Worldbuilding in film requires a lot of elements to come together. To establish a reality with its own rules and striations, one must draw from multiple sources to flesh out the fictional space. There’s the production and costume design that makes it feel like a lived-in place; the cinematography that captures the look and action of it; and the writing and character work that reveals the type of people who inhabit this world and what their dialogue says about their society as a larger whole. The different departments come together to conjure up something new, taking an imagined reality and making it feel more concrete (and thus more engaging) to viewers. “The Creator” does a great job of establishing its world, helped largely by excellent visual work throughout, where it’s immediately communicated what is happening in this not-too-distant future and how our world became that way. With all that tremendous attention to detail that director/co-writer Gareth Edwards marshals with the rest of his crew, it’s unfortunate that the same levels of innovation and insight weren’t brought to the story or dialogue. Nevertheless, while clichéd narrative beats and hackneyed action-speak mar “The Creator,” that doesn’t stop it from being an entertaining and well-made film.
In the not-too-distant future, humanity is at war with artificial intelligence. Present in almost all elements of human life, and especially integrated as servile androids, these machines seek to prove they are sentient beings deserving of respect and other rights. This eventually leads to a nuclear bombing of Los Angeles and a war between the United States military and the centralized AI movement. Desperate for an advantage over their enemy, special forces soldier Joshua (John David Washington) is pulled out of retirement by Colonel Howell (Allison Janney) to help locate a new weapon that the AI army has been working on. Joshua knows the layout of the lab that needs to be infiltrated thanks to his time undercover, but when his commando group locates the weapon in question, Joshua is surprised to discover that it’s a robotic child called Alpha One (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). Now, the duo must escape forces on all sides while the war rages on around them.
One could make a mental checklist for all the strengths and weaknesses of “The Creator.” In fact, doing so is what leads to the revelation that it’s ultimately a good movie. The performances are great, with Washington doing well to carry the weight of the movie (and seemingly the world at war) on his shoulders. He’s helped greatly by Yuna Voyles, whose wide-eyed expressions really sell the wonder and fear that her character experiences. It’s just unfortunate that they’re tasked with delivering the kind of subpar dialogue that we’ve heard dozens of times before in this type of film. This obvious approach to dialogue that Edwards and co-writer Chris Weitz employ befalls the plot as well. However, while you can pretty much guess what’s going to happen along the way, those moments are executed well thanks to some great cinematography by Greig Fraser and Oren Soffer, impeccable design work, and thoroughly engaging editing by Hank Corwin, Scott Morris and Joe Walker.
That’s the real issue with “The Creator” — it’s constantly two steps forward, one step back. And yet, even with all these poor decisions made at the script level, the film ends up being very engaging, almost despite itself. Edwards is amazing at shooting action, particularly military-style sieges and engagements. The firefights in “The Creator” are at once slick (as in masterly choreographed) but also messy (as in the chaos of war). The conquering forces and their weapons are truly terrifying and appalling, beautifully captured in their juxtaposition against the gorgeous South Asian landscapes. The action sequences are emotionally engaging, not only due to their tragic nature but also the more exciting moments that are well-choreographed by everyone involved. The actors sell the moments, the DPs capture them in an interesting setting, and impressive visual effects are added to flesh it out even more. That is how Edwards is often able to overcome the rather large failings that run throughout the script.
It’s not inherently bad when something is familiar in storytelling. There are theories that, from a far enough distance, there are only so many types of stories in the world. Those formulas work because they’re ingrained in us on an almost primordial level, but the great films are those that take the familiar and make them feel new. Though “The Creator” isn’t quite strong enough to turn its well-trodden story beats and tired dialogue from obstacles into assets, it is nonetheless a wonderfully realized world captured beautifully and populated by interesting characters. Edwards has made an entertaining and somber film with “The Creator” — it’s just unfortunate that he can’t build narratives as well as he can build worlds.
Starring: John David Washington, Madeleine Yuna Voyles, Gemma Chan, Allison Janney, Ken Watanabe, Sturgill Simpson, Veronica Ngo, Ralph Ineson
Director: Gareth Edwards