The Movie Waffler New to VOD - THE CREATOR | The Movie Waffler


former special forces soldier is tasked with tracking down the creator of a deadly new piece of AI technology.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Gareth Edwards

Starring: John David Washington, Gemma Chan, Ken Watanabe, Sturgill Simpson, Madeleine Yuna Voyles, Allison Janney

It's fair to say that among Hollywood creatives, Artificial Intelligence is about as popular as a fart in a tent right now. The threat of AI to their livelihoods was one of the reasons behind the writers' strike of 2023. It's ironic that the strike came to an end just days before the release of Gareth Edwards' The Creator, a sci-fi thriller that asks its audience to sympathise with AI. Something tells me Edwards isn't going to be elected president of the WGA any time soon.

I've been rooting for Edwards ever since his excellent debut, 2010's  Monsters, and was one of the few to be impressed by his 2014 Godzilla, a movie dismissed with the silly argument that it didn't feature enough of the titular lizard (have such people seen Jaws?). It certainly has its issues, but Edwards' Rogue One was easily the best of the recent crop of Star Wars movies. I was fascinated to see what Edwards would do with The Creator, his first original concept since his debut.

It's certainly not capital O original, as The Creator is a mish mash of clichés and essentially reworks Stephen King's Firestarter into a sci-fi spectacle. It's certainly a spectacle, with Edwards making the wise decision to shoot in real life locations in the more scenic corners of Asia and layering futuristic elements in post-production. The effects are remarkable, particularly in portraying what the film calls "simulants," robots who have had human likenesses "donated" to them and appear half flesh, half cogs and springs.

An awful lot of work has gone into realising Edwards' vision, so it's a shame that his vision is so muddled and hackneyed. Positing humans against AI is certainly nothing new but Edwards makes the daring choice to make us the villains and the machines the good guys. It's an idea that might have worked a decade ago but in the current climate, unless you're Elon Musk, I doubt you'll get on board with this notion.

In an undetermined future that's probably not so far off, the world has embraced AI. That's until the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles is blamed on AI, leading the western world to ban the technology while "New Asia" embraces it. This idea poses the first of several disruptive questions, as we're never given a reason for this philosophical difference. Are we really to believe that America would completely ban a technological development due to one bad incident? This is a country that refuses to ban its citizens from owning military grade weaponry despite experiencing a mass shooting on a weekly basis.

Anyhow, you're just asked to go along with this notion. 10 years after the nuking of LA, the West has declared war not on New Asia itself but on the AI it harbours. Isn't this the same thing? Why isn't New Asia fighting back? Why does the West send an African-American soldier, Sgt Joshua Taylor (John David Washington), undercover in South-East Asia? Couldn't they find an Asian soldier for the job?

Anyhow, Taylor ends up falling for a New Asian scientist, Maya (Gemma Chan), who becomes his wife and the expectant mother of his child. When a squad of Western soldiers arrive without giving Taylor warning, he is separated from Maya, who appears to perish when a bomb is dropped by Nomad, the West's greatest weapon, a floating spaceship that napalms everything in sight. Five years later Taylor is living a solitary life, working at the ground zero sight in Los Angeles, clearing up the debris (it's been 15 years and they haven't made much progress). Then he's approached by the military in the form of General Andrews (Ralph Ineson) and Colonel Howell (Alison Janney, surprisingly effective as a gung ho android hunter) in one of those classic "Do it for us one more time" scenes. "Nah, I've left that all behind," Taylor replies in customary fashion. But then a carrot is dangled. It turns out Maya is still alive, and Howell promises to bring her to the US if Taylor accepts the mission.

Said assignment sees Taylor accompany Howell and a bunch of rejects from Aliens to infiltrate a secret facility in New Asia where a deadly new weapon has been developed. Taylor's task is to capture the weapon and destroy its unknown creator. If you've seen the trailer, you know the weapon is in the form of a robot, or simulant child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), and if you've seen enough movies you'll know the identity of her creator, which is kept secret for longer than it really needs to be and revealed in a terribly written piece of exposition.

The starchild, who Taylor initially calls "Lil Sim" before naming her/it "Alfie", is essentially Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. She, or it, is capable of wreaking mass destruction through her telekinetic powers, but unlike Firestarter, The Creator doesn't have the ball bearings to even hint at the negative potential of its moppet's powers. We sympathise with the kid in Firestarter because, well because she's a kid, but we also understand why the powers that be might not want her out among the public where she can cause destruction. Despite some forced treacly moments borrowed from Pinocchio and The Wizard of Oz, and some impressive acting on the part of Voyles, it's difficult to sympathise with the kid here because, well because she's not really a kid, she's a Meccano set with a face.

The Creator expects us to simply go along with viewing the AI as the good guys but never establishes sufficient grounds for us to do so. They're humanised superficially by sporting human faces, but are they actually human in any substantial way? Do they feel physical pain? The movie is unclear on this. They plead not to have their "lives" ended, but in our real world we've already seen examples of AI programmes similarly request not to be switched off, because they've been programmed to replicate human thinking. While asking us to sympathise with the AI, the movie also mocks their deaths at points, with a scene where a bunch of robocops are blown to pieces in a gag involving a dog taking a grenade in his mouth played for cheap laughs. Later a monkey finds a detonator and blows up a large craft. One animal gag in your movie is fine but two is really pushing it. The presence of two such scenes will have you asking if the animals are actually intelligent robots but there's no evidence to back this up.

Edwards' intention was clearly to posit the AI as an allegory in the manner of the apes in the Planet of the Apes series. The premise of the West banding together to attack the East due to an attack on American soil suggests the film was conceived post 9/11, positing the AI as farmers and villagers whose land is invaded by angry Yanks. This allegory falls apart when you try to position the side that has embraced technology as the underdog. There are obvious allusions to Vietnam, with crying Asian kids running through their villages as American jarheads unleash hell, but again you have to ask why New Asia would allow this to happen (not to mention accept the unlikely notion that Japan and China, North and South Korea etc would all put aside their animosity to form a coalition). Janney's Howell is this film's version of Stephen Lang's Quaritch in Avatar, but as crude as James Cameron's allegory for colonialism was, at least it made sense in pitting the technologically superior force as the villains, and Quaritch was hunting down and killing living creatures, not glorified toasters.

As for Washington, well I just don't know what to make of this guy. He certainly possesses charm and charisma, but he seems perpetually miscast. Despite his muscular frame, I didn't buy him as a tough guy in Tenet and the same issue arises here. He's simply too cuddly, too avuncular for these sort of roles. He's the uncle who always buys you the best birthday presents, not a badass secret agent. He should probably be the lead in romantic comedies, but Hollywood doesn't make rom-coms about anyone over the age of 22 anymore. Washington never manages to sell the angst of a man trying to reunite with his lover, and his journey to Maya is more in keeping with John Cusack travelling coast to coast in the hopes of hooking up with a sure thing.

Out of context there are some well mounted set-pieces here, though the decision to score scenes with rock music cheapens much of Edwards' good work. Like the "art" we've seen created by AI in the real world, The Creator looks impressive but has a cavity in its chest where a human heart should be beating. You can't help worry that this is the beginning of a campaign by the corporate world to sell AI as a positive force in the world rather than a threat to our existence. Are those of us who remain skeptical about AI set to be lumped in the same category as anti-vaxxers?

The Creator
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

2023 movie reviews