A film review by Craig J. Koban October 9, 2023


RANK: #9


2023, PG-13, 135 mins.

John David Washington as Joshua  /  Madeleine Yuna Voyles as Alphie  /  Gemma Chan as Maya  /  Allison Janney as Colonel Howell  /  Ken Watanabe as Harun  /  Sturgill Simpson as Drew  /  Amar Chadha-Patel as Omni / Sek-On / Sergeant Bui  /  Marc Menchaca as McBride  /  Robbie Tann as Shipley  /  Ralph Ineson as General Andrews

Directed by Gareth Edwards  /  Written by Edwards and Chris Weitz

Writer/director Gareth Edwards' THE CREATOR is in the great tradition of a seemingly dying breed of science fiction that both stimulates the mind and the senses.  

It deals with a post-apocalyptic and future war between mankind and AI robotic beings, which most definitely feels like familiar material for this genre (films as far ranging as THE MATRIX, THE TERMINATOR, BLADE RUNNER, and EX MACHINA have tackled such subjects in their own respective ways).  Yes, Edwards and his co-writer Chris Weitz borrow ideas and themes from a wide menagerie of past influences, but it's largely how they compellingly re-package them that makes THE CREATOR stand out most proudly and uniquely.  This is not Edwards' first foray into the genre (he made a splash with the low-budget and guerrilla produced MONSTERS in 2010, which led to bigger blockbuster assignments in 2014's GODZILLA and 2016's ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY), but his latest is easily his most visionary, thoughtful, timely, and emotionally potent.

Best of all, THE CREATOR is not sewn out of the same obligatory fabric that has sadly become the overall state of massive budgeted sci-fi tentploe films, which usually sacrifice characters and story for visuals and mayhem.  That's not to say that Edwards' opus is not grandly and epically envisioned (it does things with its relatively scant $80 million price tag that's both groundbreaking and visually masterful...more on that in a bit), but rather that he also imparts the film with a heart and soul via its sensitively and compellingly rendered story involving a topic that could not be anymore relevant now.  Witnessing the recent movie industry strikes (with the very real threat of AI replacing flesh and blood actors/writers being a major sticking point) and then watching THE CREATOR makes for an endlessly intriguing watch.  Perhaps most notable and fascinating is Edwards' overall stance here on AI, which involves his story taking place in a futuristic world where AI robots have been a fixture in everyday life for decades, but then a cataclysmic event leads to the western world's hatred of technology.  This film isn't particularly a commentary on the dangerous perils of adopting and trusting AI.  Instead, it emerges more as a parable about discrimination and acceptance, not to mention humanity's insatiable lust for war on enemies that are not fully understood.   

Edwards doesn't waste much time with long-winded exposition here.  Much akin to the first STAR WARS, he hurtles viewers abruptly into his film's world and doesn't look back.  He does so initially via some nifty and retro-looking newsreel footage that efficiently establishes how AI developed, humanity's close relationship to it, and how that all came crashing down in the mid-21st Century, when U.S. government created AI allegedly detonated a nuclear bomb over L.A. and thoroughly destroyed the city and killed millions.  In a quick response, American leaders decided to spare no expense to rid their country (and the world) of AI, but they're largely resisted by New Asia, a nation that still thoroughly trusts and uses the technology, much to the West's anger.  Despite this setback, the U.S. military decides to stage a full-court press attack on AI by targeting "Nirmata," the enigmatic God-like presence that oversees what's left of AI in the world.  The Americans do so by spending a decade and billions on building NOMAD (or North American Orbital Mobile Aerospace Defense), a massive high altitude ship that can seek and destroy any AI target and threat with relative ease.



Again, most of this is relayed in the first few minutes of THE CREATOR, which then settles in on the overarching story (that takes place a decade after L.A.'s destruction) of Joshua (John David Washington, making a return to sci-fi after teaming up with Christopher Nolan for TENET), who has been living a relatively peaceful and happy life in seclusion with his soulmate, Maya (Gemma Chan), and are eagerly expecting a baby soon.  Tragically, the U.S. military and NOMAD show up and scorches their targets nearby, leading to Maya's (and her unborn baby's) death.  Despite being genuinely in love with Maya, it's quickly revealed that John is actually an undercover operative working for the states that infiltrated New Asia to get Intel on Nirmata, which his higher ups think is closely linked to Maya.  John returns home and works lowly clean-up and surveying missions in what's left of the City of Angels, that is until Colonel Howell (Allison Janney) wants to recruit Joshua to go back into New Asia and seek out and destroy a potential super weapon that AI has created that could destroy their virtually unstoppable NOMAD.   

Joshua reluctantly accepts (based on a surveillance video provided by the colonel that hints that Maya is still alive) and heads back into New Asia on said mission, but things take an unusual turn when it discovers a Simulant (humanoid robot) child, Alphie (Madeline Yuna Voyles), who not only has extraordinary abilities far beyond normal AI, but she may also know where Maya is.  Joshua decides to go native and protect Alphie, which forces them on the run and gets them embroiled in the underground Simulant resistance.  The one overriding thing that constantly crossed my mind while digging deeper into THE CREATOR's story is how richly developed this film's universe building is, which develops a premise of a segment (not all) of mankind that's vehemently lusting to eradicate AI and uses every means necessary to end any form or state of the art technology that they created.  The majority of THE CREATOR takes place in the AI safe haven of New Asia, which is partially represented in mega-metropolises (that has echoes of future L.A. in BLADE RUNNER) and less high tech rural areas (the film was shot on location in Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, and Nepal).

That last part is what I found most enthralling about THE CREATOR.  Most past sci-fi films that have pitted man versus machine have usually opted to frame the latter as the true enemies of a just war.  THE CREATOR is no exception, with the one caveat being that AI might not have actually been intentionally behind the nuking of L.A., which begs the question of whether America's intentions against AI are right in the first place.  The more than Joshua spends with Alphie and her Simulant allies, the more he grows to realize that the efforts of Colonel Howell and the use of NOMAD may not only be unjust, but savage and cruel.  Howell herself (played with an icy resolve by a well cast Janney) is steadfast in her hatred of AI, whereas Joshua has an ever maturing attitude of struggling to remain royal to his country after witnessing their ruthless aggression in New Asia, which prompts him to question what freedom really means on multiple fronts.  The sight of the Star Destroyer-like NOMAD bombing these Southeast Asian country areas to smithereens and soldiers on the ground threatening Asians and Simulants at gun point has definite real-world echoes of the Vietnam War.  What's most unseemly to Joshua - after experiencing this - is that the American military is obsessively determined to destroy what's essentially a child in Alphie on false pretences.  I was fully expecting THE CREATOR to be a dire warning about AI in general, but it opts to delve into the nature of American imperialism and the act of othering a misconstrued enemy.      

Edwards matches his first-rate scripting and thematic density here with mesmerizing VFX work and stunning action set-pieces.  What's most pioneering about THE CREATOR is how Edwards has completely flipped the industry switch as to how these types of effect-heavy blockbusters are made.  Going back to his fast and loose filmmaking roots with MONSTER (albeit with way, way more financial resources), Edwards ignored using fabricated sets or greenscreen sound stages and instead shot a majority of the film (with a light crew and employing natural lighting) on location and then added in the VFX to the footage later.  The end results speak for themselves.  There are rarely any moments in THE CREATOR that feel artificial or phony.  Everything has a tactile sense of reality and immediacy, even when the screen is flooded with AI Simulants having heads that are half human and half robotic (the work here is masterfully seamless).  Whether capturing the neo-hued urban centers of tomorrow or the natural wonders of the countryside of New Asia, Edwards and cinematographers Grieg Fraser and Oren Soffer (who beautifully shot THE BATMAN, DUNE, and Edwards' own ROGUE ONE) make the varied terrain of THE CREATOR endlessly immersive (this is also an exceedingly uncommon modern film that's shot with the ultra wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio that has been used in Hollywood's past for Biblical epics like BEN HUR).  It's truly remarkable what this film achieves with less than $100 million.  I've seen blockbusters that have cost twice as much and failed to pack as much legitimate awe and wonder as on display here.

I think it's deceptively easy to overlook the human and non-human elements in films like this, but THE CREATOR thanklessly doesn't skimp on the performance front. Overall, I thought that Washington was lacking in conviction and charisma as the protagonist in TENET, but here he shows so much more range and plays his morally divided hero that has come to question his allegiances. He's paired remarkably well with the wonderful Madeleine Yunna Voyles (her feature film debut), who has to suggest both an omnipotent and powerful being and a scared and vulnerable child all the same. They're a sensational pairing here and their push-pull dynamic throughout THE CREATOR compliments the film's bravura technical merits and ambitious-minded screenplay.  I've read some lukewarm reviews that have called Edwards' film "derivative" and a pastiche affair that combines well-worn conventions of past sci-fi films. That's more than a bit unfair. THE CREATOR liberally borrows from numerous influences, yes, but blends them in refreshingly novel and audacious ways, which makes it an extraordinary piece of original genre filmmaking.  Most importantly, the film is unendingly thought-provoking and challenging as ideas-driven sci-fi that uses its fantastical sights and story to richly comment on issues that have an everyday resonance with viewers. 

THE CREATOR is an unqualified triumph and one of 2023's best films. 

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