What Is The Creator Trying to Accomplish?

“The most exciting thing is that you really don’t need loads of money to make a film that looks like you had a lot of money,” said Gareth Edwards in a recent Variety interview for his new sci-fi action adventure, The Creator. Indeed, the movie does look expensive, certainly more expensive than its alleged $80 million price tag would suggest, a comparatively paltry sum for a special effect filled studio picture. And really, that is the best thing about The Creator. And sadly, that is the best thing about The Creator.

I’ve kept an eye on Gareth Edwards ever since his first film, Monsters, tickled my peculiar itch for arty takes on lowbrow material. Think Terence Malick’s meandering camera and preponderance on nature and minute detail mixed with giant monsters. Edwards brought that same touch to his underrated Godzilla from 2014, the first kaiju movie that really sold the awesome scale of the giant monsters stomping through its frames. A new movie, then, from Edwards was an exciting prospect. So I take no pleasure in noting that something is missing from The Creator, a lot of somethings.

It begins promisingly with a succinct ‘50s style documentary that slyly incorporates stock footage with subtle but increasingly special effects laying out an alternate Earth timeline where artificial intelligence develops from its nascent roots to full-fledged robots walking among us, living among us, working for us. It ends with a literal nuclear blast, set off in a future downtown Los Angeles by artificial intelligence. Soon after, the West doesn’t just ban all AI, but in very Western fashion, declares all-out war on them as well, attacking AI strongholds in “New Asia,” which has decided to harbor and continue advancing artificial intelligence.

Although, its subtle jabs at American imperialism do land, The Creator misses too many opportunities to interrogate its narrative.

It never delves into the reasons for the initial nuclear attack, nor many of the ideas and situations it comes up with. Why do certain countries defy the AI ban, for instance? Sci-fi with depth would explore these ideas, make them connect to the main storyline, but The Creator uses them simply as catalyst, going so far as to dismiss the nuclear attack with one facile line of dialogue late in the film to lazily nullify its core debate between AI vs humans. Instead of engaging with the myriad intriguing ideas it dreams up, The Creator opts instead for a simple chase picture.

The movie fails at that also. The film’s rhythm is established early on and repeated ad infinitum. Our heroes are chased. They escape. They have a momentary respite in which they spout dull exposition. The pursuers show up again. Our heroes are chased. They escape… you get the picture.

A great lead actor could elevate this material, an actor with that indefinable “it” who can overcome a two-dimensional character. You’d need a Newman, a Weaver, a Reeves, or a Washington. The Creator indeed stars a Washington, but it’s not Denzel. Instead, we have John David, Denzel’s son, a top-notch actor as evidenced in his scene stealing turns in HBO’s lackluster sports comedy, Ballers, and his dramatic co-starring role in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansmen. But his central turn in Christopher Nolan’s ludicrously undercooked Tenet proved that he struggles as a leading man in big budget adventures that skimp on character development. There and here Washington cannot make a two-dimensional character sing. His voice is too easily eclipsed by the cacophony surrounding him.

It doesn’t help that John David Washington’s character is a selfish, unappealing protagonist.

Joshua is an ex-special forces agent (are there any other kind?) lured back into action years after a disastrous raid ended in the death of his pregnant wife. Bated by the possibility of his wife’s survival, Joshua accepts a new mission to find and eliminate the titular creator, a mysterious designer of modern AI who may have created a weapon that will turn the war between human and AI to the latter’s advantage. It’s on the poster and all the film’s advertising, so I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that the “weapon” is actually a child robot (played uncloyingly by Madeleine Yuna Voyles), who, through complications of the plot, ends up on the run with Joshua. What I haven’t mentioned is that Joshua’s wife, Maya (Gemma Chan), was an AI supporter that he romanced, married, and impregnated under false pretenses as a US undercover agent trying to infiltrate her AI network of friends. What a mensch.

It’s a simple and traditional character arc, though: Flawed hero joins adventure for selfish reasons—–but is swayed by the experience to become a better person. While the arc is simple on paper, it’s hard to pull off on film, and the journey from one end of the spectrum to the other in The Creator is severely imbalanced. Joshua acts in self-interest for far too long and never takes responsibility for the betrayal of his wife. Lastly, not enough reason is given for his eventual change of heart until once again one simple line of dialogue easily creates a bond between him and his robot companion. Again, the writing is frustrating, but it’s compounded by a sour lead performance that lacks the charisma to make up for the character’s myopic motivations.

At least, the futuristic world created for The Creator is allowed to flourish visually at. Never quite as clever as in his first two films, Gareth Edwards still delivers visual panache with copious location photography embellished but never stagnated by all the effects work. And scoring the set up to a major action sequence with Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” is hair-standing-on-your-arms good.

What The Creator does do well also is the tech stuff.

The movie is wall to wall gadgets, robots, and future vehicles, all brought to life with imaginative designs and creative special effects. I especially liked the walking, talking trash can battering rams that show up late in the movie. If you’re into sci-fi tech porn, this movie delivers on that front.

Everything else, though, is disappointing. At two hours and change, The Creator is simply too long. When it should be wrapping things up, the story instead welds on what feels like a fourth act with whole new, admittedly stunning, location that incorporates way too many moving parts, story beats, and character moments. The visuals become messy and disjointed. Who’s on what side of that door? What are they trying to accomplish? And why are robotic octopus tentacles suddenly involved? It’s all too much, and its mawkish final shot feels unearned.

Just let the credits run already.

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Pavel Klein

Pavel Klein is a member of the Florida Film Critics Circle and author of the film-centric blog WritePavelWrite.com