The Creator belongs to an endangered species, in that it’s a Hollywood science-fiction epic that isn’t based on a video game, a comic, or a film you’ve seen already. That doesn’t mean that it’s wholly original. There are echoes of The Terminator, Blade Runner and Star Wars all through it – not surprisingly, given that its director and co-writer, Gareth Edwards, directed Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But the world Edwards and his team have built is jaw-droppingly distinctive, with its own sombre mood and worn and grimy look. Back when Rogue One came out in 2016, Edwards said that he wanted to make a Star Wars film that reflected “the reality of war”. If he didn’t quite manage it then, he gets a lot closer with The Creator.
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The story is set in the year 2070. Humanity has made the mistake of letting artificial intelligence take control of its defence systems, the unfortunate result being that a nuclear explosion has obliterated half of Los Angeles: so far, so Terminator. Since that catastrophe, AI has been outlawed in the west, but not in “New Asia”, where humans live happily together with endearingly clunky, flat-headed humanoid robots, and “simulants” who are identical to humans except for the metallic, tubular holes in the backs of their necks. And so it is that World War Three has been declared – although US politicians are quick to point out that they’re not at war with New Asia in general, just the mechanical part of the population.
When the US military hears that the AI’s mysterious architect, known as Nirmata, has developed a weapon that could end the war, two hard-as-nails officers (Allison Janney and Ralph Ineson, both terrific) send a soldier, Joshua (John David Washington), to Nirmata’s hidden laboratory in New Asia to destroy it. But, of course, the mission gets complicated. One snag is that the weapon is a simulant (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) who resembles an innocent human girl; the other is that it may know the whereabouts of Joshua’s long-lost wife (Gemma Chan). Should he protect the robot he calls Alphie rather than deactivating it? And what if he starts to see it as a person rather than as a walking bomb?
He doesn’t have time to sit and ponder these dilemmas. The Creator is a breathlessly fast, relentlessly tense thriller which has Joshua racing from location to location, from rustic village to bustling Blade Runner-ish city, with American humans and New Asian robots alike hot on his heels. Whenever he stops to rest, someone is shot or something blows up. While most modern blockbusters have scenes in which someone explains the situation in unnecessary detail, Edwards and his co-writer, Chris Weitz, keep things moving and trust the viewer to keep up.
What makes The Creator unique is its balance between escapist blockbuster fun and downbeat war-is-hell naturalism. Make no mistake, it’s a science-fiction action movie, with its share of heroic deeds, laser-gun shoot-outs, and terrifyingly vast spacecraft with engines that make the cinema seats judder. But it’s also hard-edged and dark, with smoky, hazy visuals, an upsettingly brutal tendency to kill characters just as you’re getting to know them, and a reasonable adherence to the laws of physics: Alphie has a minor tech-related power, but no one has superhuman strength or invulnerability.
Washington makes a likeable protagonist, with some of the swaggering charisma of his dad, Denzel, along with his own personal brand of everyman vulnerability, and Voyles grows convincingly from a cold machine to a person with emotions, but Edwards doesn’t let Joshua’s relationship with Alphie get sentimental (most of the time, anyway). There’s also a refreshing absence of Marvel-style banter. Despite a few moments of levity, The Creator is free of the desperate urge to be funny that besets so many current blockbusters.
Director: Gareth Edwards
Cast: John David Washington, Gemma Chan, Allison Janney, Ralph Ineson
Run time: 2hr 13m
The balance between the Star Wars side of things and the war drama side is exemplified by the location shooting. Much of the film was shot among the verdant mountains, fields and towering, dagger-like islands of Thailand, which means that it’s spectacular, but also that the combat seems to be happening in real places, with plenty of troubling imagery that recalls the Vietnam War via Apocalypse Now. The futuristic CGI is incorporated so seamlessly that the spell is never broken. Even when robots, simulants and armoured hovercraft are on screen, you can’t see the joins between the physical and the digital.
Still, it would have been close to impossible for Edwards to get the balance between tones exactly right. The escapades in the rushed last act are harder to believe than those earlier on, and the initial ethical questions are soon forgotten. Some of the technology in the film’s 2070 seems less advanced and less frightening than the technology that is being used today, too. One jarring plot point is that everyone is amazed that a child-like simulant has been manufactured, whereas the boffins in M3GAN cracked that problem a year ago.
But there is no denying that The Creator is a major new sci-fi adventure. If you’re partial to such things, Edwards’ ambitious, immersive film should prompt the intoxicating awe that you might have got from The Matrix and Avatar – the feeling that you’re seeing a rich vision of the future unlike any that has been on the big screen before.
The Creator is released in the UK on 28 September and the US on 29 September.
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