Breathtaking production, exciting action, and an attempt at making a poignant statement about modern technology are not enough to elevate The Creator to the same level as the influential 70’s and 80’s films it riffs off of.
We’ve already seen films fearmongering the rise of artificial intelligence. We’ve seen films that warn us of A.I.’s unstoppable potential and dangerous cunning. It is only natural. The scariest things are those which we don’t fully understand. For the longest time, artificial intelligence was some futuristic construct that made for compelling science fiction-horror simply because it seemed so far out. Like the premise of invading extraterrestrials it was remotely possible, but not definable with mainstream knowledge.
Today’s rapidly advancing technology has brought us closer than ever to the point at which artificial-intelligence as traditionally depicted in fiction could become fact. Yet nothing has been able to extinguish the Terminator-inspired fires that continue to rage in our minds. Perhaps eventually we’ll live in a world where our distrust of advanced technology will prove to have been naively misfounded. But until that day there will remain widespread distrust, for the simple yet flimsy reason of being so firmly ingrained into our pop culture. Gareth Edward’s lush new science fiction epic, The Creator is an attempt to chisel through this paranoia.
Directed By: Gareth Edwards
Written By: Gareth Edwards, Chris Weitz
Starring: John David Washington, Gemma Chan, Allison Janney, Ken Watanabe
Release Date: September 29th, 2023
It starts with a familiar premise. Futuristic society has welcomed artificial intelligence to make our lives easier. A catastrophic loss of life blamed on A.I. results in Western civilization banning the technology altogether. Instead, our fears fuel a proxy war waged upon the A.I. being harbored elsewhere around the globe.
Caught up in this conflict is Lt. Joshua Taylor (John David Washington), a special forces operative who spent time deep undercover in the attempt of finding those who continue to develop the technology. He falls in love with a woman who is sympathetic to the AI cause, only to see her perish when his cover is blown. Years later intelligence finds her alive, and he returns to familiar ground in pursuit. But he finds something unexpected which causes him to question his loyalties; an A.I. child.
Yes, The Creator partakes in the most direct method of breaking down the barriers of prejudice; going cute and cuddly. For all of the hellish depictions flashing through our minds of what A.I. could look like in the flesh and blood, the film chooses to present you with something that will tug at your heart strings. The A.I. child at the center of this film is depicted in such a way to be adverse to creepiness or danger, despite having abilities that make it both. Certainly it is a play to make you confront deeply held prejudices. But unlike a film attempting to do the same thing with the topic of gender or race, the focus isn’t human even if it looks like it is.
It is either a perfectly-timed propaganda by Big Tech (maybe something more sinister), or an opportunistic exploitation of a compelling contemporary topic into the blockbuster action movie mold. Regardless, the film isn’t really interested in the philosophical/ethical debate around artificial intelligence – just the big-picture ramifications of its adoption. Our inherent fears of A.I. manifest themselves into our worst behaviors. Humanity suffers because of our reluctance to admit our own faults; we carry a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality because we are afraid.
Unfortunately, The Creator doesn’t provide a good reason for us to question those fears except by showing our collective ugliness in the mirror. It isn’t pointed enough when it needs to be, which results in a lot of thematic ambiguity. The film’s protagonist is a great example. Taylor is supposedly motivated by distrust towards A.I. because of his experience in the past. Yet he is willing to come to their aid because of the woman he loved. This seems to speak more towards the power of love than to provide any concrete reasoning for embracing A.I.
The film’s plot eventually becomes a high-concept Lord of the Rings, with our protagonists becoming united on a quest to future-humanity’s Mount Doom. Through this adventure there is plenty of opportunity for entertaining effects-laden action and suspense. But without a strong connection between the film’s action and its premise, it feels somewhat misguided. As a character, Taylor lacks the conviction he needs to go through with his quest until the final third of the film. Having this motivation come late is better than none at all, but without direction the first two acts tend to selectively meander. More context is shoehorned in through the use of flashbacks, only furthering the patchwork delivery.
I will say this did not bother me as much while watching the film as it did afterwards once I had a chance to take a breath and think about it. The film is meant as an homage to great science fiction and war films of the past in terms of both look and feel. In the feels department, it almost relies on our understanding of those influences to create the type of context the film’s narrative largely does without. From humanity not knowing its own power as addressed in Akira, to the crisis of existence in Blade Runner, to the horror of self-reflection in Apocalypse Now; The Creator attempts to siphon some of those themes from its inspirations, rather than develop them organically. Running parallel with those influences allows for some leeway when it comes to thematic development because the general idea feels so familiar to those well-versed in scifi.
Visually, the production design mimics an interesting blend of Syd Mead and Chris Foss; it’s like the cover of a classic sci-fi novel brought to life. I love the way it feels timeless, so many shots feel like they could have been simultaneously from the 1970’s or the 2020’s. It’s retro without seeming redundant, and not new enough to make you forget the film’s inspirations. FX-laden sci-fi films are usually trying to peer into the future, so it is refreshing for this one to take a look back. The production and special effects are easily the highlight of this film.
It’s a shame the rest of it can’t quite achieve something as well-executed. The problems with the film’s shallow script and nebulous themes are only accented by an unreliable protagonist. Lt. Taylor is shown to have plenty of reasons to hate A.I., but the film does not do a good job communicating whether or not he actually does. The woman he loved was a supporter of the technology, and their relationship is never clearly defined enough to determine if there was conflict in that regard. It doesn’t help that John David Washington isn’t really that convincing in the role either. The character, and the performance, both kind of meander their way without sufficient premise or stakes being established.
That feeling of going through the motions is unfortunately what defines this film. I don’t mean that in a way to suggest the filmmakers are phoning it in, just that the end product feels unfocused. There are lots of things I love about this film, which makes it that much harder to have to recognize its shortcomings. It is wonderful to look at, has some exciting moments, and touches on some interesting ideas. But it lacks the depth that it’s epic storyline requires to stand on its own. Instead, it borrows heavily from what has come before, and sidelines important character building for more bombastic escapades. Much like an A.I.-generated piece of art, it may correctly interpret the goal, but lacks the emotive process for getting there.