The Creator begins with a title card and the textbook definition of a “Nirmati.” Nirmati is a Nepalese word, as well as the film’s own jargon-y term, for “creator.” As in the architect of artificial intelligence. This is a nifty bit of world-building for the movie. From the jump, we are immediately keyed into a crucial bit of minutiae while also having our toes dipped into the sci-fi movie’s pool of immersion. Yet when that pool turns out to be an ocean, and every nook, cranny, and robotic exoskeleton invites the audience to sink or swim in this vast vision of tomorrow, one wonders if the film might’ve been better served by starting with a glossary. It certainly could have helped what is an otherwise detached, and curiously shallow, story.
As director Gareth Edwards’ first film after the troubled production of Rogue One, the filmmaker and one of that picture’s screenwriters, Chris Weitz, have essentially opted to remake the themes of Star Wars, American style. With a pointed and intentionally blunt metaphor about the hypocrisies of American imperialism, Edwards and Weitz’s tale predicts a 21st century that looks an awful lot like the 20th, only now American GIs are wiping out robotic AIs and simulants (think Blade Runner’s replicants) in the jungles and rice fields of Southeast Asia, and the drones they use have all the power of a nuclear bomb—or Death Star.
It’s a bold idea, one that’s as big as the film’s passion for building a global dystopia populated by innocent A.I.s and oppressive governments. The obsessive level of craft on display to realize it borders on the fetishistic. But for all that ambition, the narrative this world-building is hung on is muddled enough to suggest that no one could quite figure out what it was supposed to mean or be about, even in the editing bay.
What they settled on is the fractured journey of Joshua (John David Washington), an American espionage officer and true believer of the cause, which is to wipe out all artificial intelligence after a rogue A.I. detonated a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. When we meet Joshua, he’s been undercover for months in the A.I.-friendly land of New Asia, a Southeast Asian paradise that should be as menacing to the West as Vietnam was in the 1960s (read: not at all). Complications arise, however, when his pregnant wife, the A.I.-loving daughter of a nirmati, Maya (Gemma Chan), discovers he’s a double agent.
The pair separate, brutally, and five years pass. Now bitter, alone, and increasingly more machine than man with a synthetic arm, Joshua is convinced by an overzealous war hawk, Allison Janney chewing scenery as Col. Howell, to get back in the shit. For Howell, it’s a chance to use Joshua’s set of skills to find New Asia’s secret weapon, an A.I. that’s rumored to be so powerful it will bring down America’s world-dominating source of supremacy, a floating air base (or Star Destroyer) that resides in the atmosphere. From there, it can rain hell down on any target around the world. However, for Joshua the mission is really a chance to find his wife. What neither the spy or his CO anticipate is Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), a five-year-old simulant they discover behind enemy lines. She’s also about the same age as Joshua’s daughter would have been…
The Creator is a movie this reviewer desperately wanted to like. An original and highly audacious science fiction epic that wears its references on its sleeves—particularly Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai—the film is a unicorn within the Hollywood system of the last 10 or 15 years. This is a big-budgeted, auteur-driven swing for the fences. Unfortunately, if it connects at all with the ball, it’s as a foul drifting into the stands.
Where the movie works is in the clear, meticulous thought that went into developing its hellscape. This ranges from little details about how A.I. has changed humans’ religions 40 years on, to the subtle allusions that signal continued American dominance—such as a mixed-media future that echoes the 1950s came back around in the 2050s, and that far away lands still watch Western cartoons celebrating the U.S. government’s air base of death as if they were syndicated reruns of G.I. Joe.
And of course there are the A.I. characters themselves. Using a sophisticated blend of practical prosthetics and subtle CGI, Ken Watanabe and young Voyles’ exposed skulls, which in the rear reveal a mixture of metal and bulletproof glass, is as believable as it is faintly disquieting. For a certain breed of genre aficionado—the kind who adore sci-fi stories or anime series purely for their aesthetics and style—this will be enough to distract from how truly synthetic the movie built around those characters is.
Stories about sympathetic A.I.s as the heroes or victims, and humans as their emotionless oppressors, have been ubiquitous since at least the days of one of The Creator’s other big influences, Blade Runner. However, even as we stand on the precipice of A.I. actually at last disrupting our world in ways folks never dreamed of, The Creator brings nothing innovative or engaging to that allegorical table. Despite the film’s intense commitment to a grounded verisimilitude, we nonetheless have a film still as simplistic as Star Wars; it’s a tale about the good guy rebels versus the evil empire, only the hero this time must recognize he’s on the wrong side.
Which is fine. It’s been nearly 50 years since George Lucas pivoted the sci-fi genre in cinema away from intellectual exploration, transitioning it instead to an emphasis on emotional illumination (or manipulation). Yet The Creator remains as coldly metallic as the back of Watanabe’s head, leaning on tired story beats that it manages to stumble over every time. Washington is an actor who can exude warmth and charm, look at his performance in BlacKkKlansman for proof. But like Tenet before it, The Creator saddles him with a cipher of a protagonist, although it’s worse this time around because Joshua’s bland remoteness is unintentional.
The film spends 30 minutes on table-setting and narrative false starts while essaying why Joshua is so glum, but the picture barely spares a minute to invest any meaningful development of fatherly affection between him and the robo-child he must ultimately decide to protect. And while the film enjoys a luxurious 133-minute running time, one senses sequences explaining some of Joshua’s choices, particularly near the end of the film, have been excised for expediency. If that’s the case, the film got to the finish line faster, but with a limp.
Stories about our species creating a more humane and empathetic intelligence out of inanimate objects has an obvious appeal that dates back to Mary Shelley. Humans can be selfish, greedy, and cruel. Surely, if we could program our heirs and successors, they would at last live up to the lofty ideals and aspirations we set for ourselves and then miss. Sometimes, though, a toaster is just a toaster, and an artificial intelligence weepie is just artificial. There really is no heartbeat under all those bells and whistles.
The Creator opens Friday, Sept. 29.