The Creator (2023)
Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenwriters: Gareth Edwards, Chris Weitz
Starring: John David Washington, Madeleine Yuna Voyles, Gemma Chan, Allison Janney, Ken Watanabe, Ralph Ineson
The greatest critics will say that when viewing a film and critiquing its contents, one must treat that film as its own thing rather than as a part of something wider, that what is most important is how a picture works on its own individual merits: is the story told in a cohesive manner, are the characters engaging, does the camera work look good?
Of course, some real world events may operate as a caveat to the contents of a film for the moviegoer: one could argue that much of the reason current superhero movies are underperforming is because of the oversaturation of such releases, for example, as opposed to their individual qualities. An important historical example of this duality is All the President’s Men (1976), which found its basis on the 1972 Watergate scandal but still works on its own. Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) are charming characters, the mystery they are trying to uncover is thrilling, and the twists and turns that the story takes still feel high stakes, shocking and important. Take away the real life story that the film was based on and it is still very strong in its own right.
Gareth Edwards’ 2023 release The Creator also has its own outside context…
Set in a dystopian future in which the West is at war with the East over developments in AI, the film finds itself released at the height of both societal and governmental anxieties regarding generative AI’s place in everyday life. More importantly as regards this release, The Creator is one of just a few mid-budget features to have recently found its way into theatres.
For years, the way that the big studios of Hollywood worked is that they would have their major blockbuster releases spread throughout the year. These were the films with big budgets that the studios anticipated would generate bigger returns. In the quieter months, the same studios would release so-called mid-budgets films; smaller films made on smaller budgets, providing less of a risk but much higher reward if the films did well. Good examples of this are A Few Good Men ($33 million budget, $243 million gross) and Dead Poets Society ($16.4 million budget, $235 million gross). These mid-budget projects allowed filmmakers to work with larger budgets than in independent film whilst not having to sacrifice their creative freedom. It was a system in which, for the most part, everyone could win. Recently however, these films have begun to die out or have at least been transitioned into direct-to-streaming releases, the cinema release calendar instead being filled with new franchise entries, higher risk pictures that have (during our time of franchise fatigue and tightening purse strings) in many cases produced higher than usual losses. Thankfully, studios seem to be starting to appreciate the worth of the mid-budget feature film again, with 2022 and 2023 producing the likes of Ticket to Paradise, No Hard Feelings, 65, and now The Creator. So far, these mid-budget genre flicks have mostly managed to make back their studios a little something extra.
Joshua Taylor (John David Washington), an ex-special forces agent, is recruited specifically to hunt down and kill the “Creator” of AI (also known as Nirmata), who has developed a mysterious weapon with the power to single-handedly end the war. Welcome back mid-budget sci-fi.
Like many other science fiction works, The Creator begins with the primary objective of introducing the characters, giving some backstory and establishing the world in which the story is set. Finding its setting in “New Asia”, we are shown the wonderful scenery that the continent has to offer. Filmed primarily on location, much of the film takes place across glorious landscapes, creating a wonderful sense of a world that remains both natural and beautiful all whilst being primarily overrun by futuristic technology: rice fields overshadowed by large metropolitan spaces, forests crushed by large technologically advanced U.S. Army tanks. It creates some beautiful juxtaposition which acts as a useful visual reminder of what the film is really about; the old way of life versus the new.
This motif is most prominent in the story of our protagonist, Joshua Taylor. Though his objective within the film is to track down the weapon (a child, played by Madeleine Yuna Voyles) and keep her safe until the U.S. Army can retain her, the character’s real goal is to track down his wife who was presumed to be dead five years ago. Believing the child – whom Josh affectionately calls Alphie – knows where she is, Taylor uses her in an attempt to find his wife. Through flashbacks we are shown Josh’s relationship with his wife, a major point of contention being that he refused to see A.I. as people, believing they feel nothing, whilst she saw them as family. In his mission to keep Alphie safe, Joshua begins to understand where his wife was coming from.
The relationship between Taylor and Alphie very much follows the familiar odd-couple trope in which the two main characters are worlds apart both personally and ideologically but bond through spending time together and learning to understand one another. It comes as no surprise that director Gareth Edwards cited Paper Moon, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Rain Man as major influences on the film. Edwards and Weitz have written a good script with a well-structured and engaging story, but it seems to be in the key relationships that they have faltered: the chemistry between Washington and Voyles is nowhere near as strong as those they are emulating, though they do a fine job individually. Most of this issue arises from on the nose dialogue; numerous moments in which lines are written with zero subtext and can only be taken at face value. It can diminish much of the emotion that is required to heighten the story or the impact of a line or a scene. Thankfully, both John David Washington and Madeleine Yuna Voyles are so likeable and charming that the emotional impact hits when we really need it to.
The Creator is a grand sci-fi with grand ideas – man versus machine, new versus old, how the next generation are the future – yet it is never delivered in a way that feels as though it is inaccessible, the movie never thinks it’s smarter than it is. Instead, Edwards and company treat The Creator as escapism, pure and simple, and boy does it live up to it. There’s some substance there, sure, and yes there is a clear emotional core to the story, but each individual strand of this narrative is delivered in a way that is easily digestible alongside your popcorn and soda.
It is a tremendously well built-in world, one that is designed in such a way that we stare with glee at the weapons and spaceships on the screen. The set pieces are filled with thrilling action and some unique ideas too – there is one particular sequence with self-destructing robots that is a joy to watch. The Creator’s crowning jewel, however, comes in the form of the USS NOMAD, a space station capable of launching destructive attacks from orbit. At numerous points in the film we get to see the NOMAD in action, floating along the sky while beaming down a light to the surface, constantly changing shape and lighting up the sky. It is stunning to look at, but once we see the NOMAD lock onto its targets we see the true power of the weapon – it is chilling.
For all of these reasons, The Creator works well on its own merits. It is clear, however, that many will hold the film’s outside context against it.
Many filmgoers may wonder if they wish to be reminded of society’s fears surrounding A.I. or if a mid-budget feature is worth seeing given its less prominent marketing. But The Creator is, for all intents and purposes, a popcorn movie – this flick is hardly 2001: A Space Odyssey, it won’t change your life or leave you questioning what you just saw. Seeing it in cinemas will, however, certainly help to change the film industry, it will say something to studios about the variety of films audiences wish to see. If it succeeds. It deserves to succeed.
Gareth Edwards has returned to our screens after seven years and crafts an enjoyable two-plus hours of science fiction goodness, bringing with it some beautiful visuals, excellent world building and two charming leads to sweeten the deal. If you are looking for a good time at the movies then look no further than The Creator.