Review: 'The Creator' is a visual miracle, shot with a poet's eye

AI is preferable to humans' propensity for cruelty and violence in this epic.

September 29, 2023, 4:19 AM
A scene from the movie The Creator.
A scene from the movie The Creator.
20th Century Studios

Sorry haters -- the artificial intelligence you fear might be taking over our lives is the surprise hero of "The Creator," the sci-fi epic now only in theaters, where AI is presented as way preferable to our human propensity toward empathy-destroying cruelty and warfare.

That's a bold premise. Sadly, director Gareth Edwards ("Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"), who wrote the mixed-bag of a script with Chris Weitz ("About a Boy"), buries a potent provocation in a mountain of sentimental platitudes and borrowed inspiration that muffles its impact.

The time is the near future. We're told that AI has unleashed a nuke that destroyed most of Los Angeles, killing millions. Human error is really to blame. But five years later, AI is outlawed as robots -- they're called simulants -- take refuge in the so-called New Asia, where the movie starts looking like "Apocalypse Now," a classic Vietnam reference it can't sustain, not to mention the cringe-worthy racial optics.

John David Washington in a scene from the movie The Creator.
20th Century Studios

The heavy plotting stymies the performance of John David Washington as Joshua, an undercover Army operative who's literally lost an arm and leg in the attack, a loss that requires (irony alert) robotics to make him whole again. He's also lost his pregnant wife Maya (Gemma Chan), a tragedy intensified by (cliche alert) flashbacks to the sexy couple beach dancing.

In the five years of LA rebuilding, an embittered Joshua has returned to duty to destroy the "Nirmata," the god-like creator of advanced AI who can end the war but only by destroying all of mankind.

Instead, Joshua finds a robot weapon disguised as a 6-year-old girl. He calls her Alphie, and as played by the insanely adorable Madeleine Yuna Voyles, there is no way for Joshua to do anything but take her side. Besides, his own child would have been her age. You can see where this is going, and that's not a good thing.

The real villain is the U.S. military, represented by the always electric Oscar and Emmy winner Allison Janney as Colonel Howell. She tells Joshua that Maya is still alive and that he needs to obliterate Alphie before she can destroy their hovering HQ -- a death star called the U.S.S. Nomad -- that locates and bombs New Asian targets.

A scene from the movie The Creator.
20th Century Studios

Washington and the luminous Voyles invest genuine emotional gravity into the relationship between Joshua and this robot girl child. But even they can't escape the traps set by a contrived script of deadends. What to make of robot leader Harun (Ken Watanabe) when he claims simulants are not programmed to harm humans? The film frustratingly dodges answers.

Where Edwards triumphs is in his cinematic world building. "The Creator" is a visual miracle, shot with a poet's eye by camera master Greig Fraser ("Zero Dark Thirty," both parts of "Dune") in league with newbie Oren Soffer. Along with production designer James Clyne, they make this $80 million production look like it cost four times as much.

Edwards explains that instead of building budget-busting sets, his crew traveled to 80 countries, using light cameras to shoot footage that visual effects could be layered onto later. And what do you know, it works like a charm and a way forward to generate blockbusters on a reasonable budget, thereby making its own valid case for AI.

From the battles it builds on land, sea and air to the look of Alphie with her human face marked by large ears that open to her wired insides, this movie brims over with stunning images. What a shame that the creators of "The Creator" never find a way to instill their ambitious passion project with a soul that might have given it wings.