Sequels, reboots and adaptations of pre-existing works dominate the modern landscape of Hollywood filmmaking. The reason is simple. Audiences are instinctively drawn to the familiar, as evidenced by recent box office juggernauts like “Barbie” or “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” the vast majority of which contain direct ties to widely-known characters and brands. So, unsurprisingly, major studios tend to avert financial risk by not funding wholly original projects from filmmakers of little or middling acclaim. “The Creator” distinguishes itself as a rare exception to this trend, boasting a sizable but relatively modest $80 million budget to bring to life an original, grand-scale science fiction story. The very existence of “The Creator” is a triumph, given the derivative state of most modern blockbusters. But beyond that, it presents a story that, while visually impeccable, mostly proves unworthy of emotional investment.
Released Sept. 29, “The Creator” is a sci-fi epic from the mind of writer-director Gareth Edwards, best known for his work on “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “Godzilla” (2014). Set in the not-so-distant future, the film takes place in the aftermath of a nuclear bombing over Los Angeles allegedly executed by an artificial intelligence. Consequently, the U.S. and other Western nations become keen on eliminating AI entirely but are opposed by New Asia, a fictional country within southeast Asia that adamantly supports the integration of AI-enabled beings, known as simulants, into society. War erupts between the two nations, prompting the creation of a superweapon in New Asia to turn the tide in AI’s favor. The U.S. government recruits former special forces officer Joshua Taylor, portrayed by John David Washington of BlacKkKlansman and Tenet fame, to extract and eliminate this mysterious weapon. Joshua discovers the weapon to be a simulant in the form of a young girl nicknamed Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), who is capable of controlling surrounding technology. Convinced that Alphie may be able to lead him to his wife Maya (Gemma Chan), whom he previously thought dead, Joshua treks across New Asia with the supposed superweapon in search of his long-lost love.
The most impressive asset of “The Creator” is its sheer visual splendor. Part of this aesthetic beauty owes itself to the superb art direction through which Edwards imparts a unique view of a future that is somehow as cold as it is brimming with life. Taking obvious inspiration from the iconic worlds of sci-fi classics like “Star Wars” and “Blade Runner,” the various technologies on display carry a degree of clunkiness and grime, allowing for striking designs that correspond seamlessly with the grounded realism the film sets out for. These designs are brought to life with some truly remarkable practical and computer-generated effects that arguably look superior to modern blockbusters of significantly higher budgets. The outstanding FX work paired with Edwards’s artistic vision makes the fantastical appear tangible in a manner not often achieved by contemporary works of this scale.
A similar level of care and detail is applied to the film’s meticulous worldbuilding. Joshua and Alphie’s journey throughout New Asia is used to exhibit a wide array of distinct locations. Underground simulant factories, neon-drenched cityscapes, lush green villages and several other gorgeously constructed locales illustrate the diverse makeup of the film’s fictional world. The impressive quantity of locations communicates a sprawling scale that emphasizes the war-driven backdrop. Viewers get the constant sense that there are bountiful stories to be told outside of those experienced by the main protagonists, a telltale sign that a fabricated setting feels truly alive.
Though “The Creator” successfully taps into viewers’ imaginations by establishing a world teeming with narrative possibility, a lackluster script causes the film to fall short of exploring that world in a captivating or satisfying way. A crippling issue is the absence of memorable, emotionally resonant characters. Joshua, for example, is yet another ex-agent who is jaded from a personal loss but reluctantly dragged back into the line of duty once offered a promising reward, in this case the potential retrieval of his wife. Though this archetype has appeared in countless science fiction stories, there is nothing inherently wrong with repurposing it, but the screenplay fails to include the additional depth needed to make Joshua a protagonist worth following. It instead relies entirely on his tragic backstory to earn audiences’ investment. This oversight is difficult to overlook, considering Joshua’s desire to reunite with his wife is an integral driving force of the narrative.
As with Joshua, potentially fascinating aspects of Alphie’s character are introduced but never expanded upon. For example, as New Asia’s secret ace, Alphie was initially caged in an underground bunker, implying she had little to no direct interaction with the outside world before escaping with Joshua. Her limited experience with the world beyond the bunker would presumably skew her outward behavior and beliefs, leading to entertaining encounters with characters from the outside. This rich source of intrigue is left untouched and Alphie is left a largely one-note character whose main trait is wanting freedom for simulants — a trait that is, once again, examined with no further depth.
Perhaps the most glaring shortcoming of “The Creator” is its disinterest in meaningfully exploring the topic of artificial intelligence. The film is intent on presenting a realistically war-torn world, yet hesitates to let any sense of moral ambiguity linger. For most of its runtime, AI and its supporters are firmly portrayed as peace-loving innocents while its opponents are vilified to an almost cartoonish extent. Diluting the war into a simple instance of good versus bad contributes to a severely un-nuanced view of AI as humanity’s equal. This simplification is all the more misplaced when examined in the context of the current trepidation surrounding AI.
“The Creator” is all style and little substance. Edwards and company crafted a visual marvel that is especially impressive given its modest budget. For all of its technical wonders, the film’s underdeveloped narrative and characters fail to use the fascinating world developed around it. This clash of exterior delight and interior vacancy produces a disappointingly hollow experience that leaves viewers longing for something more.