It’s hard to remember the last great original science fiction movie that felt like it truly represented something astounding for the genre. Was it James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009? There have been other commendable films in the genre, like Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi or Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, but they’ve mostly been part of a franchise or based on another work. While Gareth Edwards’s The Creator isn’t a perfect film, it does feel like an important achievement in the genre, proving that there is still something new to be said that isn’t part of continuing something created before.
Of course, Edwards is no stranger to big sci-fi franchises. He’s perhaps best known for directing his controversial Star Wars film, Rogue One. (Despite what the haters say, it’s the most innovative Star Wars movie since the first one.) But now Edwards and Chris Weitz have co-written a story that pulls inspiration from wildly different classics like Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, and E.T., yet still feels fresh.
The Creator takes place in 2070, in a world visibly altered by a major nuclear explosion in Los Angeles years before that killed a million people. The explosion was blamed on artificial intelligence, leading to it being banned in the United States. At the same time, the country of New Asia continues to develop AI that seems more and more humanoid. The United States has been fighting a war against New Asia to attempt to shut down all of its AI but, despite significant casualties, has not made much headway.
The AI beings look to the Nirmata – or Creator – as their leader and the United States is determined to kill him. The Nirmata has made a super-weapon capable of destroying the U.S.S. Nomad, an aircraft capable of destroying whole cities with nuclear missiles, and the American army is determined to destroy it. Commander Howell (Allison Janney) recruits former soldier Joshua (John David Washington) to return to New Asia to help them find the Nirmata’s secret weapon.
However, Joshua is still recovering from five years before, when he was part of an undercover mission to find Nirmata and infiltrated a group of AI fighters. His human wife Maya (Gemma Chan) was lost in the last battle, but not before she discovered his betrayal. Howell tells Joshua that Maya is still alive and that in return for helping them find the superweapon, Alpha O, they will ensure her safety.
Joshua’s mission soon veers off course, and he’s on a quest to find Maya, with a young AI simulant he calls Alphie (Madeline Yuna Voyles) in tow. The film’s greatest asset might be the leading performances from Washington and Voyles. Voyles gives a moving debut performance as Alphie, keeping up with actors much more experienced and portraying a complicated character in a way that wins the audience over. Meanwhile, this is arguably one of Washington’s best roles, allowing him to fulfill the classic adventurer role from classic sci-fi movies while portraying a deep moral crisis as his ideas about AI beings are challenged.
Not only is Joshua confronting both AI fighters and United States military men, but also his own beliefs about AI. Edwards certainly doesn’t hold back in portraying the United States Army as the bad guys. Rather, he shows that there are complex motivations on both sides – Howell had a son who was killed by an AI being – but that the United States’s foreign policy is the greatest threat to peace.
There are some minor issues, like why Joshua wouldn’t speak the language in New Asia when he lived there undercover for many months or why other languages are only translated onscreen sometimes and not always. But Edwards melds humor and heart, always toeing the line of suggesting great violence but not showing so much that it’s no longer appropriate for older children.
What feels less than timely is the film’s positioning on AI. Much of the conflict revolves around whether AI beings should be considered alive and as real people. The film certainly suggests that they should, which makes sense within the worldbuilding of the film. However, it feels a strange taste in my mouth amid the writers of the WGA looking for protection against being replaced by AI. The film was first conceptualized in November 2019, and the cultural conversation around AI has certainly shifted since then, making this feel out of touch with current feelings towards AI in the entertainment industry.
Morality around AI aside, the film is gorgeously made on an impressively small budget (around $80M, small by sci-fi standards). The CGI on the simulants, with their combination of human features and technology, is particularly noteworthy, as is the sound work, particularly in the aircraft scenes. Hans Zimmer has composed a beautiful, sweeping score for the film that puts it in the same league of John Williams’s work in the Star Wars films or Zimmers’s own in Dune. The design of the world is well thought-through; it’s close enough to our world to be recognizable but also feels believable as being five decades in the future.
Despite all the fighting and bloodshed, one of the most chilling moments of The Creator comes when Joshua sees an ad on a big screen in a city, suggesting, “Donate your likeness.” As background actors wonder if they’ll become obsolete due to the ability of AI to fill in the back of scenes with already recorded people without even needing their permission, it feels all too indicative of where the future might be headed. The Creator is perhaps better if you don’t think too hard about what it’s saying about AI and can enjoy it for the great sci-fi film it is.
20th Century Studios will release The Creator only in theaters on September 29.
Photo: Oren Soffer/20th Century Studios