2023, PG-13, 135 min. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Starring John David Washington, Madeleine Yuna Voyles, Gemma Chan, Ken Watanabe, Sturgill Simpson, Allison Janney.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Sept. 29, 2023
For months, 20th Century Studios has promoted Gareth Edwards’ The Creator as a powerful piece of high-concept science fiction that would bridge the gap between summer movies and award season. But Edwards’ film – much like his Star Wars and Godzilla features – works far better as an exercise in visual storytelling than a lasting rumination on morality. So while it may play in some of the same conceptual deep waters as filmmakers like Alex Garland and Ridley Scott, well, Ex Machina, this is not.
After spending years as an undercover agent in the human-robot resistance movement, Joshua (Washington) struggles to balance his genuine love for his wife, Maya (Chan), with his orders. But when a nighttime raid on the resistance compound leaves Maya dead, Joshua’s life spirals into an endless loop of television and menial labor. It isn’t until word spreads of a powerful superweapon behind enemy lines that Joshua is recruited back into service, even if the target – a childlike supercomputer named Alphie (Voyles) – brings him back into a world he thought he’d left in ashes.
As someone who wrote off and then fell in love with Scott’s Prometheus, I will admit that I’m wary of my initial distaste for The Creator. On paper, the film has many earmarks of science fiction destined for thoughtful rediscovery. The character design is immaculate; the blend of practical and digital effects for synthetic humans inspires a delightful tension between performance and character. Unsurprisingly, Edwards also proves his singular ability to capture monstrosities on film. Here the object of his fixation is not monsters but NOMAD, the horrifying weapon of destruction that floats in low atmosphere and obliterates entire cities in the blink of an eye.
It’s also worth mentioning that The Creator presents a dark and compelling future for the United States, one rarely seen in Hollywood films. Here a national tragedy inspires us to become even more violent and imperialistic in the name of freedom – a direct poke at the nose of the American war machine. Throw in a well-timed needle drop for Radiohead’s "Everything in Its Right Place," and there are plenty of reasons to think The Creator might be this decade’s answer to Children of Men.
But for each of the film’s visual achievements, there are narrative and developmental issues. As much as Edwards’ world invites us in, we are constantly befuddled by the way his characters move through their environments. The narrative disconnects of The Creator are destined to feed a hundred YouTube videos, but would-be plot holes speak to a genuine issue: We struggle to understand what these characters should and shouldn’t know about the technology of their own world. This causes the rules of Edwards’ film to shift around us, leading us down narrative and character dead ends that strip away any chance the film has at building a unique emotional core.
Will history view The Creator as a spectacle-driven exercise in cinematic empathy that forces audiences to align their sympathies with wartime refugees? Or is Edwards’ film just another Hollywood blockbuster that delivers some expensive-looking thrills but rushes its way through a half-baked final push? More often than not, these types of binary questions are designed to push sentiment toward the middle, but Edwards and company have made a film that can exist in both extremes simultaneously. Your mileage may vary, but you’re probably going to have to drive the car at least twice to really know for sure.