When Gareth Edwards first signed on to direct and write The Creator (originally titled True Love), he cited Blade Runner, Akira, E.T., and Apocalypse Now as inspirations. The astonishingly ambitious The Creator certainly wears those comparisons on its sleeves, but those inspirations ultimately become the albatross around the movie’s neck.
The Creator is a visually stunning but emotionally hollow effort from the Rogue One director that mistakes its inspired vision of a new kind of sci-fi world for greatness. It’s clear that, in its bid to become the first original sci-fi movie in years, The Creator is just a half-baked pastiche of much better sci-fi before it — and one with a much more confused message than it obviously intended.
To its credit, The Creator presents a different version of the AI revolution than the one we’re used to. In the near future of 2070, artificial intelligence has evolved to the point of becoming its own sentient species called “simulants,” androids that look like real people, barring visible machinery in their heads. For years, simulants were a valued part of every household, doing chores, manual labor, and dangerous tasks. They even served as hard drives for the memories of dead humans. But after decades of being treated like lesser beings, the simulants revolted, leading to the launch of a nuclear missile that devastated Los Angeles and caused the United States to declare war on AI.
Now, the United States is on the cusp of exterminating the AI problem with the help of a special ops team led by ex-special forces agent Joshua (John David Washington). Joshua enters the simulant-sympathetic country of “New Asia” to track down and kill the Creator, an elusive AI architect who built a weapon that could end the war. But when Joshua discovers the weapon is a small simulant child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) who may hold the answers to his wife’s (Gemma Chan) disappearance, he deserts his mission to escort the child to her mysterious destination.
Co-written by Edwards and Chris Weitz, The Creator is overwhelmingly dense but curiously spotty. The world is richly imagined and sumptuously depicted thanks to the majestic photography by Greig Fraser and Oren Soffer (as befitting Fraser’s work in Dune and The Batman, all sweeping Asian vistas, shabby futuristic designs, and seamless VFX work). But the story also requires several exposition dumps via ominous news reports, and it weaves far too complicated a plot around what is essentially a rehash of the “lone wolf and cub” trope that’s all the rage these days.
However, it’s The Creator’s innovative element (the depiction of AI as an oppressed race who only want to exist peacefully) by which the film appears to succeed, only to shoot itself in the foot. At first, this reversal of the typical AI revolution seems a masterstroke of creativity — now the robots are the ones that are repressed, and the humans are the oppressors! But in trying to employ the District 9 formula of creating a sci-fi analogy of an oppressed minority, The Creator ends up with a much more muddled, and frankly troubling, message.
Unlike District 9’s more straightforward parallel between aliens and apartheid, The Creator ends up equating AI with the general South and Southeast Asian population, with “New Asia” appearing to be a collection of countries including Vietnam, Tibet, Thailand, and India. In broad strokes, this seems like a profound — even bold — commentary on the bloody legacy of U.S. imperialism. Apart from Joshua (who is still hard to sympathize with for most of the film), the American characters are ruthless and cruel, like capital “E” evil reflections of Michael Bay’s swaggering jingoism of the early aughts. Starry supporting cast members like Allison Janney, who plays Joshua’s commanding officer, are reduced to cold-blooded villains to remind us that America bad! Which is totally well and good, if it weren’t for the unfortunate Vietnam War imagery the film stumbles into.
The vaguely Southeast Asian setting is The Creator’s attempt to cleverly put its own spin on the typically futuristic East Asian setting of the cyberpunk genre, but in the process, the high body count and total massacre of simulants (and their Southeast Asian protectors) make it clear Edwards doesn’t realize the disturbing power of his imagery. There’s a clear thread of nihilism throughout the director’s movies, including Rogue One but little sense of what to do with that darkness. (You can only take so much after a third round of American soldiers mowing down Vietnamese-looking farmers and children.)
Edwards’ problem is that he has a great head for rich worldbuilding but no sense of his characters. Joshua is a thoroughly unlikable protagonist for the majority of the film, and Washington’s stolidly cold performance does not help. The simulant rebels, even the always-dynamic Ken Watanabe, are little more than victims of the film’s ruthless massacres, while the child, nicknamed Alfie, is cute but mostly a talking McGuffin.
There is a massive hunger for original movies right now. You can see it in the fatigue around every new Marvel release and in the surprising triumph of (slightly) smaller, original movies this past summer. The Creator clearly thinks it’s doing something new within a genre that has been overtaken by sequels and IP, and in a way, it is. It’s playing with the conventions of sci-fi — tweaking them ever so slightly as to make them feel fresh and inspired — but it gets so caught up in its remixing of this grimy nu-cyberpunk world that it forgets to give us a reason to care.
In many ways, The Creator is the perfect representation of our originality-starved movie landscape — a film so desperate to be original that it ends up recycling the concepts that better movies have done before, to less potent results.