Gareth Edwards’ ‘The Creator’ Is An Ambitious, Socially Conscious Sci-Fi – Review
The beauty of science fiction is the genre’s ability to reflect several different values and represent a broad spectrum of interpretations. Sci-fi cinema can serve as a funhouse mirror of reality, posing questions about the social anxieties of their respective time through the gaze of whimsy and spectacle.
Before atomic mushroom clouds erupted from Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the hands of the American military, science fiction literature and media primarily focused on exploration and humanity’s innate fear of the “other.” That all changed after World War II, as the fear of nuclear annihilation fueled global paranoia that slowly crept into cinema. Ishirō Honda’s 1954 game-changer Godzilla visually represented an underlying anxiety about scientific innovation in postwar Japan.
So, if there’s anyone who understands Ishirō’s original message of Godzilla, it should be director Gareth Edwards. His first significant splash on the blockbuster scene came in the 2014 American reimagining of Toho’s iconic character. Choosing Edwards seemed like an obvious choice after his excellent 2010 debut feature Monsters, which reframes the controversial subject matter of border crossings through a sci-fi, alien invasion lens. This time out, the Rogue One filmmaker helms an original sci-fi story called The Creator. The film, starring John David Washington, Gemma Chan, Ken Watanabe, Sturgill Simpson, Madeleine Yuna Voyles, and Allison Janney, tackles the highly relevant discussion of artificial intelligence using allegorical Vietnam War imagery to paint a critical picture of American imperialism.
In The Creator, a grieving ex-special forces agent named Joshua (Washington) is recruited to hunt down and kill the Creator, the elusive architect of advanced A.I. who has developed a mysterious weapon with the power to end the war between humans and machines. Washington does fine work portraying his character’s overwhelming pain and grief, which morphs into motivation after Colonel Jean Howell (Janney) convinces Joshua that his dead wife, Maya (Chan), is still alive. Her antagonist role as Colonel Howell is undoubtedly a standout, as her savage, cunning leadership is equally frightening and engaging.
The movie’s first act plays like a futuristic amalgamation of Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and the underrated 1989 film Casualties of War – depicting the barbaric cruelty that American soldiers impress upon the innocent villagers. After the strike team brutally infiltrates one of the A.I. home bases in Southeast Asia, Joshua discovers that the weapon is actually a young robot/child hybrid named Alphie, played by newcomer Madeleine Yuna Voyles. Thus, in the vein of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men and Disney’s The Mandalorian, Joshua and Alphie embark on a familiar “lone wolf and cub” type of story.
As Joshua goes AWOL to protect the child, the film transforms into a road trip thriller. Throughout their voyage, Joshua discovers the unique humanity that artificial intelligence processes – a belief that Maya championed before her demise. Although artificial intelligence is often villainized in sci-fi storytelling, The Creator surprisingly offers a nuanced embrace of the evolving technology. In this world, A.I. is used as a tool for healing, research, and innovation, not an overreaching oppressor threatening civilization. But because the United States cannot control the program, their objective is to destroy it. Most war-torn deaths and destruction come from American forces trying to neutralize the A.I. movement. It sounds a lot like the thinly veiled justification that the U.S. propagated for their fight against the Viet Cong and “the spread of communism.”
Many will criticize The Creator for its overt, unsubtle allusions to the United States invasion of Vietnam. While the metaphor is hammered in harder than a steel nail to a wood beam, the anti-colonialism themes are efficiently and clearly communicated throughout. From the opening sequence, the military’s lack of empathy toward humans and their robot counterparts challenges cinema’s conventional wisdom concerning technology and warfare. In most early American science fiction movies, the moral is always anti-science and anti-intellectual. Think of 1951’s The Thing from Another Planet, where the scientists are characterized as unintuitive and incompetent while the military personnel are celebrated as heroes. Or T2: Judgement Day, when Sarah Connor guns down the well-intended inventor Miles Dyson for creating Skynet. In cinema, the good side is traditionally the gun-toting soldiers who succeed despite whatever marginal help the scientific community provides.
However, The Creator poses a much more fascinating parallel. Throughout the journey, Joshua slowly realizes that the entire “war” between humans and A.I. was based on questionable information, just like how U.S. politicians lied their way into invasions in Vietnam and Iraq. Moreover, rather than demonizing AI, Edwards and crew illustrate how A.I. functions solely based on the humanity behind its programming and operation. The film argues that the power of technology is determined in the eyes of its beholder, and it’s not wrong. Historically, the merger of advanced engineering and warfare led to a few massively destructive results, such as chemical weapons development during WWI or the Manhattan Project during WWII. Even in the 2010s, when drone strikes (or “soft power” as the U.S. government calls them) were most prominent, the Middle East saw an unusually high civilian casualty rate.
Thematics aside, the visual design of The Creator is a technical tour de force. Shot on just an $80 million budget using Sony’s new lightweight FX3 camera, the movie looks bigger and better than the majority of blockbusters out there today. Everything from the stunning color composition to the physical production design and sets to the detailed visual effects paints a vivid, photorealistic dystopian future that feels fully lived in. First-time director of photography, Oren Soffer, captures a gorgeous world that maintains a rich sense of naturalism. The ultra-wide 2.47:1 aspect ratio does make the framing of some shots a little awkward, but that’s just one of many tiny imperfections littered throughout the film.
Other imperfections include the slowness of the third act. The barebones dialogue. Some of the stiff performances, though I imagine that the stiffness of certain robot actors was intentional by the nature of their design. But regardless of the nitpicks, The Creator is the most unmistakable socially conscious science fiction flick since 2009’s District 9. Director Gareth Edwards and co-writer Chris Weitz devise a bold, anti-imperialist cautionary tale that warns audiences to fear the beholders of technology instead of the technology itself—a must-watch for sci-fi fans.