It’s hard to imagine in our era of insatiable appetites for the familiar, but once upon a time a title as IP-driven as “Star Wars” was an original movie without countless sequels, prequels and sovereign derivatives to its name. There used to be an era when “Jurassic Park” hadn’t yet evolved into an elephantine universe, and standalone movies not based on existing films, characters and toys were in regular and prominent rotation in theaters.
On those terms alone, it feels like a miracle that “The Creator” exists today, helmed by none other than Gareth Edwards who directed one of those aforementioned “Star Wars” offshoots in 2016 with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and a fresh take on the legendary kaiju with his brawny “Godzilla” (2014).
It’s an exciting film in that regard, one that introduces a brand-new, impeccably designed world, doing so with such confidence that as soon as it gracefully spreads itself onto the giant screen you buy all its elements inside and out, no questions asked. In other words, “The Creator” instantly feels like a classic old-school sci-fi escapade delivering a thrillingly gorgeous ride, one that is immersive and handsome enough to hide the film’s escalating thematic dubiousness about artificial intelligence elsewhere.
The world of “The Creator” is our very own, to be clear, imagined by co-writers Edwards and Chris Weitz in the near-future of 2060. That fictional near-future where some of humankind (not all) is at war with artificial intelligence for its survival is perhaps nearer to the real world than the writers suggest. But “The Creator” still gives it some 40 odd years for the AI to develop a judgment mechanism of its own and present a real threat to our existence.
It’s all fun and games in the beginning—in a stunning black-and-white sequence that feels like an old-timey newsreel, Edwards provides a mini crash-course on his story’s origins. In the beginning, robots were our helpers, designed to improve our quality of life. But not unlike the ones in “I, Robot,” they evolved in the expense of our impending destruction.
In the States, the total annihilation of Los Angeles is enough for the West to ban all AI. But the Eastern attitudes are different, with its nations developing and furthering AI technology to an extreme. In Asia, robots are human-like creatures and are treated as our equals, an attitude that erupts into war between the West and the East. Strictly aligned with a Western attitude towards AI is Joshua (a terrific John David Washington), working as an undercover soldier in Asia.
He is so emotionless about the robots that he can “turn off” (or “kill,” depending on how you look at it) the robots sans feelings, like he is simply flipping a light switch. You flinch a little in those instances, for the robots really do look like humans, save for their mechanical ears and the emptiness of the back of their heads and necks like they’ve covered part of their skull with an invisibility device. But you also can’t help but agree with Joshua silently—what are these robots, if not machines that run like advanced kitchen appliances?
Joshua gets separated from his wife Maya (Gemma Chan) early on in the film through a stunningly filmed raid. She is dead for all we know, a belief firmly shared by our hero, who leaves his secret post on the heels of the tragedy and returns home. But five years down the line, the opportunity to be in the field again presents itself under the direction of Allison Janey’s Colonel Jean Howell. Turns out an AI mastermind has created a weapon that might help the East win the war and Joshua’s task is to find and destroy this atomic bomb-level decider. He agrees to the mission, only because of Colonel’s claim that Maya is still alive out there somewhere.
The weapon itself is the very reason one should see “The Creator”—a robot child who goes by the name Alphie, played breathtakingly by newcomer Madeleine Yuna Voyles with a gentle touch and a wholesome, melancholic sense of innocence. Her performance is a little human and just a touch mechanical, while being cumulatively heartbreaking and wholly original.
The rapport between her and Joshua while he tries to guard and transport her is also a sensational excursion, flowing through futuristic and fantastical landscapes that draw inspiration from the likes of “Blade Runner,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Dune” and naturally, the “Star Wars” universe. Young performers are usually shaped and guided by their grown-up co-stars. Here, Voyles and Washington feel like they are on equal emotional footing as their respective characters start to understand one another, with Joshua’s predictable change of heart rising to the surface.
While rousing once you start seeing and accepting Aphie’s (and the robots’) humanity, “The Creator” unfortunately ties itself in knots when it comes to its writer’s dissection of the concept of AI. On the one hand, the film raises deeply familiar concerns about the rise of artificial intelligence at a high human cost, anxieties that cut troublingly close to the bone these days when artists are fighting for a machine-free creative future and existence. But on the other, it doesn’t seem to know what exactly to say about AI, either.
In that regard, one wonders if Edwards wanted to tell a story that is chiefly about the fear of the other and miscalculated what making “other” robots would mean. While his film makes sense on that allegorical level, with a narrative about acceptance, inclusion, family and equality, AI doesn’t quite work as the film’s metaphoric geopolitical discord, especially in our time when fears around its widespread applications are legitimate, urgent and shared globally.
Compared to the three-decades-old “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” that understood the dangers of anthropomorphizing AI on a perpetual scale, “The Creator” thematically feels dated (as dated as the use of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” in slow-mo scenes of explosions and catastrophe) and confused at best, about its symbolic use of robots as the outcasts.
You can perhaps forgive all of that murkiness and pin it on the film’s fairy tale-esque nature that dissolves in a touching (if not over-bloated) finale. But even if you can’t look past such glaring miscalculations, “The Creator” will still feel like a visually fulfilling journey that had been worth taking in the aftermath. Nowadays, there is absolutely nothing like it out there.