When last we heard from writer/director Gareth Edwards, he was stuck in rather neutral gear waiting for his next venture into the psychotronic. Both Godzilla and Rogue One landed quite delicately in that central nexus between serious genre fare and an above-average popcorn flick. Seven years go by, and his latest effort proves there’s a possible consequence in waiting too long to re-sparking that creative knack. Such is the crux for The Creator, a wild sci-fi trip whose roots play the safe route, but whose dense, thematic branches take many visually opulent swings. A wonderfully original story navigating a familiar pathway, while asking more questions than it would ever have answers for.
Edwards and co-writer Chris Weitz (Pinocchio) are both in the habit of challenging large and heavy ideas of their own doing, using a familiar blueprint to bounce them off. For starters, it’s about 40 years into the future. Artificial intelligence had been considered a relative aid to mankind, with “simulant” lifeforms taking the upper hand, before taking revenge on the entity who created them. Now, there is an all-out war, and the humans want nothing more than to take back their planet. Every community is different, however; in the tranquility of New Asia, both humans and simulants occupy a peaceful existence. Even that lasts not much longer than the first ten minutes, where we meet our hero.
Joshua Taylor (John David Washington) is a Special Forces agent working undercover, spending time between jobs at home with his pregnant wife Maya (Gemma Chan). A set of circumstances splits the two, killing the mom-to-be, while extracting Taylor, landing him in exile and menial janitor work in this era’s new Ground Zero, the center of Los Angeles. Under the recommendation of no-nonsense Colonel Howell (Alison Janney) and General Andrews (an almost unrecognizable Ralph Ineson), he’s granted another opportunity to serve his country, joining a task force to infiltrate his old home, scrub out the likely presence of a powerful superweapon that could incite victory for the AI stronghold. Take that out, and the war is over.
Taylor is quite convinced he can fulfill this duty, while also maintaining the illusion that his wife might still be alive. Edwards does not make it that easy by any stretch. At surface level, he’s plenty comfortable to flex any manner of influences on this engaging, exhausting romp. The Rogue One blueprint is a bit obvious, so too likely nods to Predator, Blade Runner, or Lone Wolf and Cub. The last of those is not by accident, with Taylor building a quick kinship with Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), a young girl who, as it turns out, is harboring the sought-after weapon, able to manipulate electronic devices, and recognized as a prophetic liberator. For all these reasons, instead of killing her; the next best solution is to drive her into enemy territory for a chance meeting with the rogue scientist Nimrata, the supposed parental figure of AI.
Such a topical and often controversial issue as AI, with all its hesitancy in the media, does have a welcome place in one’s script when told effectively. Edwards is clear in playing the long game when interpreting it as a thing to be mutually feared and targeted. The issue falls in trying to connect all the dots he’s placing, some of which go fully ignored while trying to nail the dynamic between man and machine, broken down to an interpersonal level. Edwards tries his best to explain and build up AI, and a growingly corrupt military force, as equal antagonistic threats. And at times, it’s just that, albeit half motivated. Any context (including a tongue-in-cheek newsreel prologue) is left underdeveloped, as the focus ultimately gravitates to developing characters around an idea and a landscape that’s still fearful and nefarious, but that they can only swerve in and out of habituating.
Edwards’ strong suit is creating an unbridled sci-fi spectacle, crafting flawed characters with otherwise fair virtue a close second. And the two intertwine so beautifully together, that it more than saves those higher-end efforts from drowning in frustration. With a modest $80 million budget comes a controlled manner of carte blanche, with the space for a few unique flourishes that could frenzy the mind in a vein akin to a rousing samurai epic. The Kurosawa nods are subtle, yet palpable. Same for Hans Zimmer’s (The Son) score, stirring and intoxicating; for Greig Fraser (The Batman) & Oren Soffer’s (Allswell in New York) cinematography, broad and daring; and for James Clyne’s (Alita: Battle Angel) production design, beguiling in blending Japanese leitmotifs with a post-industrial edge.
That oddball mismatch pairing of Joshua and Alphie is the heart of his script, with the former remembering the value of a good frenemy, at a moment when friendship is a frayed foreign term and faith in mankind is selective at best. On his own, Washington shows firm ingenuity and gentle mercy, often in the same scene. In those dramatic action sequences, all that’s paired further with a controlled spryness outpacing similar displays in Tenet.
He’s better when forced to play nice with others – a very game Janney, a doting and delicate Chan, and a grizzled Sturgill Simpson as one of Joshua’s few allies. It’s his shared camaraderie with a consistent scene-stealing Voyles completing the experience. Her curious naivety works wonders to mellow that sci-fi tension and grow its idea of humanity, cynical but not devoid of ambition. A breakout performance if I’d ever seen one this year, this newcomer shines very brightly, carefully treading the line between adventurous and galvanizing, both running parallel circles around each other.
If only Edwards hadn’t been so tied up from his shoelaces in attempting to better land the most crucial element of his story, then we would’ve been dealing with something special, even iconic in the sci-fi realm. The Creator gets so very close, trying not to stumble in running with the pivotal egg that is his interpretation of a preeminent villain, nearly devalued by human endeavor. The concept of AI for a misunderstood evil almost fits his vision to a shaved-down T. Were there an extra rewrite or two, without any cheating by a Google algorithm, it would’ve aligned more conclusively. Somehow, it still shows Edwards at a high, crafting the best possible screen epic he can, knowing full well he’s capable of much more. Once he can remember how good sci-fi action fare requires a smidgeon of risk and no safety net, what he accomplishes looks poised to destroy. (B; 3.5/5)
The Creator opens in theaters September 29, previews begin 6PM September 28; rated PG-13 for violence, some bloody images, and strong language; 133 minutes.