There is no time like the present to have a science fiction film where artificial intelligence (AI) is the central controversy. Much like Starship Troopers and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, genre film’s flexible necessity to stick to the laws of physics and biology carves out a space to explore unexplored ethical dilemmas on the horizon for humanity. Though AI is now quite commonly used (far more than you might think) there is still a societal anxiety about computers who can deliberate and move forward without us. The Creator takes a somewhat deep look at a possible future living alongside these cognizant comps, and it sure does look pretty while doing it.
Before diving into the film in question, a short look at writer/director Gareth Edwards’ filmography is warranted. His first feature film, 2010’s exquisite Monsters is not only a revelation for creature design, it is an incredible version of a monster movie where you hardly see the monsters on screen, but that is completely ok. The focus on humanity and human drama is so near-perfect the creatures themselves are not needed to carry the film. From there he went to direct Godzilla in 2014 (abysmal) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (better than it has any right being). In The Creator, Edwards steps back into non-franchise filmmaking, but he has not lost his taste for the grand imagery from immense budgets and scope, However, he does so in keeping with his eye for human stories, relating to not always human characters.
The Creator takes place in the near future, when robots have developed far beyond what we know them to be. They make great soldiers and blue collar workers, but that is not all. Extra advanced, AI-powered machines called “simulants” can not only function on their own as independent beings, they basically look like humans. The only major difference in their appearance is missing skin from the back of their neck and ears, which exposes their mechanical bits and a hollow tunnel from side to side. While that might sound major, put a hat on a simulant and you can hardly spot the difference between them and your human neighbors.
All is peachy in this world between machines and man, until a categorical attack destroys Los Angeles and the simulants and behind it. Nearly the whole world bans and eliminates these robots, except China. That country soon becomes a safe haven for escaped and hiding simulants, and a target for US aggression, all in the name of compliance and patriotism.
This set up for the world of the film is rich for different battles and sympathies amongst either side of the Chinese border. The Creator focuses on soldier Joshua (John David Washington) who straddles that border more than he cares to. After losing his pregnant wife while trying to play both sides, he gets sucked back into the army for one last mission. To capture a super weapon named Alpha Omega and stop the destruction of their super-weapon space station Nomad.
Things don’t go as planned, and Joshua once again finds himself behind “enemy” lines fighting for his survival and to finish the mission. It gets even messier when it turns out Alpha Omega is really just a child simulant (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). “Alphie,” as he calls her, is no ordinary AI fleshbag, and she makes Joshua question his allegiances.
With Joshua’s family history and the adorable child in danger, The Creator leans heavily on tugged heartstrings to bring about inevitable character changes. That does not mean that the twists and turns this pair need to suffer through to get to their end goal are any less exciting or well-crafted, but it does feel a bit like an easy shortcut to get the audience to care about unoriginally-developed characters.
Another fairly minor quibble is that The Creator does not really delve into what AI is or how it might actually pose a threat to life as they know it. By posing the allegory between simulants as race or nationality stand ins, the film removes the opportunity to examine the science behind the science fiction in any meaningful way.
But beyond those issues, The Creator is incredible.
The cinematography is beyond overwhelming and gorgeous. Greig Fraser and Oren Soffer deserve to be showered with praise and awards for their vistas and breathtaking wide images of this dangerous world nestled within natural beauty. Shot on-location across many Asian countries, the look and feel of the isolated oasis for simulants makes it easy to get lost in their environment.
The Creator blends these grand, terrestrial images seamlessly with all of the technology cinema has to offer these days. As the camera pans over a field of workers harvesting grain you will catch glimpses of both robots and similants mixed in with men and women. Their presence is rarely called attention to, but the casualness of their inclusion speaks volumes to both their world’s attitude toward them as peers and the sheer artistry of being able to include these purely invented figures within a real setting. Each year the industry’s CGI gets exponentially better, and the imagery in The Creator is a feat to be celebrated.
That visual blend of humanity and machinery also speaks to Edwards’ ability to inject emotions into even the most mechanical creature. While the film is mostly focused on the war against robots and AI, the interactions between the two are the emotional engine of The Creator.
There may be a few teeny hiccups in the characters and plot of The Creator, but they do not take away from Edwards’ magnificent cinematic achievement.
The Creator opens in theatres September 29.