This week, the Writers Guild of America finally came to an agreement with film studios over fair pay, after a 148-day strike. One of their successful stipulations centred on banning the use of Artificial Intelligence in the writing process, another step in the rage against the machine across pretty much every workforce replacing humans with computers. The release of 'The Creator', a science-fiction epic exploring the place AI has in society, couldn't be timelier; furthermore, in a year where our big sci-fi franchises have turned in less-than-stellar instalments, it's refreshing to finally watch a truly entertaining 2023 science-fiction film.
It is 2065 and a blended society of humans, human-like AI "simulants" and robots are at war thanks to an AI-launched nuclear strike on Los Angeles that killed a million humans. Under threat of being hunted 'Blade Runner'-style, the remaining AI have retreated to supercontinent New Asia as a last frontier for survival and companionship with humans. Despite this, the AI and the humans who harbour them are under constant threat from a Unite States-helmed mothership called NOMAD, a jaw-dropping flying weapon that uses lasers to survey for AI and drop their own bombs. Embroiled in the fallout of the war is ex-special forces officer Joshua (John David Washington, 'Amsterdam'), whose past holds the key to ending the man-versus-machine conflict once and for all. When he is tasked with tracking down and destroying Nirmata, the robots' god-like figure, he finds himself morally conflicted; the weapon Nirmata has apparently created to wipe out the rest of humanity is not a bomb as assumed, but a gifted simulant child called Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles).
SWITCH: 'THE CREATOR' TRAILER 2
Building a lived-in science-fiction world is never easy within a single, feature-length film, but director Gareth Edwards' time in the IP machine – he is perhaps most well-known for directing the 'Stars Wars' prequel 'Rogue One' – seems to have served him well. At least from a visual standpoint, the details of the world presented in 'The Creator' feel like the clear vision of a driven director. Cinematographers Greig Fraser ('The Batman') and Oren Soffer ('Fixation'), along with some incredible visual effects work, make 'The Creator' by far one of the best-looking films of the year – which is even more impressive given its US$80 million budget, a modest figure by today's blockbuster standards. Prepare to feel your jaw drop as something as terrifying as a nuclear strike is somehow rendered into a thing of beauty through Fraser and Soffer's lenses.
John David Washington has long suffered from being out-acted by his supporting cast (see: Adam Driver in 'BlacKkKlansman' and Robert Pattinson in 'Tenet'), but 'The Creator' truly feels like his own film, turning in yet another great performance that requires both physical and emotional prowess. It also helps that the script never gives any of the other characters a chance to be fleshed out at the risk of overstuffing the runtime. What keeps 'The Creator' so exciting – and what might leave some audiences unsatisfied – is that it has so many characters, themes, and lore-building that to do any of these in detail would be detrimental to the film's balance, constantly jumping from one action set piece to the next. Never mind understanding the rationale behind "donating" one's likeness to simulants, for example; the script is adding yet another twist in Joshua's path to solving the disappearance of his wife Maya (Gemma Chan, 'Eternals'), all while trying to figure out whether to turn Alphie in. The film's brisk yet considered pace – even at 135 minutes it never feels a single moment too long – goes a really long way in disguising these holes. It's a shame because while many of the questions behind the practicality of 'The Creator's' world are no doubt a symptom of audiences needing every facet of their art explained to them, there are some elements, such as the aforementioned likeness donation system, that are thought-provoking and could look at the film's ideas in more interesting ways. For example, the AI are also shown participating in spiritual practices such as giving themselves proper burials; spirituality (or lack thereof) in technology is briefly touched on in 'The Creator', but not nearly enough to satisfy audience members looking for a bit more existentialism from their cinema-going.
What keeps 'The Creator' so exciting – and what might leave some audiences unsatisfied – is that it has so many characters, themes, and lore-building that to do any of these in detail would be detrimental to the film's balance, constantly jumping from one action set piece to the next.
Despite the stones it doesn't turn over, 'The Creator' actually attempts to give its story a proper conclusion, and I respect its decision to not try and leave the door open for future potential spin-offs or sequels. Ironically enough, despite my own questions and curiosities about the film's world – do simulants actually eat like humans, like the film implies? What's the difference between a simulant sleeping and being on "standby"? Why haven't robots gone extinct in light of the superior simulants existing? – the film's conclusion is satisfying enough that I doubt anyone will want these answers enough to desire a spin-off or sequel. It's okay to tell a standalone story with legitimate stakes that can't be undone in sequels, and this is something studios should do well to remember in the future.
While it's far from perfect, 'The Creator' is a welcome new science-fiction story. It's not saying anything new, just repackaging and upgrading the software on this strand of thematic storytelling – and sometimes that's all a film needs to do to be deemed worthy of an audience.