The Creator: A Spectacular Void, by Scott Nye
Big-budget science fiction is filled with gearheads bereft of emotional urgency. They serve well a modern audience uninterested in storytelling, constantly posting gray-toned CGI comps several degrees removed from an acceptable finished product, claiming them to be among the greatest shots in cinema history. Gareth Edwards’s The Creator suggests a respite from this, but in many ways, exemplifies the worst of studio science fiction, made all the more gutting by the adventurousness of its craft and the ambition it proclaims.
John David Washington (Tenent, BlacKkKlansman) stars as Joshua, a former special forces soldier whose undercover mission to thwart the AI programs humanity is at war with went south. He got in too deep with one of its key contributors, married her, and was expecting a child when a badly-timed raid killed her. Since then he’s been disillusioned about the whole thing, content to let AI destroy humanity and him with it. Years later, however, that same military unit needs his expertise to infiltrate the compound in which a ragtag group of scientists continue to manufacture AI. Intelligence suggests both that they’re building a weapon capable of ending the war and destroying mankind…and that his wife is still alive.
So it’s a pretty routine premise that is at least moderately intriguing enough to rope you in for another few scenes, and that’s mostly the tack the film takes from there. The film hangs all of its emotion on two bad bets – John David Washington, and insisting robots are people. Washington is a very game, capable performer who’s at his best lending charisma and personality to a strong filmmaker with a propulsive script. Edwards provides neither. The script, cowritten by Edwards and Chris Weitz is a hodgepodge of cliches cultivated and watered-down from decades of 20th century robot sci-fi – if you have an even superficial familiarity with Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, and Spielberg’s A.I., this will pale in comparison to even that hazy image. His direction, though ambitious in its scope (the film shot in eighty locations around the world), lacks urgency, and his set pieces lack any kind of flair or tension beyond what’s described. As with his prior Godzilla and Rogue One, his sequences are spectacular but not thrilling. Further, the flow of the storytelling is constantly interrupted by nonsensical tempo choices that jam key developments and character beats into soft-music-cue montages.
This leaves Washington adrift to define his lightly-sketched character on its own, and he’s just not a strong enough performer to get there. He brings nothing distinct or persuasive to a man defined only by his loss, entirely ignoring the moral compromises he continually makes, not at all haunted by his mistakes or questioning the road he’s on. There’s no interiority to explore, and thus no emotional engagement.
The second bad bet, the robots-are-people angle, is just as destructive. Edwards insultingly and reductively layers on familiar imagery from apartheid, refugee, and guerilla warfare histories onto this robotic culture he’s “developed,” expecting that the associations audiences draw will be enough to humanize his machines. But even he, unconsciously, recognizes the absurdity of his gambit, and makes the confounding choice to essentially create two “classes” of robots – those with human faces, and those with empty machine gazes. Guess whose “deaths” the film mourns more. Rather than engage with this as an active quandary, a la A.I., Edwards simply takes it for granted and plows on ahead.
He further baits his audience by making the secret AI weapon not a machine, but a small robotic child (played as well as can be expected under the circumstances by Madeleine Yuna Voyles) who, wouldn’t you know it, is just about the age Joshua’s would have been. So get ready for a lot of scenes of Joshua, among others, pointing a gun at her and reeeeealllllllly questioning whether or not he can do it. So if you found yourself enthralled Ex Machina’s central question – what if the robot is really hot and the men kind of suck? – perhaps The Creator’s turn will be for you.
But simply creating a cute robot and relying on the worst stock military character types to represent “humanity” is beyond ignorant of even the questions the film wants to engage with, let alone any kind of active engagement with them. It’s reductive storytelling that preys on audience sympathy for genuine victims in our society to create its emotional heft, assigning their suffering to machines, and insisting the two are one and the same. This insults the relatively-affluent audience who can see the film, assuming they too will see impoverished people as inhuman, and worse, insults those people by rendering them as such.
And I haven’t even gotten into several twists late in the film that rather than complicate our understanding of things, come across instead as desperate attempts to double down on everything the film was insisting it was doing all along. Films like this want to have it both ways, relying on the association to draw cultural points, but once one starts interrogating them too much, creating enough distance to say “but it’s just a big science fiction film!” Enough. Step up or step off.