Gareth Edwards fancies himself a creator, and by all reasonable standards, rightly so. The director’s low-budget monster/alien movie Monsters got him the necessary attention to direct a much bigger monster movie, the 2014 remake of Godzilla. That gave him some more established IP to play with in one of the most well-received of the last run of Star Wars movies, Rogue One. Now after seven years out of the director’s chair, Edwards is returning to the realm of (mostly) original concepts.
If you want to look at the biblical usage of the word “creator,” though, you think of an entity that breathes the animating spark of life into something. That animating spark is missing from The Creator, the latest Hollywood film to explore the looming menace of artificial intelligence. It certainly feels like a world Edwards has created – with a little borrowed from Star Wars and Blade Runner – but even the things that feel fresh are presented flatly, a condition unfortunately matched by the acting of some compelling stars.
The Creator envisions a world where – stop me if you’ve heard this before – AI has morphed from serving humanity in a cooperative way, making their meals and manufacturing their hardware, to detonating a nuclear weapon in Los Angeles. It’s 2065, ten years after a giant crater become part of the Tinseltown landscape, and AI has been outlawed in the United States. The region of New Asia operates under no such constraints, continuing to construct AI and incorporate them into daily life, as outwardly compassionate fellow members of society on equal footing. Remembering the blast that scarred their identity, though, the Americans are at war with the AI of New Asia, and have an ominous T-shaped craft called NOMAD that patrols the skies and obliterates AI on the planet’s surface with not-quite-nuclear force.
John David Washington plays Joshua, an undercover American agent trying to suss out the location of Nirmata, the all-intelligent human creator of this AI, whose identity is as little known as its whereabouts. He’s deep enough undercover that he’s fallen in love with and married Maya (Gemma Chan), one of Nirmata’s collaborators who may be key to locating this mysterious person. When NOMAD unexpectedly blows his cover, he loses Maya to one of those not-quite-nuclear blasts, and time is running short. Nirmata has a weapon that could ultimately destroy NOMAD, as well as the humans’ last best chance to stave off the inevitably fatal arc of evolution toward survival of the fittest. So think the Americans, anyway.
It might be obvious, given the apologetic tendencies of Hollywood regarding American aggression, that The Creator doesn’t boil down to anything so simple as “AI bad, human good.” Although this region of the world is now called New Asia, we see from a map that the action is taking place in Southeast Asia, with some names of local landmarks suggesting Vietnam to be precise. That makes for a rather pointed notion that stopping the spread of AI in this region is equivalent to America’s similarly quixotic quest to stamp out communism in the Vietnam War era. That may not exactly make it the most relevant modern theme, but the criticism of colonial instincts is always timely, and echoes the socially conscious ideas of immigration/closing borders that were nested in Monsters.
There’s some decent tech here too. There are full-on robots that are only vaguely reminiscent of the battle droids in The Phantom Menace. The AI given human faces are intentionally kept at arm’s length from humanity by their heads featuring a clear view of their whirring gears and computer parts, via a cylindrical tunnel through the lower skull. Then there’s NOMAD itself, which – if we’re already talking influences – sort of resembles those hovering skyscrapers that were so unnerving in Tron.
In short, enough about The Creator is distinct that you’re more inclined to talk about what’s new and imaginative than what recalls previous properties. It’s never possible to fully disentangle yourself from your influences in such a well-worn genre, and Edwards does it admirably enough. The trouble, then, is what he does with this material, or more properly, what he doesn’t do.
The film has serious momentum problems toward its outcome, lacking the stakes to make the action feel urgent from moment to moment. It’s always clear that the goal is to locate Nirmata and the weapon that could take down NOMAD, but that journey meanders through a series of elongated set pieces, few of which have established a specific narrative outcome that is trying to be attained. There are logic problems within the scenes as well, moments where a rule seems to be thrown out there that has never been discussed before, emergences of inconsistences with prior rules. Over 135 minutes, there’s way too much time for a promising start to slow down into a bit of a slog.
We need a good human story to propel us forward, but Washington is a flawed vehicle for that. A talented actor who can be the smouldering centre of a good film, Washington has always been crippled by some miscalculated instincts, and needs a good director to steer him in the right direction. For every success he’s had, Edwards is not that director, as his films have tended to prosper in spite of the acting, not because of it. Washington’s performance here is the latest example of that. He’s going for something, but rarely achieving it, and he has next to no chemistry with the AI child who becomes central to the story, played by Madeleine Yuna Voyles. Allison Janney and Ken Watanabe are the film’s other most recognisable names, but neither makes an impression. The writing they have to work with verges on cheese, particularly at crucial climactic moments.
For the sake of Hollywood’s short- and long-term future, let’s hope The Creator makes more of an impression than this review suggests it should. Every introduction of a new big budget film that’s not based on previous IP is an act of hope and faith and vulnerability, as each serves as a referendum on the very wisdom of continuing to make such films. Even if The Creator whiffs, Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon, scheduled to be released in December, represents a similar sort of risk. A critic never wants to be wrong, but at least being out of sync with audiences would be an excellent outcome here.
The Creator is currently playing in cinemas.