No Gods, No Masters
I don’t know if you knew this, but The Creator was released theatrically on September 29 of this year. As I write this, it’s made somewhere in the neighborhood of $32 million. Considering it had a production budget of $80 million, it’ll have to do some work over the next few weeks to break even.
So far it’s not a box office smash hit. A little research into why tells me a few factors worked against it. They are:
- The WGA and SAG strikes largely prevented the stars and filmmakers from promoting it.
- While the film features excellent actors, it has no major stars.
- It has a somewhat compassionate stance toward artificial intelligence at a time when people in numerous industries are terrified that A.I. will demolish their livelihoods.
- It’s an original work of science-fiction.
That last factor is the one that I keep thinking about. As much as it cuts me to the quick as both a critic and a movie lover, I’ve come to accept that audiences tend to be risk averse. I get that. The average movie ticket price is a little over ten bucks, in some places it’s higher. Factor in the cost of drinks, snacks, possibly parking and potentially childcare costs, and a night at the cinema can get real expensive real fast.
Add to that the general sense of dissatisfaction and ennui many of us have. Sometimes it feels like the world is falling apart, like institutions are intentionally non-functional, like our elected leaders are little more than glorified trolls. Add all that together and audiences are practically begging for movies to be worth their valuable time. Is The Creator worth your valuable time? Yes, but with a few conditions.
In the not-too-distant future, humans have a problem with artificial intelligence. Specifically with an A.I. developed by the U.S. military. It promptly detonates a nuke on top of Los Angeles. The loss of life is profound, as is the reaction. The American government takes a blood oath to wipe A.I. from the face of the earth. One of the ways they do that is the development of NOMAD, a low-orbit space station designed to rain destruction from on high.
The other way is by deploying good old-fashioned human operatives. One of them is Joshua Taylor (John David Washington). He’s undercover in what’s now referred to as New Asia (!), and married to Maya (Gemma Chan). The original mission was for Taylor to gain Maya’s trust, as it’s believed she knows the location of Nirmata, the shadowy force behind the A.I. ‘s technological advancement. During a raid, Taylor’s cover is blown and Maya is killed.
Five years pass. Taylor works a job in a Los Angeles cleanup crew. In typical screenwriting fashion, the Call to Adventure happens with the arrival of General Andrews (Ralph Ineson) and Colonel Howell (Allison Janney). They have a mission for Taylor – he must return to New Asia (!!) and find/destroy a mysterious superweapon, one that could turn the tide of the war. In additionally typical screenwriting fashion, Taylor Refuses the Call, then grudgingly changes his mind.
So off Taylor goes to New Asia (!!!), with Colonel Howell running the op. Things go great until they don’t. In the midst of the chaos, Taylor discovers the weapon. It’s immensely powerful, and its power is only growing. Its name is Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), and it/she is a little girl who only wants to live a good life.
The thing about The Creator is, it works more often than it doesn’t. Gareth Edwards is one of the few filmmakers who understands scale. While lots of films have shown us crashing spaceships, Edwards knows how to use framing, effects work, and sound design to make said spaceship feel both massive and weighty. He also knows how to stretch the living hell out of a dollar. Believe it or not, but an $80 million budget isn’t that much any longer. This film looks like it costs easily three times that much. It also feels like a giant mashup of other films with more focused concepts. If you threw The Terminator, A.I., Kundun, Avatar, Blade Runner, and District 9 into a blender, your cinematic smoothie would be The Creator.
Is the screenplay by Edwards and Chris Weitz devoid of ideas and little more than a delivery system for set pieces? Oh, hell no. They’re examining a number of compelling ideas, one of which being the idea that after A.I. develops sentience, it also develops individuality. Instead of a Skynet hive mind out to eradicate humanity, the vast majority of A.I. simply want to live their lives. That’s a great idea! Unfortunately, it’s competing with other great ideas, sometimes even throwaway concepts that are lingered on for a few seconds.* The end result is a fascinating and absorbing mishmash of themes that desperately needed more focus. The effect is not unlike a conversation with a wildly drunk philosophy major. That would be largely okay if the exposition wasn’t so frequently clunky.
Let’s also take a moment to talk about New Asia. First, a small digression. There’s a restaurant close to me where, literally, part of the name is “Asian Food.” There are 48 countries in Asia, ranging from India and Cambodia to Afghanistan and Malaysia. The term “Asian food” is…um…a little broad. I think that the owners of this restaurant chose to use the terminology “Asian Food” because they figured most White people wouldn’t know the difference between Laotian and Malaysian cuisine. The same “Eh, it’s basically all the same” ethos seems to be at play here. Most of the film was shot in Thailand. The majority of the background extras were Thai. Are we to believe that New Asia is actually Thailand? No, it’s just a generic Asian country. One of the more frustrating aspects of this is that the “generic Asian country” idea is kind of a good one here! The film has intentional echoes of the Vietnam War, where technologically advanced Americans show up and blast the living shit out of everything. Unfortunately, that theme isn’t focused on sufficiently, which creates a real sense of unease. I don’t think this makes the film a “Donald Trump/Proud Boys” kind of racist, it’s more a “White people being more than a little clueless” racist.**
As a treat, Christopher Nolan made his movie Tenet, only without three-dimensional*** characters. That baffling decision likely would have sunk the whole thing were it not for John David Washington’s charisma. Here, the role of Taylor has a little more to it, which allows him to deliver a strong performance. He’s got playful chemistry with Gemma Chan early on, he sells shattered trauma after her loss, and believably portrays a man gradually warming to Alphie, who is and is not a person. It’s a nice job of acting, and Washington knows how to be the steady and emotional center of a huge blockbuster. I also thoroughly enjoyed Allison Janney as Howell. She’s become a cinematic mark of quality for me, and Janney takes the fairly standard role of a tough-as-nails soldier and adds interesting shades of gray.
Is The Creator worth your time and money? I think it is. If possible, see it on an IMAX screen and drink in the stunning visuals and muscular action sequences. The screenplay certainly could have used another draft or two, but it tries so hard to dive into the deep end of science fiction. Its reach certainly exceeds its grasp, but the ambition that Edwards, Washington, and the cast and crew had for this project is meaningful. I’ll take a flawed original work over a safe and competent franchise entry any time.
*What kind of religion would artificial intelligence develop?
**I’ve been reading Siddhant Adlakha’s work for years. He’s got a smart and nuanced take on this, which you can read here.
***Or even two-dimensions! Washington’s character is named Protagonist, for God’s sake!