With its box office prospects currently looking rather less than stellar, it’s probable that The Creator, the latest sci-fi extravaganza (and it genuinely is an extravaganza) from Gareth (Godzilla) Edwards will find its place in the cinematic history books because of the incredible economy of its budget (the film cost around $80m to make) and the fact that, flying in the face of current theatrical trends, it isn’t a franchise feature, a sequel, a reimagining, or even a superhero film. It’s an all-new, standalone sci-fi flick, albeit one that not only borrows fairly heavily from classic genre concepts but also, to its credit or not, plays around with recent/current growing concerns about the development of Artificial Intelligence and the threat it may (or may not) pose to mankind’s dominance of the planet. The Creator isn’t quite a masterpiece, but it skews pretty close at times, and if it doesn’t quite succeed as a ‘cautionary tale’ (it’s a bit too broad for that), it more than delivers as a refreshingly ‘new’ IP that doesn’t require years of audience loyalty and emotional investment to make its point. Ironically, in a year that has seen several established franchises and ‘Universes’ have crashed and burned, The Creator may well suffer from a lack of core familiarity; maybe it’s a year or too ahead of its cinematic time.
A brisk bit of info-dumping at the start sets the scene. From initially being heralded as a massive technological breakthrough, AI has gone rogue. A nuclear detonation has wiped out Los Angeles, and man is now at war with AI, which has been pushed back into Asia. The military is moving in to wipe out the threat once and for all with specific help from the formidable NOMAD military space station, which pinpoints enclaves of rogue AI and drops bombs to wipe them out. But the ‘Creator’, the architect of this advanced generation of AI – humanoid creatures with visible mechanical workings and malformed craniums – is still at large and has developed a superweapon that has the power to not only end the war but also to wipe out mankind. Our hero is everyman soldier Joshua (John David Washington), who severely injured himself in a previous battle and is now augmented by functioning prosthetics. He’s part of the elite military team tasked with journeying behind enemy lines to track down this new superweapon, but Joshua has his own demons as he is haunted by the brutal death of his pregnant wife, Maya (Gemma Chan), five years earlier. As Joshua and the team enter territory infested with AI soldiers, he makes a shocking discovery – not only about Maya but also about the nature of this elusive superweapon, which turns out to be a very human/AI child with the power to control technology itself.
At its heart, it’s a simple man vs machine storyline, the stuff of science fiction since the birth of the robot and the concept of machines with independent thought. But Edwards makes it feel fresh and new simply by the unique style of filmmaking he has brought to the project. Largely eschewing massive crews and studio sets, he opts to make his movie virtually guerilla style, filming raw footage at around 80 locations around the world without any of the usual time-consuming artifice of the medium and then allowing his FX gurus to build the world and the spectacle around the live-action. And what spectacle it is. We’re all used to the magic Hollywood can conjure up digitally these days, and it’s hard to be impressed by what we see on the screen. But when we bear in mind the budget of The Creator, what’s up there is beyond extraordinary. Battle scenes are powerfully visceral; drop ships hurtle through the sky disgorging soldiers ready for war; the NOMAD station is a forbidding and near-constant presence (and the setting of the thrilling, explosive finale), and huge machines roll across the countryside, flattening and sending terrified locals fleeing for their lives. Two sentient suicide robots evoke the cute droids of Star Wars as they stomp almost comically into battle before exploding in the middle of their targets.
The Creator is ultimately a very futuristic war film – many of the scenes perhaps uncomfortably recall shared memories of the Vietnam War, the conflict that still cuts a deep scar across recent American history. But it’s a film about humanity, too. Fighting to assert itself and retain its dominion over the world by fighting against an enemy of its own creation. The scale of its visuals inevitably leave its human cast a little swamped, but there are some good, gutsy performance on offer. John David Washington is more nuanced here than in the baffling Tenet, a tragic figure damaged both by war and personal loss. He quickly establishes a powerful and quite touching bond with the young superweapon Alphie (a demanding role pulled off winningly by Madeleine Yuna Voyles), and there’s good support from Gemma Chan, Ken Watanabe, Allison Janney, and the UK’s Ralph Ineson.
The Creator is a remarkable achievement that could and should be a salutary lesson for those over-indulgent directors who merrily spend 300 million dollars on films that can never really hope to make a huge profit in the current climate. Sadly, The Creator probably won’t either, but as an exercise in original thinking and filmmaking ‘outside the box’, it’s a triumph on its own terms.
THE CREATOR is on general release in cinemas now.