Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Chris Weitz and Gareth Edwards
We can be too ready to extend sympathy to the hardscrabble underdog, and I at least wish people could fake it better. Case in point, The Creator, which has earned Gareth Edwards a heap of praise that's backhanded as all hell, expressing satisfaction that, seven years after he quietly exited Rogue One during its post-production, he could come to some kind of rapprochement with Disney by way of 20th Century Studios to make a new movie that managed to approach tentpole levels of special effects on a budget of only $80 million. Certainly, this much praise is due: Edwards ran a tight ship, marshaling location shooting and practical sets, and, as for this director's particular calling card, the CGI, The Creator was obviously made with the discipline you'd expect from a guy who once did a whole movie's VFX on his personal laptop, sticking to the storyboards of the shots and the pre-visualization of the VFX rather than sending the VFX companies a stack of uncontracted-for surprises to "fix" (plus, so I've heard, there are actually fewer VFX shots than it feels like while you're watching it). All of this stands in repudiation of the modern ethos of remaking movies three or four times while in the middle of shooting them, which is maybe the single biggest reason that so many Disney and Warners special effects tentpoles wind up looking like trash, being dumb as fuck, and feeling like the same old shit you've seen before, despite costing $200 million apiece. So Edwards does deserve some backhanded congratulations for boldly proving the proposition that, in 2023, you actually could still make a special effects tentpole that's dumb as fuck and feels like the same old shit—and even looks okay!—for way less than $200 million.
To be clear: I don't despise The Creator for being same-old. "So this is 'original'?" is not the sarcastic question I'm going to build an argument around, nor am I going to make strained puns about whether The Creator is all that creative. (I'm not even going to ponder whether its standard approach to its standard subject—how readily humans can fall short of humanity when they're threatened, in this case by the machines we've made in our image—might've been ill-timed, arriving in the same year that "actual" AI, that is, programs capable of slopping words and pictures together just like a real boy, began to manifest a legitimate threat to human livelihoods. I'll only spare a moment to remark how utterly stuck in a future past this makes The Creator feel.) "Unoriginality" simply can't be the priority here, though, even if that complaint is damn near objectively valid, so that the film's single most interesting visuals are just inversions of one of James Cameron's more horrifying images, asking "what if the giant genocide tanks were the humans rather than Skynet, and, also, if the US Army switched its font to Helvetica?" Heady stuff, but no: it's not that I've seen so many versions of this before. It's not even that I've seen better versions. It's that this version sucks so much.
So: in some near-future year, humanoid robots are more-or-less perfected, and they begin to take their place in society. Some time passes during Edwards's introduction to his world, a montage that's probably my favorite thing in his movie—I'm not sure it actually helps settle you into it, because if anything it's disorienting, pitched as retro-futurist kitsch within the formal signifiers of mid-20th century industrial propaganda—but the frictions between robots and humans increase, until the robots drop a nuclear bomb on Los Angeles. Well, take that, Adam Conover.
America (referred to as "the West," but they mean "America") declares AI illegal. But it's already proliferated, and while The Creator is distractingly, deafeningly silent on how the rest of the world responds in its bid to keep its story as featurelessly smooth as the surface of a windless pond, the recently-confederated states of "New Asia" instead embrace AI, leading to an American... invasion? Let's get back to it. Whatever it is, America sends Sgt. Joshua Taylor (John David Washington) on a deep undercover mission to get close to "Nirmata"—"the Creator"—a pro-AI terrorist scientist. Thus does he seduce Nirmata's daughter Maya (Gemma Chan), even wedding her and impregnating her. The other shoe drops: in an operation gone wrong, Joshua loses his wife and his unborn child to his own side, and subsequently spends a further set of years stewing in grief and resentment until he is again asked by his country (mainly Allison Janney) to take another crack. The deal is sweetened by the revelation that Maya didn't die. And so Joshua accompanies the mission to a secret New Asian science base, but he finds neither Nirmata nor Maya there; what he discovers instead is the creature he'll dub "Alfie" (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), bearing the seemingly-innocuous form of a human child yet possessed of great power—the robots' ultimate weapon. Joshua only cares about Maya, so he takes the "child" for himself to get to her. But, along the way, is it possible that Joshua will find his humanity in this machine?
Yes, it's possible, though until the last four sentences, I was dealing with the first five minutes, which wins The Creator points for efficiency, at the cost of being slightly confusing, which isn't that a big deal, and of suggesting a much more interesting movie that's ended before this one properly begins, which is. The "confusing" part isn't just how it's told, however, but what's being told, and it kicks off pretty much as soon as backstory starts being laid out, beginning with the absolute refusal by Edwards and co-writer Chris Weitz to contemplate any of the various questions that are already popping into your head ("send someone who speaks a local language or would at least be willing to learn one? that's just what they'd be expecting us to do!"), and even the huge question, "what draws Maya and Joshua together?" is answered with a film-encompassing null response. This isn't the sensation you want from your transportive science fiction film—that the movie is built completely out of questions that never occurred to its screenwriters—and it only accelerates. You could shout yourself sick declaring your Butlerian jihad on The Creator: this isn't, as is often the case in sci-fi, simply the one big stupid thing that you need to get past to enjoy it. I don't know if it'd be enjoyable in any case. But the stupid things just never stop.
I don't like to use superlatives, but it's awfully hard to think of a more sputteringly-incomprehensible work of sci-fi world-building, certainly not one that simultaneously wants you to notice its world-building above all else, but also seems so amazingly disinterested in its substance. It's capable solely of evoking, and the emptiness beneath those evocations is palpable. Edwards, for instance, is thunderingly proud of his big-ass symbol for American imperialism, the USS ACRONYM (or NOMAD, and I hate it, especially when "USS Shangri-La" is sitting there collecting dust). It's an orbital missile platform, calculated to trigger visual associations with a B-2 (or Super Star Destroyer), except thousands of times larger (than the B-2, that is), so large that despite being all the way out in space it looms in the sky like a floating mountain. And, like, I'm not even going to mention that this is a ridiculously silly idea, because I will accept that it looks cool. But I am going to be bored if looking cool in the same way, over and over, is it, and that "looking cool" represents the very maximum extent (not, for that matter, even the usual extent!) of Edwards's imagination regarding the shape of future geopolitics, despite his movie being 131 minutes of future geopolitics. 131 minutes, and yet I do not know what this "war" is, or even if it's "a war." New Asia doesn't treat it like a war. When the Americans land in the environs of Alfie's base—boasting an absence of support that already makes it feel decidedly low-intensity—they're met by the police. At no point does New Asia appear to even have a military. At numerous points, I asked my screen what was happening, sometimes more forcefully than others, like when Edwards left it up to some geographically-whimsical VFX artist to define the borders of New Asia, terminating, curiously, halfway through Uttar Pradesh. There's a part where a random motorist gives this obvious American soldier a lift to town in his family van. "What does this guy think the political situation is?" I wondered, and I suppose I will continue wondering, insofar as the connective tissue that should bridge this scene to the next is replaced by editing so clumsy that I earnestly thought the Hulu presentation had accidentally skipped a scene.
It's so unbearably muddled, and that muddling attaches to every second we spend in this so-called "New Asia," this phony-ass political entity that is never resolved into a peer adversary like China, or a client state like the Republic of Vietnam, or a resentful quasi-ally like Pakistan, or even just a plain-and-simple fucking place, rather than just this sterilized mush of Vietnam War movie images that, sometimes, have robots in them. My kneejerk response to that is "wow, these sure are some up-to-the-minute references," though one's annoyance with it runs deeper.
This is before we get into the appropriateness of this allegory: AI and automation are, after all, actual things that have their own real-world consequences; and I could go on for a little while about how bizarre it is that Edwards fixed on Vietnam instead of, oh golly, I don't know, Japan, a county that has offered up a whole array of sci-fi templates we could use regarding how their culture relates to technology (whereas it also offers up this movie its most important Robo Cong fighter, in the form of a potentially never-more-ineffective Ken Watanabe), and it does all this without ever once seeming interested in its setting beyond postcard images. And that's one of the shittiest moves The Creator makes: it does not, in fact, have a vision for "New Asia," nor a vision for how or why these cultures, or even a made-up movie culture, have managed to forge an alliance with AI, or what "an alliance with AI" means, so indifferent to exploring this that you could just as easily assume the New Asians were terrorized into compliance by AI, or just managed to keep them enslaved, or opted for a "well, the scorpion probably won't sting my back" betrayal of humankind. (It's eventually revealed that the L.A. nuke was a human coding error, whatever that means, and while the person who reveals this would not seem to have any way of knowing this, and would be biased enough to spin a conspiracy theory, what no one contradicting him means is that we can't even have that much complexity.) I'm pretty sure, anyway, that human Asians in this movie have a quarter as many lines as robots pretending to be Asians, and that's not necessarily bad, but it underscores how The Creator exists solely for the superficialities of robots dressed in human faces, human clothes, human cultural signifiers, and human religions. "Robots are Buddhists." That's an idea! You now have as complete an understanding of what that idea entails as if you'd watched this whole movie.
Of course, The Creator's robots can be just folks quite readily, because it never actually treats them as anything else—airgapped bipedal criers who eat ice cream, so just fucking people—and so we might have the single least imaginative movie about robots ever made. I don't know why we built these robots, because they're as useless as human beings. There's a part where another American soldier wrestles a robot, mano a mano, and the soldier wins. The most "robotic" thing about the supposedly respected cyber-citizens of New Asia is that they're built with off-buttons.
And all that, that's top-level, conceptual stuff, not even getting into form or action movie bona fides, let alone story; but that's the exhaustingly shallow experience The Creator is, its own Cinema Sins video. So, form: there's sort-of a bright spot here, in Greig Fraser and Oren Soffer's cinematography, caveated by Edwards's arbitrary decision to shoot his film in the unusual 2.76:1 Ultra Panavision ratio, and the results are not Ben-Hur or The Greatest Story Ever Told, with Edwards rarely modifying any of his 2023-standard blocking and shot scales to compose for an old-fashioned aspect ratio. Its squashed thinness winds up an active detriment, given the preponderance of basic, not-especially-well-framed close-ups and shot/reverse-shot conversations; I watched it on a television, but it's detrimental in ways that go beyond the hyper-letterboxing, considering how much I noticed it. Edwards's reason was likely NOMAD, its wide, thin menace going well with that wide, thin slice of screen; but it doesn't work on behalf of much else. (Edwards's historical talent for iconic imagery is really not much on display here.) The cinematography itself, however, is neat, a digital job that wants to evoke shot-on-film 70s and 80s movies about Vietnam, without pretending like it's been shot-on-film, so that the whole thing has this hot, metallic cast, a fine trick for a movie about future robots.
That's it for serious compliments about this movie, I'm afraid. As for the remainder of "form," we have the rest of the movie's design, and I feel that human-cyborg relations might be improved a skosh if the "simulants" just put full fucking skins on their heads, rather than walking around with big holes in their skulls in service to Edwards's try-hard uncanniness. Those vaunted visual effects are good, at least—we've got some solid-feeling robots here—though I might be more impressed than anything by the way thunderclouds in the digital skies interact with the photography. As for "action filmmaking" and "story," though, they're heavily intertwined, and in baleful combat with each other, particularly in the way that Edwards's lazy construction of his story almost invariably makes his action-thrills worse (I already mentioned the robots having off-switches, but not that one of these robots is switched off while he's sleeping). Anyway, the average action scene will include at least one part where you yell "just shoot him already," and I believe I counted just the one action beat that felt inspired. It involves none of our principals, but a macaque. And it's filmed like a joke, in a movie that can't do jokes, or accommodate anything but the most po-faced tones, though, bless it, it sometimes tries.
A lot of that action revolves around Alfie's powers—she's been given dominion over machines, and if you asked "oh, like she can hack the mainframes?", you're overthinking it, this sci-fi robot has magic, which she activates by making a "prayer" gesture that Edwards is fixated on and gets tedious by the second time he's shown it. The obligation to make a rollicking actioner out of this notionally-cerebral sci-fi meditation, however, means the story, or "story," has to be shoved into the smallest possible compartments. Take the thematic centerpiece of the film, showcased in the advertising, about heaven, good people, non-people: it comes out of precisely nowhere, and is exactly as long as it already was in the trailer. It's a special case of what's happening throughout, this "grand emotional journey" shoved brutishly through every one of its foreordained waystations exactly in the order and ways you expect. Clearly, there are an endless number of sentences I could write about this movie that begin, "I don't know," but the worst is "I don't know why he cares."
I've never been in the anti-Washington camp (I liked him enough in Tenet, where he arguably has even less to do), but I'm wobbling. I don't even know what "good" would look like here, with the instrumentality that is Joshua; there are moments of levity, that don't really feel like they belong in this movie, but they're the moments where Washington's performance at least feels like it belongs in a movie. So Washington isn't selling me on caring, but neither is poor Voyles, who's modestly awful: she's so cute, and that in and of itself feels like Edwards giving up immediately on anything but the laziest version of this. "Don't you empathize with this thing that has the semblance of a child?" Exactly: this character and Voyles's performance of that character feels like a fucking put-on, the exact kind of thing an AI would do when it has an understanding of human stimulus response and no understanding of our bottomless capacity for paranoia and resentment. This is no Haley Joel Osment, who knew how to be a robot, and I suspect Voyles would be cloying even if she were playing a girl. Even in the one real "acting" beat she ever gets, in the very final shot of the film, you can clearly perceive Edwards on the other side of the camera giving her prompts while she mirrors the showy, complex facial expressions he wants her to make. I don't want to rewrite this bad movie (I truly do not), but just making the weapon a duplicate of Maya might have at least begun to solve both the problem of the movie ignoring its own world-building and the problem of Joshua's absent personality. And while you might well say, "you want it to be about a robot duplicate of his dead wife? what a ridiculous cliche," don't get ahead of yourself. It's miraculous how continuously this movie's stupidity can escalate.
What this leaves is me wondering what this movie even does for 131 minutes. The insult that comes to mind, as boring and mechanical as the movie I just watched, is to ask if Gareth Edwards really put his money where his mouth is, and had an AI write his AI propaganda. And yeah, that joke's lousy. But, honestly, I'd respect his movie more if it were true.