The Creator

Year: 2023
Studio: 20th Century Studios
Director: Gareth Edwards
Producer: Gareth Edwards/Arnon Milchan
Writer: Gareth Edwards
Cast: John David Washington, Madeleine Yuna Voyles, Gemma Chan, Allison Janney, Ken Watanabe, Ralph Ineson

When Kevin Smith was at his most visible in the industry, he used his film Red State to rail against the crazy economics of Hollywood. Instead of a traditional distributor spending ten times the production budget to insert it into the usual pipeline and market it to consumers, he travelled around with it, showing it at various cinemas across the US with Q&As afterwards and crowing about how quickly it all went into the black.

Gareth Edwards isn't as open with fans or as outspoken about the business as Smith always is, but in a story I read about the making of this film, he seemed to have a similar mindset, bemused by the hundreds of millions of dollars VFX-driven blockbusters now cost when it can all be done far more cost effectively.

The Creator seems to be partly an effort to prove his theory. He filmed it somewhere cheap (Southeast Asia) and used locations instead of sets, and although it was all outsourced to the usual battery of VFX vendors, only cost $80m.

It also couldn't have been more timely, coming out in a year when ChatGPT finally made artificial intelligence mainstream and the Hollywood unions stopped work partly because of the potential threat AI poses to the industry.

The story sets up a world where AI robots ('simulants') are commonplace. There's some good world building (in hindsight – it's a little confusing at the time, see below) where Edwards populates the world with robots of every kind – older ones that look like sci-fi droids and newer, much more humanoid models.

The very visually distinctive cylindrical apparatus where the bottom of the head joins the neck is an effective bit of storytelling, economically telling you they're a more advanced version of robot.

The world has also apparently been through the social aspects of grappling with what constitutes personhood and whether sentient robots deserve it as much as humans do, with various life forms accepted or rejected by different parts of society according to their predilections.

Society has also been through the angst we're going through right now (though with much lower stakes, stuff like exam essays and clunky movie scripts the only real effects on the horizon). After an AI agent has apparently destroyed LA in a nuclear blast and most of the West has outlawed it, it still flourishes in the countries of New Asia, where the story is set.

Taylor (an inexpressive-as-ever John David Washington) is a former soldier living on the beach with his wife Maya (Gemma Chan) when their home is attacked by heavily armed special forces. Maya flees, but Taylor is revealed to be a plant still working for the military who was meant to spy on Maya but went native, falling in love with her.

The powers that be are looking for her because they believe she's the daughter of the figure who's pioneered the most recent wave of intelligent machines, a scientist they want to assassinate. To do so they intend to use NOMAD, a huge orbital weapons platform that sends an eerie, very cinematic curtain of light piercing down to scan across the Earth's surface as it searches for enemies.

Believing Maya to have been killed in the melee, Taylor gives up on his duties, returning to LA to help with the nuclear aftermath cleanup.

The US brass – in the shape of the no-nonsense Colonel Howell (Allison Janney) – approaches him a few years later to go back to New Asia and track down a weapon they believe will turn the tide of the war against them, and when Taylor rejects them Howell shows him a video of Maya, apparently alive, and promises she'll help track Maya down if he takes one more mission.

With his gung ho team, Taylor penetrates the secret base. They fight their way into the inner sanctum and instead of some huge missile or weapons device he finds a little simulant kid watching TV just like a human girl would.

Instead of following his orders and destroying the simulant, Taylor wants to know what's so dangerous about it. He goes rogue, taking the robot, which he calls 'Alphie' (after the supposed name of the weapon – 'Alpha O') with him to visit an old friend and robot expert he hopes can explain what she's all about.

The diagnosis is profound – Alphie can control any technology using her mind, a potentially devastating and final blow to the global forces that want AI extinguished.

The US attacks again, Taylor and Alphie only just escaping, and with a new lead on Maya's whereabouts, he's on the trial while trying to stay ahead of the authorities. The chase is on across New Asia and eventually back to Los Angeles, where the now-bonded pair board a shuttle to the orbiting NOMAD so Alphie can disable or destroy it and end the final threat to AI life.

Reading that plot description, it's actually easier to follow the story than it is while watching the actual movie. As one review said, it can hardly keep its premise straight, and you find yourself wondering if some simulants are the bad guys and some the good guys, whether we're supposed to sympathise with simulants or Taylor, how entrenched simulants are in society and what various factions of them stand for.

On a deeper level it's another classic American rebel-against-authority story as the hero realises he's working for the bad guys and goes off grid, a time-honoured narrative tradition everywhere from Dances With Wolves to Avatar.

But the visuals and cinematography are all excellent. The VFX have impact without being showy and the climactic scenes set on the huge space station are evocative of other great movies we've seen set in space like Moon, Gravity and Interstellar, casting the sharp, clean light of low Earth orbit beautifully and giving the battle an epic sense of scale.

In the end The Creator is all a bit of a contradiction There's a lot there to like, there's a fair bit missing that trips you up, and just like it's a bit of a time-worn premise, it's also something you've kind of never seen before.

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