The advance word about The Creator has been mostly adulatory, with people saying that it’s the next great step in big-budget science-fiction. Respectfully, I have to disagree. This movie’s thoughts about the future of artificial intelligence aren’t well-formed enough to make it a great science-fiction film, though it is remarkable in some other ways. As a statement about the exercise of American power in a foreign territory, I’ll take this over either of those Avatar movies. I’ll say that much. Wait, what am I talking about? I’ll say a lot more.
The bulk of the film takes place in 2070, 15 years after human-created AI robots dropped a nuclear bomb on Los Angeles and five years after the humans dropped a retaliatory nuke in Southeast Asia. Sgt. Joshua Taylor (John David Washington) was near that site doing intel work for the U.S. Army, and the blast killed his pregnant wife Maya (Gemma Chan) and turned him from an amputee into a double amputee. Understandably, he’s in no mood to help the Army win its war on the machines until his former bosses show him video footage of Maya somehow alive. If he helps steal the superweapon that the robots are creating, the Army will extract Maya and let Joshua be with her, which is all he really wants.
The film begins oddly with a 1940s-style newsreel giving background on why human beings created superintelligent robots — the mimicry of the old form’s techniques is good, but what makes the filmmakers think future people will consume their news this way? The movie shows its underclass using a mix of high and low tech to survive, which is something we’ve seen in previous futuristic films from Blade Runner to District 9. Cleverer stuff comes in the periodic flashbacks that reveal that the grand romance between Joshua and Maya was more complicated than it seems, with Joshua’s Army buddy (Sturgill Simpson) holding some key information. The movie was shot in Thailand, and the tropical setting for this sci-fi epic is tactile in a way that Avatar’s Pandora is not.
Maybe the weakest link is Joshua’s relationship with the 14-year-old cyborg girl (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) who can switch off all machines around her by putting her hands together. She’s the superweapon that the Army has sent him to destroy, and his hardened attitude toward the robots turning to mush isn’t convincing in either the conception or the performances. The whole thing feels underbaked from an emotional standpoint, and the movie flirts with the idea of an entire army of robots with Maya’s face before letting it go unused. That’s part of the reason why the grand romance between Joshua and Maya comes out so flavorless.
The main reason for the hype around The Creator is its budget, which is a reported $80 million. If someone quoted you a budget of $250 million after you saw this, you wouldn’t blink. The film not only has a cyborg as its main character but whole hordes of them milling around in the background, all their mechanical parts requiring CGI to render. Then there’s the giant spaceship visible from Earth that drops the nukes for the humans, and that serves as a setting for some of the action. Director/co-writer Gareth Edwards has been at this for a while, going back to his debut feature Monsters, another science-fiction film that parlayed its minuscule budget into dazzling effects. At its best, like when the Army sends suicide drones running at the robots’ defensive lines, the effects make for fantastic entertainment. Yet Edwards’ great gifts come with limitations, and I’m losing hope that he’ll ever make something deeper.
Starring John David Washington and Madeleine Yuna Voyles. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Written by Gareth Edwards and Chris Weitz. Rated PG-13.