This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series covered here wouldn’t exist.
Hollywood commentators may long debate who deserves the glory for the success of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Though on-screen credit goes to director Gareth Edwards, last-minute reshoots and editing supervised by Tony Gilroy prompted Disney to give Gilroy a last-minute screenwriting title on the movie. The subsequent Disney+ series Andor, created and produced by Gilroy, suggests that the Mouse House bosses have awarded him the lion’s share of glory for Rogue One.
Now Gareth Edwards has returned with his next directorial outing, The Creator, another sci-fi story that offers the writer/director a rebuttal of sorts: a way of saying to the world that he deserves kudos for Rogue One as well. Ambitious, thoughtful, and disturbing, The Creator packs a heck of a wallop, even as it makes a monumental third-act fumble.
A Different World
In the not-too-distant future, World War III has broken out over artificial intelligence. The Western democracies have banned robots and AI following the destruction of Los Angeles by a nuclear device. AI remains in widespread use in Asia, with androids (called “Synths”) integrated into society and considered members of the family. The Western Alliance counters with the invention of NOMAD, a roving, low-level space station that can fire off devastating attacks on enemy bases.
Amid the ongoing violence, undercover Special Forces operative Joshua (John David Washington) has gone behind enemy lines in search of Namada—the Creator of advanced AI, whom androids worship as a god. Along the way, Joshua has also fallen in love and married Maya (Gemma Chan), an engineer pregnant with their child. A botched Western attack causes the village leader Haran (Ken Watanabe) to recognize Joshua as an enemy agent, and Maya dies in the violence that follows.
Five years later, a maimed and depressed Joshua struggles with the loss of his wife and unborn child. A military commander named Howell (Allison Janney) approaches Joshua with evidence that Maya survived the attack and still lives within enemy territory. Hoping to find Maya, Joshua agrees to accompany Howell on a mission to investigate an AI superweapon capable of turning the tide of the war. The investigation, however, leads to a shocking revelation: the weapon is an android child named Alife (Madeline Yuna Voyles) who grows just as a human child would, and who has the power to control AI-related machines with her thoughts.
As penned by Edwards and Chris Weitz, The Creator paints an original story using shades of familiar sci-fi: Aliens, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Matrix, The Terminator, and, in particular, Blade Runner and Akira all echo in the plot here. Yet the movie never feels derivative, thanks to a masterstroke on the part of the director. Whereas most other AI/robot-themed fiction always feels cold and sterile, Edwards subverts the trope by setting his film in the jungles of Asia. The Creator feels humid, wet: sweat drips off the actors, and dirt soils their faces. Aesthetically, the film has more in common with Apocalypse Now or Bridge on the River Kwai than any of its sci-fi forebearers. Robots huddle in swampy villages and ancient Buddhist temples or drift by on riverboats. As photographed by Greig Fraser and Oren Soffer, the movie takes on a hypnotic quality with its surreal imagery. If nothing else, Edwards has created a new kind of science fiction aesthetic—one in which machines seem to evolve from nature itself.
Much like Blade Runner and A.I. Artificial Intelligence before it, The Creator wants to ask existential questions about the nature of artificial intelligence and at what point, if any, they become “alive.” Edwards devotes so much screentime to the juxtaposition of foilage and machinery—be it Joshua’s cybernetic leg, or robot-human families living in huts—to suggest that Synths have become a new form of life, or the next step in evolution. This meditation on the nature of AI feels timely, given the current strikes in Hollywood over use of the tool in movies, or the replacement of writers and actors with computer-realized performers. One joke about humans donating their likenesses so robots can have humanoid bodies probably cuts closer to the bone than Edwards intended. The movie also raises political issues in its pitting East vs. West, though what Edwards wants to say about democracy, autocracy, human rights abuses, and collectivization never really comes into focus.
In the third act of the film, however, these questions become more problematic. Like Rogue One, The Creator suffers from some choppy storytelling. It feels as though the movie lost certain narrative beats at some point; characters appear out of nowhere, seemingly out of plot convenience. More damaging, The Creator raises its deepest question only to ignore it. Even in the film’s hyper-advanced world, all AI still must adhere to programming—one key scene reveals that, for example, robots cannot kill one character, as it would violate their design. At the same time, Howell recalls witnessing androids just as violent as human beings, torturing and killing soldiers. Joshua sees and endures horrible brutality at the hands of Synths, too. Yet Joshua never questions if Alfie has only benevolent motives (clearly, people don’t watch The Terminator or Battlestar Galactica in this proposed future). Though Edwards does give Joshua a clever motive for wanting to help her, he never even considers the ramifications of his actions, making him look like, at best, a total moron and, at worst, a traitor to humanity.
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina dealt with this question in a much more deft—and frightening—way. That movie told the story of an inventor (Oscar Isaac) who built a robot (Alicia Vikander) designed to prey on human empathy with disastrous results. Characters in that movie recognized the potential danger afoot; they made choices to give in to it or to ignore it. Joshua should do the same thing here but never fully considers the potential consequences of his befriending Alfie.
Worse, because the audience will inevitably wonder how great a threat Alfie poses to humanity, Joshua’s character looks reckless, and the movie’s final moments ring hollow. Edwards, we suspect, sees The Creator as an uplifting sci-fi drama a la E.T. The Extraterrestrial. Audiences will question if they’ve just seen a prequel to The Matrix. Whether Edwards truncated his original vision—thus accounting for both some choppy plotting and obscuring the movie’s central question—we cannot say. But the ending here also evokes Blade Runner in the worst possible way: as with that film’s theatrical cut, the ending of The Creator feels like a betrayal of the preceding two hours. It doesn’t want to address the dilemma the story actually raises—to be clear, not answer it, but to leave the audience pondering.
In its final form, The Creator ranks as one of the most unique and provocative science fiction films in some time, blemishes and all. Gareth Edwards has discovered a new visual style of sci-fi filmmaking, ideally cast each of his actors, and stuffed his movie with seamless special effects. Like Rogue One, it feels like a flawed masterpiece—something that brushes the bar of greatness but can’t quite hold on to it. Still, that both films do as much should vindicate Edwards as a director. With The Creator, he has made his best film to date, one that deserves an audience, even if the movie doesn’t intend to frustrate or frighten as much as it does.
Rating: 9/10 SPECS
The Creator opens in theatres on September 29. We’ve got the latest on movies in theaters now.
David Reddish is the award-winning novelist behind The Passion of Sergius & Bacchus and the Sex, Drugs & Superheroes series. He's also a noted entertainment journalist, having written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, MovieWeb, ScreenRant, Queerty, and Playboy.