Review: Gareth Edwards’ ‘The Creator’ is all spectacle and no bite in AI debate

click to enlarge Review: Gareth Edwards’ ‘The Creator’ is all spectacle and no bite in AI debate
Joshua (John David Washington) discovers that the top-secret AI weapon he’s been tasked with destroying is really a simulant child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) in Gareth Edwards’ “The Creator.” (20th Century Studios/Submitted)

Gareth Edwards’ science-fiction action thriller “The Creator” is continued proof that the filmmaker knows how to handle spectacle, but it brings little to the table in the way of new ideas in the ongoing debate over artificial intelligence.

The film opens with a mock old-fashioned television program spanning the development of robotics to the advent of AI, with androids being integrated into all areas of society from the food service to medical industries.

The tone quickly changes, however, from the optimistic wonder of the mid-20th century to the more dire concerns that have plagued recent years when Los Angeles is nuked, a tragedy that’s hastily blamed on the rapidly developing tech. A grainy military press briefing sets the stage for the rest of the film, with American leaders banning its development and committing to crack down on those who don’t share the same concerns.

Cut to 2065. John David Washington stars as special forces agent Joshua, who is part of an undercover operation in New Asia to infiltrate a rebel group and locate the mysterious Nirmata (which is the Sanskrit word for “creator” and is defined in the film’s context at its beginning). Joshua is married to pregnant rebel Maya (played by Gemma Chan), but when his cover is blown as U.S. forces invade their beach home earlier than expected, she flees and the American military spaceship NOMAD drops a bomb — wiping out Joshua’s memory of the secrets he learned while undercover in the process.

Five years pass, and the U.S. military approaches Joshua with the information that the opposing forces have developed a new weapon to win the war. Initially disinterested, he decides to join the mission to eliminate Nirmata and the weapon when shown evidence that Maya is still alive. Matters are further complicated, however, when that weapon turns out to be a child simulant (played by Madeleine Yuna Voyles) more advanced than anyone could have imagined.

The film’s visual sensibilities should come as no surprise given director Edwards’ resume. After hitting the scene with the indie success “Monsters” in 2010, he quickly made the jump to blockbuster status with the underrated 2014 “Godzilla” reboot and the well-received 2016 “Star Wars” spinoff “Rogue One.” Backed by a score from Hans Zimmer, “The Creator” is Edwards’ first film in seven years.

A globe-trotting production with cinematographers Greig Fraser (who most recently served as the director of photography on Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune”) and Oren Soffer (making the step up from the indie scene), it was filmed in Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Los Angeles and the United Kingdom, according to production notes. Predominantly set in a region defined in the film as New Asia, it features wide, sweeping shots of tropical forests, beaches and mountainous regions, which are depicted as having adapted to a harmonious blend of rural Asian cultures and the more advanced technologies being developed there. All the while the massive NOMAD looms overhead, ominously scanning the land for threats.

Co-written by Edwards with “Rogue One” scribe Chris Weitz, “The Creator” poses numerous questions about AI, from its ethics and humanity to the regulation of this technology and how it’s evolving faster than can be controlled. Paired with these ideas is a healthy dose of commentary on American imperialism. The film covers the gamut, thematically retreading territory previously covered in the likes of Ridley Scott’s cult classic “Blade Runner” (itself adapted from the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick) and James Cameron’s “Terminator” and “Avatar” films.

Visual connections can easily be drawn to these and others, too, with “The Creator” featuring neon-lit cities not unlike Scott’s film and the countless more it inspired as well as other world-building reminiscent of Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” and the “Star Wars” universe Edwards previously took part in. The bombing of LA at the film’s start recalls “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

This similarity to stories of years past wouldn’t be so much of an issue if the film tackled its subject matter with more bite. While the timing of its release is ripe, the expository screenplay feels like it’s only scratching the surface, opting for basic talking points surrounding AI. Meanwhile, the tension is cut with the quippy comic relief that has become commonplace in recent blockbusters, to out-of-place effect in the world Edwards and his crew have built.

The core characters, too, fall flat in the face of the film’s grand scale. Washington conveys little emotional weight or charisma, both of which are needed to connect with the motivations that progress the narrative, while other supporting players — from the military presence to Maya and simulant child Alphie — similarly feel like archetypes. These shortcomings paired with rushed culminating conflicts leave its final moments of catharsis feeling unearned.

Even so, “The Creator” is admirable for its blend of stunning real-world scenery and well-executed sci-fi action set pieces that span land and sky — making it easy to get sucked along for the ride in the face of its familiar themes and underdeveloped world.

“The Creator” opens in theaters on Friday, Sept. 29.

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