When a movie like The Creator causes an internet stir, ears perk up, and sci-fi fans flock like zombies to the movie theater, starving for brains. There’s no zombie movie here, though. Having directed 2014’s Godzilla and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story two years later, Garreth Edwards returns to the director’s chair with ambitions decidedly removed from his previous franchise works. The Creator, which he made on a notably lower budget, stands apart from any established franchise. It is defined by its attempt to look unique.
The Creator boasts fully rendered VFX shots that look deceptively expensive, shaming the more costly and less impressive Hollywood productions. From its diverse range of designs for the CGI extras, NOMAD, and the giant tanks, to clever applications of brain science technology, Garreth Edwards’ vision for Earth in 2065 is only matched by director Neil Blomkamp’s film catalog (District 9, Chappie, Elysium) that inspired it.
At face value, the film offers some hope for the price of admission. It’s set in the near future, where AI becomes a clear threat to humanity after nuking Los Angeles. Today’s steps toward fully implemented artificial intelligence are enough to make The Creator (and Terminator) feel too much like reality for comfort. Like the sci-fi classics of the past (Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey), The Creator is Edwards’ chance to get us to think with our hearts. After all, our sense of humanity is tangibly at stake, abdicating aspects of life for artificial intelligence to take them up; the employment of AI to do our bidding speaks to how high in value we place intelligence and convenience when it’s our acts of compassion that enrich our lives. Are we “machine men with machine minds and machine hearts” (Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator). Setting up automated systems to make life increasingly undemanding is a slippery slope.
Serving as the emotional anchor is the child “Alfie,” the embodiment of innocence with absolute power. In a clip from the marketing trailer, she asks her human protector, Joshua, about going to heaven, to which he replies, “You’ve got to be a good person to go to heaven.”
Given Hollywood’s crutch for uninspired, soulless prequels and sequels, the fact that Edwards made this movie in the heart of the industry is commendable. That makes The Creator a partially welcome diversion if not a deeply affecting one. As Edwards sets his eyes toward heaven, the question remains: Does The Creator tell a thoughtful story to fill the contours of its inspired aesthetic?
Plenty of Loose Wires
The Creator begins with a prologue to set up the story. There’s a war against artificial intelligence in “New Asia” after a nuclear attack on Los Angeles. Some AI have the likeness of a human being, which is donated by AI sympathizers. The Americans have the upper hand in this war: NOMAD (North American Orbital Mobile Aerospace Defense), a giant space station that launches nukes when positioned above a combat zone anywhere in the world.
The story centers on Joshua, our guy, having fallen in love with a woman who has sided with AI, and she’s pregnant with his child. But surprise – he’s a special forces agent. His team moves in to take the AI-in-hiding, and his wife burns up in Nomad’s nuclear attack. Five years later, his bosses come knocking on his door, and he’s a shell of his former self. He goes on this new mission for only the dangling carrot – seeing his wife again, who mysteriously reappeared in intelligence surveillance footage. But, instead of finding her, he finds an AI with the likeness of a child. To artificially move the story forward, Joshua assumes the role of protector.
That’s where the film steers the story mindlessly to exotic locations so that more eye-popping sci-fi action happens, like giant tanks rolling over entire villages, blowing up trees and houses and little desperate AI guerrilla fighters. Joshua and Alfie coast through this chaos until the plot allows them to escape on a ship to Nomad to disarm its heaven-like arsenal of nuclear hellfire, which Joshua’s wife got caught in during the film’s opening. There’s more flashy, noisy VFX action, and then Joshua gets a final skin-and-bolts (or nuts and bolts) goodbye kiss with his wife. Oh, wait, that’s just an android copy of her with a chip insert containing the last 30 seconds of consciousness. Aw, tear!
The greatest sin this film is guilty of is not matching the apparent talent of child actor Madeleine Yuna Voyles with a story that makes her shine the brighter. Her emotional performance outshines her co-star, actor John David Washington, son of Hollywood heavyweight talent Denzel Washington. Their scenes together, which establish her unique ability to shut down anything in the world from anywhere and her capacity to think philosophically, bear no weight on the plot itself. What’s more, Edwards low-balls on the subject of artificial intelligence with cheap, reductive portrayals of AI behavior. The distinctly human behavior in the faceless robotic androids that populate much of “New Asia” damages the illusion of the film. It feels like a cheap attempt to humanize them for sympathy points. Clunky, robotic, AI behavior to show artificial intelligence attempting to act less artificial would have done more to reinforce the setting and story environment of The Creator. Star Trek did it right with Data in The Next Generation; the android emulated human behavior. But true humanity remained just outside his capacity.
The Final Verdict
Unlike its premise about the demise of Los Angeles, The Creator leaves no lasting impression on the sci-fi genre. It’s memorable for the VFX work, but unaccompanied by an emotional story, the visual effects don’t leave the theater. Philosophical musing is the trademark of good science fiction. Lastly, child actor Madeleine Yuna Voyles’ emotional performance manages what the film itself could not: She made us care, if only for a moment. Maybe having Denzel Washington for a father doesn’t help as much as having a child’s natural talent.