Made for a mere US$80 million, The Creator is a cut-price Hollywood blockbuster. The usual bill for one of these extravaganzas is north of US$ 300 million, but British director, Gareth Edwards, has managed to eliminate the waste that causes those pesky budgets to blow out. In the process, he may have made himself the studios’ new go-to man.
The smaller budget has allowed the movie to be released in the midst of a strike that has sidelined most of the industry’s screenwriters and actors. Without the same pressure to recoup costs it’s less of a worry if your stars are unavailable for publicity events. The timing also allows the film to avoid serious competition from other high-profile features.
The Creator loses nothing in terms of visual power, with some incredible cinematography by Greig Fraser and Oren Soffer, and a list of CGI artists that occupies about ten minutes of the credits. The soundtrack features a suitably ominous score by Hans Zimmer, and the usual idiosyncratic sprinkling of rock songs, from Radiohead’s Everything in its Right Place to Deep Purple’s Child in Time. With all the standard elements locked in, the film arrives on a wave of hype that wants us to believe it breaks new ground, taking the sci-fi genre places never seen before. That’s the problematic bit.
The supposedly ground-breaking part of The Creator is a war between humanity and AI, posing the questions that are on everyone’s mind today: “Is AI a force for good or evil? Are we setting ourselves up for an age of technological marvels or sowing the seeds of our own destruction?”
These are not new dilemmas. They have been followed to the most drastic conclusions in the Terminator series and explored in dozens of other films. Edwards takes a different approach, but one might still be watching a montage of leftover scenes from the endless Star Wars franchise. There’s also an ideological dimension open to a range of interpretations.
The story begins with Joshua (John David Washington) and his wife, Maya (Gemma Chan), canoodling in bed in their house by the sea, somewhere in South-East Asia, while the sounds of Fly Me to the Moon drift from the record player. This idyll is soon upset by the noise of soldiers firing weapons on the beach, then crashing into the couple’s lounge room. The invaders act like brutal thugs but they’re Americans, and Josh is one of them. As the fighting intensifies on the beach, Maya, who is pregnant, tries to escape by boat and is lost in an explosion.
After this dramatic, confusing opening, we begin to learn what’s really going on. Five years have passed, it’s 2070, and America is engaged in a war with “New Asia” – which seems to be an EU-style conglomerate of Asian nations – if you can believe that China, Japan, India and the rest could ever unite under one umbrella! The flashpoint is AI, which America perceives as a menace to be swept from the earth, while New Asia has embraced the technology, integrating robots and human-looking “simulants” into their communities.
America’s special hatred of AI is due to a catastrophe in which Los Angeles was destroyed by a nuclear bomb. At no stage is it made clear how this happened. We assume it was an act of aggression from the Asians, but it may have been an accident. Either way, the Yanks are mopping up robots wherever they find them, and waging war on those AI-loving orientals. It’s never explained how they can repudiate AI and still have the ability to threaten an enemy with full AI capacity.
Two high-ranking army officers (Ralph Ineson and Allison Janney), have come to ask Josh to help them locate the elusive Asian mastermind, known as Nirmata – AKA. ‘The Creator’, who has produced a super weapon that threatens their own super weapon – the mega-aircraft called NOMAD, which looms over Indochina, dropping missiles at will. The bait is a suggestion that Josh’s wife is alive and embedded with Nirmata’s crowd.
Because battle-hardened Josh is also the sentimental type, this lure is irresistible. For Edwards, the romantic theme is so important that the film’s working title was True Love – although this was never going to make it to opening night.
Equipped with a prosthetic arm and leg Josh is already a cyborg. He signs up, and we are off to Asia, where a group of heavily armed SEALs are dropped into a rice paddy and immediately begin terrorising the peasants. We quickly realise this is yet another Hollywood movie in which the United States is portrayed as the root of all evil. It’s been an orthodoxy for the past few years, reaching its apogee in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, with perhaps only Top Gun 2 giving us an old-fashioned view of America as the supreme defender of freedom and justice.
As the story develops there’s no reason to revise our poor opinion of the US. When it turns out the “weapon” comes in the form of a cute little girl that Josh nicknames “Alphie” (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), the top brass wants him to kill “it” at once. We know this is not going to happen, but a father-and-child odyssey through a wartorn landscape is a distinct possibility. If you suspect the girl may have amazing powers, you’ve seen too many of these movies.
Josh is a man with divided loyalties who clings gamely to his mission while only wanting to reunite with his long-lost wife. One of his unsung talents is that he always seems to be able to find a hairdresser in a crisis, alternating from tight little platts to a woolly blonde thatch.
We watch Josh’s sympathies turn towards the east, which is portrayed as a bizarre pot-pourri of ethnic and cultural stereotypes, wherein every human occupation, from Buddhist monk to rice farmer, is shared by robots and simulants. Oddly, in this high-tech future, people still live in miserable little shacks and slums, with companion robots who wear the same gear as them. These robots are so attuned to human life they can even go to sleep and get caught napping.
The Americans seem to be indestructible, returning to the story after they were apparently blown to smithereens. Not only do they keep blasting away with NOMAD, but somehow manage to find another gigantic assault vehicle with which to crush villages and massacre civilians. The Vietnam War had nothing on this. As for the Asians, is it true that they only want to put an end to war and live in peace with their friendly robots?
Throughout the movie I kept trying to understand this future world. Asia is a monolithic entity in which every exotic stereotype is on full display, like dishes in a restaurant window. America is a big, ugly place that needs to project its own power and paranoia. Although ‘New Asia’ is America’s enemy, we are encouraged to transfer our sympathies in that direction. Yet the abiding vision of Asian life is a mass of touristic clichés seen through western eyes.
The depiction of AI as a kind of shadow population of robots and simulants distinguished by a big hole in the back of their heads, is equally dubious. They may be nicer than the nasty humans, but it’s difficult to understand why they need to be caricatures of every human enterprise. One can only assume that Edwards is telling us the best way to defuse the threat of AI is to imbue it with all those faults we imagined so peculiarly our own.
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Gareth Edwards & Chris Weitz
Starring: John David Washington, Madeleine Yuna Voyles, Gemma Chan, Ken Watanabe, Sturgill Simpson, Allison Janney, Ralph Ineson, Marc Menchaca, Veronica Ngo, Robbie Tann
USA, M, 133 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 30 September, 2023