Original science fiction is up there with the best movie genres of all time. Many of the classics are from the ‘80s and ‘90s, but we have some elite films in this group from the 21st century. As special effects and technology get more advanced, there’s no better time to be making original sci-fi. In fact, these movies happen to be some of the best movies of the past 15-20 years—Mad Max: Fury Road, Arrival, Ex Machina, Edge of Tomorrow, Blade Runner: 2049. What makes these movies great is that they blend mind-blowing special effects with a strong emotional core. At any moment, you can be gripped by an awe-inspiring setpiece while simultaneously having your heartstrings tugged. Gareth Edwards’ The Creator is one of the best-looking movies of the past 5-7 years but leaves you empty and hollow by the end.
Set in a not-so-distant future, humans and artificial intelligence (AI) are engaged in a war after initially working in harmony. Joshua (John David Washington), an ex-special forces officer, is tasked with tracking and eliminating “Nimrata,” or The Creator, the architect of the AI group. The humans have discovered that Nimrata has created a weapon with the potential to eradicate humanity. Joshua finds the weapon en route to finding Nimrata but discovers it’s an AI child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). Joshua finds that the battle between humans and AI isn’t as clear-cut as he once thought and he has a dark connection to it.
As AI—unfortunately and frighteningly—becomes a bigger part of our culture, the premise of The Creator feels eerily prescient. To some, it makes sense that a film on the dangers of AI is being made now but Edwards started developing this movie back in 2019. AI movies aren’t new to this era (just take a look at HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey) but The Creator feels like the first movie to come out with the emergence of AI programs like ChatGPT that have the potential to create damage.
And Edwards does his best not to copycat 2001 or The Terminator and solely tell an “AI is bad” story. The ideas he’s positioning are really interesting. Some of the AI in the movie are your basic robots, but many of them are a hybrid between human and android. It reminded me of Ava’s design from Ex Machina. By imbuing AI with anthropomorphic qualities (especially his decision to make the destructive weapon a child), it raises many moral questions. AI is harmful and can have deleterious effects on society, but humans created them in the first place. So, who’s to blame for the disaster?
It’s disappointing, however, that these fascinating ideas never coalesce into a satisfying story. Edwards is a director with whom I have a complicated relationship. The same issues I have with his previous endeavors—2014’s Godzilla and 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story—exist in The Creator. I think he’s truly one of the best visual directors we have but his screenplays do nothing for me. His characters are underwritten and, while the world-building is ambitious, it’s not engaging enough for the audience to be invested in.
These problems feel more evident in The Creator because a lot of the movie hinges on the relationships between the characters. In Godzilla and Rogue One, you had a giant lizard or Darth Vader to bring the audience back once you lost them. Here, there’s no draw to make up for the bland writing. The emotions never pay off if the characters never amount to anything other than their generic characterization. It’s a bit ironic that a movie about AI feels at times it was lazily written by AI.
Even though the dull narrative threatened to take me out of the movie, the otherworldly special effects and visuals kept my eyes glued to the screen. There is no other way to state this and it can’t be left unsaid: this movie looks unfreakingbelievable. The moment the film ended, I immediately googled the budget, expecting it to be around $150-200 million. I nearly dropped my phone when I saw the reported budget was only $80 million. Here are some budgets of recent movies that look horrendous: The Flash $220 million, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny $300 million, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania $200 million, and here’s a TV show just for fun, Secret Invasion…$212 million. All these projects are almost 3x the budget of The Creator and look infinitely worse. This is not a hit on the hard-working visual effects technicians and animators (who are working under awful conditions) but goes to show that a movie doesn’t need a gargantuan budget to look state-of-the-art.
Edwards shot this movie on location in various cities across the world and it is beautifully evident. The special effects were added in post-production after the actors had shot in real locations with real lighting. There’s no volume or green screen in sight. Every shot in this movie feels like a sad but staggering painting. From the streams and marshes in Vietnam to the city lights in rainy Japan, you have to hand it to Edwards for not compromising on The Creator’s striking look. All the AI designs are extremely well-done and I found the action set-pieces to be well-choreographed and fun to watch. It’s not a surprise the film was shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Grieg Fraser and I’m rooting for him to pick up another nomination for this movie in March—the visuals are that good.
Most of The Creator’s shortcomings can be found in its confusing, rushed, and apathetic third act. The movie before this builds up the relationship between Joshua and Alfie (the AI child weapon) and does so to make the decisions in the third act feel impactful. I couldn’t find myself invested in the Joshua-Alfie relationship and, when Edwards wanted to lay the hammer in the end, I felt unmoved. It became perplexing to follow everything that was going on, as the climax cuts between multiple sequences. I found the action set-piece leading up to the climax far more effective and wished Edwards found a way to wrap up the movie there.
Washington is an actor I really like and think he brings a lot of confidence and charisma to any character he plays. Sadly, he’s always given poorly written characters to play, like Joshua. Christopher Nolan used him exceptionally well in Tenet but we have to get Washington some characters with depth and personality. Similarly, we need to have an intervention on how Hollywood has failed the stunning and uber-talented Gemma Chan. She stole the show in Crazy Rich Asians and every movie she’s done since then has been a total let-down. Chan’s probably the biggest casualty of the haphazard screenplay and is given a character that has nothing going for it—no personality nor motivation. I think she would do wonders in a Greta Gerwig movie, someone please make this happen.
As I mentioned before, the best original sci-fi movies need a seamless blend of great visual effects and a strong, investable story. The Creator only nails one of those aspects. You’ll leave this movie thinking about the scale and images Edwards creates, but shortly after, you’ll forget the character’s names and plot points. I hope Edwards makes more movies since he’s clearly talented but with a script that doesn’t feel like it was written by ChatGPT.