The Creator - A flawed, fascinating science fiction epic that entertains
4 out of 5
Artificial Intelligence has been a topic in the news of late and the subject of several films, the latest Mission Impossible film being the most high profile. Director and co-writer Gareth Edwards brings us his take on the perils and ethical questions posed by AI. Gareth, is no stranger to big-budget spectacles having previously delivered Godzilla (2014) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).
The Creator begins with a veritable onslaught of worldbuilding. First there’s the on screen text defining “nirmata” as the Nepalese word for “creator” and what artificial intelligences in this world call their object of worship. We’re then treated to a lengthy news report style introduction featuring in-universe advertisements for artificial intelligence, which is described as “almost like real people” and later “more human than human,” announcing that the film is deeply invested in the question of where societies draw the line of what is considered “human.” Shortly after the introduction of AI, the reports tell us, the artificial intelligences launched a nuclear attack on Los Angeles leading to their outlawing in the Western World (the political designations in the film are somewhat vague) and an all out war in “New Asia” where Western forces seek to eradicate the AI living there. It has echoes of the Terminator franchise and borrows heavily from Judgement Day tropes.
We only see characters when, after several minutes of history lessons for this world, The Creator deposits its audience in the year 2065 where we’re promptly thrown into the chaos of a raid by the West (America) on a home in New Asia. Western special forces operative Joshua Taylor (John David Washington) has been undercover for years with a combined group of humans and AI seeking AI liberation, including Maya (Gemma Chan).
Joshua has become romantically involved with Maya to the extent that they are married and she’s pregnant with their child. He tells the home-invading soldiers that he needs more time to locate Nirmata, but they tell him that their government has ordered movement now, and the sequence ends with a detonation from a missile launched by the high-flying, AI-seeking, one-of-a-kind military station NOMAD that the West has deployed over New Asia, killing Maya.
It’s only then, after a time jump forward of a few years, that film’s primary narrative begins in earnest. The story set-up is fairly standard: Joshua re-enters the search for Nirmata because (politically) Nirmata’s created a new super weapon that may end the war with devastating consequences for humans and Maya may still be alive. Once discovered, it turns out that the “weapon” is in fact a first of its kind AI child, complicating things.
The film’s world-building is not only exhausting conceptually but also on the character level as the first half hour leans heavily on Joshua’s grief, including frequent flashbacks and an instance of the much memed “wife on a beach” video. So it’s kind of amazing that the film ended up working as a high-minded science fiction epic once it found its footing.
The Creator is at its best during conversations and moments of massive action. The film raises questions about AI as the next step in evolution, what conceptions of spirit and the afterlife mean for AI, and whether to use “it” as the pronoun when referring to any AI being. In its largest and most bombastic action sequences, the film evokes historical images of Western (particularly United States) intervention around the world, and the wanton destruction that kind of intervention unleashes. It's hard to escape the echoes of Vietnam when watching some sequences
Interestingly, many of these large-scale action scenes are shot with a distant camera that allows us to see the extent of the destruction and gives a strange sense of matter-of-factness to the proceedings, whether we’re seeing a missile destroy a laboratory or tanks tearing through a village. There are moments of real pathos during the film’s action sequences, as we see communities destroyed by Western forces searching for AI to eliminate while the human and AI citizens of New Asia alike grieve over loved ones’ inert bodies.
It’s all the more frustrating then that in the final moments the film leans hard on interpersonal drama between Joshua and the child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) instead of maintaining a more bird’s eye view of the situation portrayed in this world. It’s not surprising, and it fits in with a long history of science fiction stories that feel the need to couch their big ideas in big emotions, but it draws away from what makes the film succeed in its middle section. The Creator isn’t going to be a modern classic, but for those interested in films about artificial intelligence, and its myriad impacts on human life, the film is worth seeking out.