Director – Gareth Edwards – 2023 – US – Cert. 12a – 133m
A widower finds himself protecting an AI in the form of a child as anti-AI North American forces wage a war on the Asian-Pacific countries where people have integrated with AI robots – out in UK cinemas on Thursday, September 28th
Over a decade ago, I was blown away by Gareth Edwards’ little indie British film marvel Monsters (2010) which broke all the accepted wisdom of film production. Based around a deceptively simple script concept, it was shot by a four-man crew and a two-man cast (plus anyone else who was around at the time) with lots of post-production VFX work added by the director himself.
That got him an agent and two big budget Hollywood franchise FX movies – the Godzilla reboot (2014) and the Star Wars movie Rogue One (2016). The former isn’t bad for a Hollywood movie, although I personally far prefer the Japanese-made Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno, 2016), while the latter is one of the better Star Wars films. However, neither quite possessed the quality that had got me so excited about Monsters.
I suspect Edwards feels the same way, because whilst he clearly relishes the chance to work with the palette of a huge Hollywood FX budget, on this his fourth film, as with Monsters, he has once again broken the rules – this time within a huge Hollywood FX budget film. With another simple script concept (written in a period of time off from moviemaking), he has gone out and shot a movie with cast and crew and then production designed it and added numerous effects. The Creator was shot over various parts of South East Asia.
The backdrop is a war between North America, where AI have been outlawed following the nuclear bombing by AI of Los Angeles, and South East Asia where development of AI has continued to a point where robots are now integrated into the population. Joshua (John David Washington) is living with pregnant partner Maya (Gemma Chan) who is unaware he is in fact an North American undercover agent spying on her. He is also deeply in love with her, something which is not supposed to happen in these situations but one imagines often does.
And then the idyllic beach where their house is situated is raided by the America’s NOMAD, a vast machine moving across the sky that drops bombs on its sea and land targets with terrifying accuracy. It may well have been inspired by the mysterious and terrible Angels fought by the pilots of seminal anime Neon Genesis Evangelion (Hideaki Anno, TV series, 1995-6), an angel being a symbol of the so-called Christian West in a world where the Confucian East understandably regards such religious philosophy as alien. The fact that Fly Me to the Moon is the song playing in Joshua and Maya’s house when we first meet them suggests Edwards knows the series and that this is a deliberate reference.
In the confusion, Maya goes missing, presumed dead.
Five years later, US General Andrews (Ralph Ineson) and Colonel Howell (Allison Janney) beg him to return to Asia to find and deactivate a new AI called Alpha One that has been developed, since it may be a game changer that could defeat the American war effort. With the possibility held out to him that Maya may still be alive, John reluctantly agrees to go back. However, when he finds the weapon, it turns out to be an AI created in the likeness of a child, who he christens Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). And rather than give her up to the Americans, he decides to protect her as he goes in search of Maya with the gun-toting Colonel in hot pursuit…
Evangelion aside, a number of obvious sources are consistently referenced – the nuking of a major city, the underground military bases and a superintelligent child from Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988), the robot populated streets of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), the soldier on a quest within the war-torn Vietnam of Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), the vistas of Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992). Yet The Creator feels very much like its own movie, shot by two cinematographers (one of whom, Greig Fraser, shot Dune, Denis Villeneuve, 2021) and edited by three editors, one of whom, Hank Corwin, who edited JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991) and The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011), is a personal hero of Edwards.
That said, there’s an unevenness to the pace: some parts of the movie seem to work much more successfully than others. One elements that’s particularly successful is music tracks pulled in from outside to underscore certain large vista warfare scenes – Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Radiohead’s Everything in its Right Place. There’s no denying the whole is highly effective in terms of spectacle. The war zone Edwards has created is not a world we’ve seen before, and it’s most convincing.
Voyles impresses as the robot kid, Washington makes for a solid lead and Ken Watanbe lends the piece gravitas, but the performance that towers over them all is Allison Janney, who tends to have that effect in everything in which she appears, here broadening her considerable range playing for the first time in a Sci-Fi action movie.
The film grapples with ideas of mortality and consciousness. Are robots merely mimicking human emotions when they speak, or so they possess real feelings. Are we merely turning them off when we deactivate them, or are we killing them? These dilemmas lie at the very heart of the film, and are what makes it exert a fascination over us. So too, perhaps with a nod to The Iron Giant (Brad Bird, 1999), is the idea of a weapon that develops a conscience that sees it want to work as an instrument of peace and dismantling of weaponry rather than war.
In the end, the film is less about issues around AI and closer to exploring ideas of racism and prejudice, with one side of the war trying to perform ethnic cleansing of robots while the other side wants to see them treated as equals to humans. This subversive depiction of America as an imperialist power determined to eradicate world views at odds with its own, which is not a view usually extolled by the American myth-making factory, may well provoke a backlash at home even as it wins the film support abroad.
All very commendable, but the film ultimately wants to deliver action and spectacle rather than explore those underlying issues. Edwards was raised on Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and the blockbuster mentality shows. The far smaller Monsters somehow seemed to have more to it. Maybe, going forward, he could try alternating little movies like that with big blockbusters like this. After all, Clint Eastwood has been alternating serious art movies he really wants to make with Westerns, action pictures and other Studio-pleasing fare for years.
The Creator is out in cinemas in the UK on Thursday, September 28th.