Review: The Creator is high-end, low-tech sci-fi with middling ambitions

Director    Gareth Edwards
Written By    Gareth Edwards, Chris Weitz
Starring    John David Washington, Gemma Chan, Madeleine Yuna Voyle, Ken Watanabe, Alison Janney, Ralph Ineson
Release    28 SEP (US) 28 SEP (UK)    Certificate 12A
Review: The Creator is high-end, low-tech sci-fi with middling ambitions Movie Review


Grade B+

Ali Gray

11th October 2023

Apologetically plonked at the end of the September release schedule like a $100m afterthought, Gareth Edwards' The Creator is a movie that does a lot with a little, although that should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the director's prudent knack of making movies that look twice as expensive as they actually are. His first movie since Star Wars spin-off Rogue One - that rare Disney-era Star Wars feature that is universally beloved - Edwards finds himself back on imperious form, crafting a zeitgeisty tale about the dangers of A.I. that couldn't be more timely if it were written by ChatGPT itself.

After a cutesy intro that establishes the rapid acceleration of artificial intelligence, we quickly pivot from a quirky Futurama-style newsreel set-up into a full-blown T2-esque nuclear war, with man pitted firmly against machine in the 2065 robopocalypse. We are introduced to Joshua (John David Washington), an undercover US soldier hunting A.I.'s heart of darkness in New Asia, where the remnants of the machine population are being harboured. Shacked up with freedom fighter Maya (Gemma Chan), Joshua loses everything he loves when the US military's shiny new missile defence unit NOMAD bombs his love shack and sets him on the road to discover that humans and humanity are not mutually exclusive.

"You have the right to tell me how many images contain stairs"

Edwards unashamedly draws on lots of visual influences here: the bustling hubs of New Asia owe more than a debt to Syd Mead's Blade Runner cityscapes, the angular mech designs feel reminiscent of numerous 20th century anime designs, while the military dropships and weapons have a familiar James Cameron war-mongery feel. However, the look and feel of The Creator is not overly derivative - the juxtaposition of a machine uprising set against the natural beauty of rural Asia feels like uncharted territory for the genre. Edwards has a hell of an eye for a killer visual: there are at least a half dozen shots here so breathtakingly framed that A.I. couldn't hope to replicate an eye as artful as this.

The Creator really just wants to entertain via tried and tested methods
The sci-fi world of The Creator is reassuringly low-tech and fun: this is a story in which 'simulants' can think and feel and love just like humans, but blow a hole in them and they still have little sticky out wires and sparking cables just like you'd expect. Policebots can't compute a grenade being thrown back at them, their legs staggering around minus their top halves like comedy protocol droids. The aesthetic matches the story in this respect, in that although it does purport to tackle Big New Themes like artificial intelligence and mankind's extinction anxiety, The Creator really just wants to entertain via tried and tested methods. These are digital problems with analogue solutions: you might think that an A.I. deity might be hard to defeat, but plot beats tend to be of the 'Bomb X' and 'Kill Y' variety. The simulants haven't even self-evolved enough to outgrow their own off switches.

The cotton bud industry was the first to fall.

Washington is excellent in a fairly rote central role, playing both a burned out war vet ("I've got TV to watch" he says as he fobs off his Army recruiters) and a re-engaged warrior for justice once he goes native. The Lone Wolf and Cub double-act with youngster 'Alphie' (outstanding newcomer Madeleine Yuna Voyles) is by turns cute and affecting, earning the gravitas of its soppy later scenes. It's a shame that Gemma Chan's role feels under-developed, because otherwise Edwards has proven to be extremely adept at tackling a universal sci-fi concept via a small and personal story, sort of like what I think we all wanted Duncan Jones to be. There's humour here too that grounds the lofty concepts - I loved the robotic universal translator coldly telling the US military grunts: "Go make love to yourselves and make love to your mothers".

It's a cliche, but this sort of mid-range sci-fi genre flick doesn't really get made much any more: you sense the only reason The Creator even exists is because Gareth Edwards' propensity for whipping up cheap VFX made the 20th Century Studios finance droids happy. In matching such high-end artistry with shameless popcorn entertainment, however, The Creator holds its own while fighting above its weight class - it has all the heft of a Denis Villeneuve flick and the range of a Ridley Scott movie, while even managing a pretty good Spielberg impression on a shoestring.

It might seem hypocritical that we hate on A.I. for resculpting the uncredited work of others as Edwards has here, but the difference is that The Creator's creator manages to maintain an exciting and unique style all of his own. With heart, humour and confidence, The Creator is more than the sum of its parts, and that's something that cannot be simulated.

Additional observations
- This is the first movie I have reviewed since Summer 2021 and I'm not even sorry.
- [deep breath]... FINCHYYYYYYY!!!
- I grew especially attached to the big dustbin droid that was built like a brick shithouse and was programmed to sprint terrifyingly into enemy territory before exploding - but not before telling his comrades it was an honour to serve with them. I would watch a whole spin-off dedicated to these guys. Trash Patrol.
- The NOMAD hovers ominously in the sky like a big angry Tesla logo, it's a fantastic bit of design that looks like something from an Isaac Asimov book cover, and the bright blue tracking lights it emits are equal parts beautiful and frightening.
- This reminded me a lot of the Animatrix short, 'The Second Renaissance', which I maintain would make an amazing live-action movie. Are you listening, Lana Wachowski?
- Do cult classics even exist any more? Because I think The Creator is probably the closest we'll come to a proper '20s cult classic.

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