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‘The Creator’ Movie Review: Visually Audacious, Thematically Empty

While The Creator has some impressively-crafted images, it does nothing of interest with its core concept.

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Gareth Edwards’ The Creator is one of the best-looking movies of the year and virtually puts every $200 million megablockbuster released this year to shame. There’s no denying that, after viewing The Creator, a movie like The Flash feels more like a money laundering scheme. Where did that $200 million go? Certainly not on the screen…

In The Creator, Edwards and cinematographers Grieg Fraser and Oren Soffer craft a visually rich and lived-in world as they imagine a future where Artificial Intelligence has taken over all of human life. We understand that AI has become more sophisticated and that humans are now at war with AI forces. Joshua (John David Washington), an undercover special forces agent, is tasked to find the creator of an AI weapon poised to end the war and destroy the NOMAD ship, which the humans have used to blow up AI factories worldwide.

After a series of events causes Joshua to leave special forces behind, he gets a visit from Colonel Howell (Allison Janney) and General Andrews (Ralph Ineson) that his long-lost wife, Maya (Gemma Chan), has been found in the factory where the weapon is being created. Joshua accepts to go on the mission with the Colonel to locate the weapon and kill it, but can’t bring himself to do it when he realizes that it’s in the form of a child named Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). Joshua then begins to question AI’s purpose in society when he sees Alphie perform extraordinary things with the potential to end the human-caused war against the robots.

As mentioned above, Edwards crafts a visually rich world with his cinematographers, and it’s even more impressive that the film only cost $80 million to produce. There isn’t a single frame that feels discombobulating – and the 2.76:1 aspect ratio enhances our sense of immersion inside New Asia, where most of the action takes place. Few cinematographers these days will choose to craft their visual language in a wide aspect ratio (some have used 2.55:1 in the past, though 2.76:1 is a once-in-a-generation rarity), and The Creator should be lauded for its creative designs in setting the film in a world that blends old-school technologies with the most advanced (and frequently underestimated) of them all.

The best example is the opening montage, done in the vein of propaganda films like Why We Fight or The March of Time, where humans saw state-approved movies of the United States Government’s technological prowess in building AI-powered robots that will help (and save) the world. Of course, we all know how this turns out. Even the needle drops enhance our understanding of how Edwards wants to portray the world to the audience. A futuristic spaceship-like jet flies in the sky while Radiohead’s Everything in Its Right Place blares on the speakers. Humans seem stuck in the past while the world is evolving without them.

These visual cues and modes of storytelling are done tremendously and are the movie’s highlight, alongside its impeccably crafted action sequences. There isn’t a world where the director of films like Godzilla and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (though the latter film was taken away from him by Tony Gilroy) wouldn’t craft some terrific action.

In this film, Edwards’ modus operandi blends old-school filmmaking techniques with modern sensibilities. He crafts action scenes reminiscent of war epics, like The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Dirty Dozen, and even Apocalypse Now. The ending does get close to Star Wars (with a space base having to be destroyed to save the world), but the gunfights feel far more traditional than modern, which makes his blockbusters stand out amongst the pack of mediocre slop we’re mainly accustomed to seeing.

John David Washington is also excellent as Joshua, which shouldn’t surprise anybody. How he’s able to deftly balance subtle humor (think of “I ordered my hot sauce an hour ago” from Tenet) with heart-wrenching emotion (scenes with Maya and Alphie are also well-crafted) is astounding, but he does it effortlessly. Yuna Voyles is the heart of the supporting cast as Alphie, at times hilarious (when she predictably does the tired “robot repeating human words without knowing what they mean” schtick), but is more leaning towards emotion as the robot forms a bond with a human now tasked to protect her from the clichéd villains.

And that’s where the movie begins to show its cracks. Janney is a highly talented actor, and it’s certainly great to see her in a role that feels against type, but her character is the most underdeveloped. The entire crux of the film is resumed with “Humans think AI bad. AI thinks humans bad. Protagonist learns AI may be good. AI learns human may be good,” and that’s about the only thematic message Edwards and co-writer Chris Weitz craft in 133 tediously-long minutes. It consistently presents AI as a looming threat to humans, with the military characters continuously repeating the dangers of the technology while never fully exploring why that is. Of course, we all have subjective frights on using AI in our everyday lives, but why does the movie think it’s terrible? It’s the most critical question of it all, and yet it never bothers to at least give some clues to form an answer.

It also doesn’t help that none of the supporting characters, past Alphie, have a form of an arc. Janney’s “big bad” move is to order someone to “Hack everything,” which she repeats ad nauseam. Why do they need to hack everything? The audience seemingly associates this with finding traces of Joshua, but once they see him, she says, “Hack everything.” And how will they be able to “hack everything”? The film never bothers to explain how hacking technology has developed in 2063 – but isn’t it great that humans can hack everything easily?

Ineson fares no better as the bad General whom we know is evil because he plays every scene with mean eyes and a gruff voice and wants to kill AI because his mind has been conditioned to think AI is bad, and that’s it. I’m not the one to root for Artificial Intelligence, especially in an era where it seems poised to replace human labor, but the film never gives compelling reasons for audiences to root for – or against – AI, other than “It’s bad,” from the humans, or “It may be good if used in the right hands,” from Joshua.

Even Joshua’s relationship with a simulant named Harun (Ken Watanabe) is underdeveloped. The two had a friendship but weren’t on speaking terms anymore. However, once Harun sees Joshua protect Alphie, everything changes instantly. What happened between them is barely explored, but never enough for us to ultimately care about Harun – or the other human-like individuals in New Asia. Wasting the acting (and action-movie) talents of Veronica Ngo in this economy should be criminal, yet Disney has done it twice already.

The Creator disappointingly reaches the finish line with a climax so utterly trite and manipulative that none of the emotional underpinnings in the first two acts cohere satisfyingly. As a result, the film is nothing more than a pretty exercise in visual storytelling, with two strong performances leading the fort but without much else to offer in its thematic department. It’s nowhere near some of the greatest science-fiction movies ever made, but it at least reaffirms how incredible of a cinematographer Grieg Fraser is and will be in the decades to come.

The Creator releases in theatres on September 29.

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