‘The Creator’ breathes new life into old tropes

Joshua (John David Washington) and Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) come together despite all odds to take down the U.S.S. Nomad, a U.S. space station. “The Creator” chronicles a war on AI, speaking to new fears of emerging technology. // Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the buzzword of the year in the technology space, and the world of cinema keeps up with these emerging themes. Enter “The Creator,” an ambitious science fiction film directed by Gareth Edwards that visualizes a world with an AI race and its turbulent relationship with humanity.

Set in the year 2065, the movie starts with a montage reminiscent of television ads from the 1970s about the development of AI. In Edwards’ world, AI — manifesting as a race of factory-made humanoid robots — has achieved sentience and replaced a variety of human occupations. 15 years prior to the present setting of the movie, a nuclear explosion devastated Los Angeles. In response to the explosion, which was dubiously attributed to AI, the United States announced a total ban on AI and began a war to eliminate all remaining AI
presence from the world.

The story shifts focus to Joshua (John David Washington, “Tenet”), an American soldier who is sent undercover to a territory called New Asia to befriend The Creator’s daughter, Maya (Gemma Chan, “Crazy Rich Asians”). Five years earlier, Joshua and Maya had been in a loving relationship and were expecting a child at the time of a U.S. invasion of New Asia. Maya was separated from Joshua, and an explosion convinced the latter that he had seen the last of her. In the movie’s present setting, a lethal weapon named Alpha O has been developed by AI to take down the U.S.S. Nomad, a space station primarily used as a missile launching and research center. With the help of a realistic holographic projection of New Asia, the U.S. forces are able to bring Joshua on board the mission to destroy Alpha O, since it gives him hope of finding Maya alive.

After an intense and costly confrontation between the US forces and AI, Joshua stumbles upon Alpha O, an AI in the likeness of a human child. Joshua later learns that Alpha O (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) — nicknamed “Alphie” as part of her human disguise — was modeled by Maya on the embryo of the child she was expecting with Joshua. The unlikely duo of Joshua and Alphie get over their initial communication difficulties to forge a strong bond that becomes the crux of the film. Eventually, Alphie lives up to her formidable reputation and destroys the U.S.S. Nomad, significantly damaging U.S. chances of wiping out AI from New Asia.

Washington stands out in his portrayal of Joshua, particularly in the heart-wrenching scenes of separation from Maya and Alphie at various moments in the film. Within minutes of on-screen action, Washington and Chan convince the audience of the intensity of their romantic relationship and elicit empathy towards the lead characters when they are pulled apart. Voyles puts together a spectacular performance as Alphie, conveying complex and varied emotions with flair. A significant amount of time is spent developing Joshua and Alphie’s characters, and the few elements of humor in the film also come out during the conversations between the duo.

Aside from highlighting the main characters’ development, “The Creator” lends stunning detail to its conception of the futuristic, conflict-ridden world. The aerial shots used to define New Asia create a picture of surreal beauty, while the desolate ruins of Los Angeles are also constructed remarkably realistically. Perhaps most impressive are the CGI renders for the humanoids, which look highly futuristic without compromising the aesthetics of the human form. A generous amount of screen time is spent on portraying social interactions in the AI world, with various aspects of AI sentience intelligently dabbled with — such as death, emotion and motivation in an AI context.

All good, then? Not quite. In essence, the central premise of “The Creator” is a repackaging of several tired tropes. The U.S. is once again saving the world from a savage, mysterious and technologically-advanced populace. Washington’s character fills the boots of the stereotypical marine who goes undercover to interact with this populace, only to develop an attachment to them and resist U.S. efforts to vanquish them. 

If this sounds oddly similar to “Avatar” to you, then you are not alone. For all the effort spent on CGI, the multitudinous fight scenes are well below par; not one person successfully defuses a bomb in the entire movie, and lead characters conveniently walk right through gunfire largely unharmed.

The conception of “New Asia” in itself leaves a bad taste. In an attempt to create a generic Asian setting, Edwards makes a mismatched hodgepodge of several different Asian identities; there are dialogues in Hindi/Urdu as well as Japanese spoken by locals in New Asia, Buddhist elements in the architecture and seascapes most commonly seen in South East Asian islands such as Bali and Krabi. The lazy naming of the lethal weapon Alpha O and the absence of any sort of military strategy indicates a lack of focus on certain aspects of world-building. 

Still, there are some soft touches that redeem “The Creator.” Through the AI characters, Edwards induces commentary on the futility of war and rouses criticism of the U.S. attack. There is an emotional conversation between Colonel Howell (Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”) and Joshua about dealing with loss, which is rarely portrayed in this military sci-fi genre. All scenes that portray characters on the verge of death are powerful and have well-selected dialogues that make the audience hang on to every word.

All in all, “The Creator” is a cinematic masterpiece sure to develop its own fan base and lore, given the sheer creativity of the vision behind it. The sound and visual effects are on point and best enjoyed on an IMAX screen; some dialogues and moments truly startle the audience with their unpredictability. As long as you are willing to look past some hazy writing and plot development, the 133 minutes of runtime are 133 minutes well spent.