If you need an example of a movie that doesn’t earn the portentous use of chapter titles and an “Everything In Its Right Place” needle-drop, look no further than The Creator. The new film from visual effects indie wunderkind-turned-IP peddler Gareth Edwards––the seven-year gap between this and the film you definitely forgot was the most successful grosser of 2016 pointing to confirmation of him not being that movie’s chief author––is an admirable pursuit of big-budget, original sci-fi, a film I kind of wanted to like. The sight of James Cameron/Mamoru Oshii-mechsuits stirred some warm feelings, yet the problem is the intrusion of sentimentality, something beyond Edwards’ talents to pull off.
In the 2060s, the advance of artificial intelligence is at a place where Western robots are subservient little Chappies running around; in the East, humans and machines have essentially merged. Though in a “whoops my bad,” moment, a nuclear bomb is dropped on Los Angeles by the AI-run New Asia, creating a state of war between different sides of the globe, with a hovering American space station in the air ready to retaliate at any moment. Caught in the middle is some kind of military contractor/soldier, Joshua (John David Washington), trying to live in beachside seclusion with his pregnant wife Maya (Gemma Chan)––until the war intrudes on their life, resulting in an accident that leaves her dead.
Hopping five years ahead, Joshua depressingly bidding time doing clean-up in the remnants of nuked-out Los Angeles, he lets himself be recruited for one last job when the military picks up a hologram showing signs that his wife is still alive in a remote part of the east. Yet the mission itself is to capture Nimrata, a godhead of the robot world that could lead them to ultimate conquering of the planet over the humans. Yet coming across the prophet herself and finding out she’s a cute little robot girl resembling a flesh-and-blood kid who will be sure to do some cutesy swearing for comic relief, he knows he has to abandon the mission, and therein a continent-spanning chase movie against the military will ensue.
The Creator‘s prologue being based around pregnancy and, eventually, the entire movie revolving around protecting a child, your heart sinks a little at realizing the stakes of this film are purely about sustaining and rebuilding the family unit, something the aforementioned Cameron has the deep earnestness to pull off in a sci-fi blockbuster without it coming across like lazy conservatism. Frankly, I have no idea if Gareth Edwards had a kid in the interim between this and Rogue One, thus inspiring the “heart” of the film, but the lack of feeling to his emotional throughline is a major problem. Matters are not helped by Denzel Jr., a charismatic action star who strangely feels like a non-actor whenever asked to do any dramatic heavy lifting. The problem, partly, is that his character doesn’t have much of a journey, feeling shaken out of indifference too quickly for the sake of plot. This speaks to a bit of a lack of talent on Edwards’ part in imagining human roles (why maybe the non-monster scenes of his post-human Godzilla remake deserved scorn for being genuinely bad and not just self-consciously plodding “build-up”) and sinks his already corny grounds.
Edwards as VFX shepherd for his design team certainly deserves some credit, though. Strong at integrating landscapes, effects, and live-action characters, this is not a film in which the physical elements feel discombobulated from one another like many a Marvel picture. Cinematographer Greig Fraser, who also shot Dune, conjures up vistas recalling that picture (even if the likely dingy DCP you’ll see this on in multiplexes dulls the already-muted palette considerably) and it’s hard not to appreciate the effort that went to giving it (made on a “modest” 80 million dollar budget) an impressive sense of non-soundstage scope.
Still: you end up wishing you spent longer in certain environments like the Blade Runner-esque Asian metropolis. There’s a point where the world-building comes to feel more like hitting marks of influence than imagination. For already amalgamating various sci-fi pictures of the past, you do get the sense of Edwards’ ideas running out by the end; I certainly know that if I have to see one more scene in any movie of people in white hazmat suits tending to the plants in a villains’ greenhouse, I might give up on blockbusters in general.
Certainly the film’s own wishy-washy stance around our AI future feels like Gareth Edwards might earn a free Tesla from Mr. Humans Need to Merge with AI himself, but you wish there was a more, frankly, futuristic imagining of rote story mechanics. At that point, you might as well just let the computers write the movie anyway.
The Creator opens on Friday, September 29.