Written by Tom Augustine.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: in an apocalyptic future landscape, a grizzled and traumatised combat vet must protect a vulnerable child from the many forces that wish to exploit them for some nefarious reason. No wait, stop me if you’ve heard this one: it’s the future, and humans are in conflict with an artificial intelligence that has ravaged society. No wait, stop me if you’ve heard this one: in a world where artificially intelligent beings have become so developed as to be virtually indistinguishable from people, our hero must decide – what makes us human, after all?
If you’ve seen I, Robot, you’ve seen The Creator. If you’ve seen Blade Runner, you’ve seen The Creator. If you’ve seen Avatar, Aliens, The Last of Us, Children of Men, Mortal Engines or yes, Star Wars, you’ve seen The Creator. It’s natural for filmmakers, especially in the blockbuster landscape, to draw from tried and true sources and even story structures – Star Wars famously cribbed liberally from John Carter of Mars – but even against these relaxed standards, the mishmash of derivative borrowing in Godzilla director Gareth Edwards’ The Creator is egregious beyond belief. It’s a depressing situation, particularly because one of the film’s most intriguing selling points is the fact that it is a large-scale blockbuster based on ‘original IP’ – that is to say, it’s a new, big-screen concept, rather than one based on something we’ve seen before. To emphasise how rare that is in the modern landscape – the only other person making these kinds of heady science fiction creations on this scale in the 2020s is Christopher Nolan, as in 2020’s Tenet.
That it is Edwards at the helm here is arguably fair – he’s earned his stripes in the IP wars of the past few years. Following his promising, low-budget debut Monsters, Edwards was fast-tracked to the big leagues, helming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a not-very-good outlier in the Star Wars franchise, in that it’s a standalone offering outside of the main thrust of the central series that actually made it across the line and into a cinema release (for a sense of how rare this actually is, Google the graveyard of scrapped Disney Star Wars films, including Patti Jenkins’ Rogue Squadron film, a trilogy from Rian Johnson, and even a film from our own Taika Waititi). A notoriously tortured production, the film was most notable for its robust action sequences, an attempt to make a Star Wars film that actually feels like a war film. Then came Godzilla, another not-very-good modern take on classic material that again showcased Edwards’ ability as a visualist, delivering striking, monumental imagery over and again – who could forget that iconic, 2001-referencing trailer, with the parachutists falling from the sky into a nightmarish warzone?
A rarity in the blockbuster landscape in 2023, the latest from Rogue One and Godzilla director Gareth Edwards is based on an original concept, depicting a world ravaged by a war between humans and artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, for all the film’s resplendent imagery and muscular visual effects, The Creator is brought down by a script so generic it ironically feels like it could have been written by an AI bot.
Lamentably, The Creator’s claims to originality are misleading. Yes, the world The Creator depicts, its characters both living and artificial, are technically new, but in name only – virtually every idea here has been executed before, and better. John David Washington is Joshua, an ex-military agent in a future world where artificial intelligence has been pitted against the Western military-industrial complex following the detonation of a nuclear weapon in Los Angeles, allegedly from the artificial intelligence humans built to serve them (spoiler alert, I guess – there’s more to this disaster than meets the eye). Undercover in a community of humans and androids in ‘New Asia’, a generically pan-Southeast-Asian landscape where artificial intelligence has relocated as a base after being outlawed in Western countries, Joshua has fallen for Maya, the daughter of the mysterious creator of the artificial intelligence system itself. When Maya is supposedly killed in an attack from Western forces, Joshua returns to the wartorn outskirts of LA, until he is called back into service to help locate a war-ending weapon Maya’s team were developing while Joshua was in their company. The reason Joshua agrees? Footage that shows that Maya may be alive after all.
The weapon turns out to be Alfie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), a humanoid android girl with exceptionally advanced technical abilities – including being able to control all technical systems, anywhere – that develop as she grows older. Yes, for the sake of dramatic stakes, the creators of Alfie apparently built her without all her many capabilities from the outset (because then the film couldn’t happen, evidently). The other thing – Alfie is very cute, and Joshua, whose unborn child died with Maya, naturally connects with her. Is there more to their relationship than meets the eye? You betcha! Thus begins a Heart of Darkness-esque journey to deliver Alfie to salvation from the forces that wish to destroy her – namely American imperial forces. It is here that we are introduced to another wellspring that The Creator liberally draws from – the imagery and iconic texts of the Vietnam War, most especially Apocalypse Now.
So far, so generic. The execution of The Creator is undoubtedly impressive, even as it time and again swerves into the most obvious choice possible. In place of dramatic tension, Edwards packs The Creator with rich imagery and frankly astounding visual effects. As with Godzilla and Rogue One, the sense of being in real locations is second-to-none, and far outpaces the inauthentic and shortchanged look of the CGI you might see in a Marvel offering or one of the Star Wars franchise’s dire television series. Visually, it’s nearly impossible to ding The Creator, so dazzling are the many landscapes, both urban and rural. These landscapes generally feel rooted in Vietnam imagery, particularly in the AI’s rebel alliance outposts, but also astonishing is the rendering of a nocturnal, Tokyo-esque city that bustles with activity. Interestingly, the aesthetic of The Creator most meaningfully recalls the big-budget, star-driven science fiction bombs of the early 2010s like Oblivion or Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (indeed, The Creator often feels like the film Blomkamp never made). Beautiful images do not a good film make, though, and for all The Creator’s visual magnificence, a feeling of box-ticking, by-the-numbers plot procession kicks in early and never goes away.
As Joshua, John David Washington follows up his efforts in Tenet and BlackKklansman by turning in a less-than-convincing performance. There’s a discomfort to Washington’s work, a certain gauzy remove in his eyes from the situations his characters find themselves in. He lacks the ease and volatility of his famous father, which severs much of the emotional power of his burgeoning relationship with young Alfie. He’s not the only weak performance in the roster, though, as Gemma Chan (Eternals, Crazy Rich Asians) as Maya proves a deeply uninteresting presence. Of the central cast, only Allison Janney, as Joshua’s hard-bitten commander, stands out – though even her role feels hilariously derivative of Stephen Lang’s iconic work as Avatar’s big bad Quaritch. As The Creator lumbers toward its big final climax, not only does the film’s lack of surprise or tension begin to mount up, but also the film’s many plot-holes and leaps in logic. These are present from the outset – the abilities of not only Alfie, but the artificial intelligence population at large being a major one – and all-too-quickly call the fabric of the entire project into question. It’s obviously The Point that the androids eat, drink, hurt, sleep and die like humans, but a more interesting film might find ways to push the androids’ humanity without simply aligning them with the actions of everyday people – see Blade Runner, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and so on and so forth. Ironically for The Creator, the story of this film feels so hopelessly borrowed that it might as well have been generated by an AI itself. It’s a dispiriting indictment of the Hollywood machine, if even its original concepts are invariably forced into shapes we’ve seen many, many times before.
The Creator in cinemas now.
Movie title: The Creator (Edwards, 2023)
Movie description: A rarity in the blockbuster landscape in 2023, the latest from Rogue One and Godzilla director Gareth Edwards is based on an original concept, depicting a world ravaged by a war between humans and artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, for all the film’s resplendent imagery and muscular visual effects, The Creator is brought down by a script so generic it ironically feels like it could have been written by an AI bot.
Date published: September 28, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Gareth Edwards, Chris Weitz
Director(s): Gareth Edwards
Actor(s): John-David Washington, Gemma Chan, Allison Channey, Ken Watanabe, Madeleine Yuna Voyles
Genre: Sci-Fi, Action, Adventure, Drama