The problem with sophisticated visual effects is that they allow filmmakers to focus on world-building at the expense of storytelling. Gareth Edwards’ The Creator demonstrates that idea in action. This sci-fi epic cost a relatively minimal $80 million yet looks leagues better than most of the Marvel movies, which often cost upwards of $200 million. To say it’s dazzling up on a big screen would be an understatement. The story, however, is cobbled together from bits and pieces of other sci-fi epics, leading to an experience that’s visually awesome and dramatically flat.
As in The Terminator, technology has run amok. Artificial intelligence triggered a nuclear weapon that obliterated California. Former special forces agent Joshua (John David Washington) is recruited back into the fight against AI by Colonel Howell (Allison Janney). She claims his beloved, presumed dead wife Maya (Gemma Chan) is still alive and in the proximity of Nirmata, the creator of an AI weapon that could further destroy mankind. Joshua joins the team and is startled to discover that the weapon was created in the form of a child, Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). What follows is predictable, starting with Joshua going rogue by deciding to protect Alphie rather than obliterate her.
The Creator attempts to ask the question of whether artificial intelligence can ever truly approximate humanity. That same idea has been covered in other movies, from Steven Spielberg’s A.I., to Ex Machina, to Transcendence. Having a hero turn unexpected protector to a child is similarly a trope that’s been done countless times. Other elements feel cribbed, as well. A massive spaceship that perpetually hovers in the sky is reminiscent of Elysium, and the human-versus-robot battle scenes call to mind District 9.
Director/co-writer Gareth Edwards (Star Wars: Rogue One) puts a lot of effort into creating a detailed world for his characters to exist in. What he fails to do is develop two facets of the story that are essential. We get virtually no look at Joshua and Maya’s life together before she seemingly dies, so his quest to find her lacks the required emotion. Alphie is also underdeveloped. She’s a one-note character, rendering her supposedly strong bond with Joshua hollow. The Creator works overtime in its third act to tug at the audience’s heartstrings with themes of love, death, and separation. The basis hasn’t properly been laid for them, meaning the finale is more manipulative than sincere.
The major strength of the picture is its stylized look. Spaceships, robots, weapons, and other futuristic objects are imaginatively designed. First-rate FX work impeccably integrates unreal things with real actors. In other words, the effects don’t necessarily look like effects – a rare feat in filmmaking these days. The best scene finds Howell deploying a barrel-like robot that runs across a bridge, primed to blow up in 30 seconds. Witnessing it race to the target zone is exciting.
All the surface stuff is great. Everything underneath is where the problems lie. The Creator doesn’t achieve the alluring mystery of Dark City, the humanity of Arrival, the topicality of Children of Men, or anything else that would elevate it above being just a really good-looking movie.
out of four
The Creator is rated PG-13 for violence, some bloody images, and strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 13 minutes.