are in the background, the director making sure to keep Joshua, Col. Howell, or some other member of the primary cast at the forefront, since what is happening to them — and by extension to anyone with them — is far more important than the next massive explosion or incredible jolt of digitally augmented razzle-dazzle.
As much as I loved Godzilla and Rogue One, I do hope the director can continue to avoid becoming stranded helming major Hollywood franchises and instead gets to continue to focus on more personal projects. If The Creator is any indication, Edwards shows he has the talent, the determination, and the confidence to at least make a valiant go of doing just that.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3½ (out of 4)