Arts movie review

The Creator manages to Create a stunning world without much sense

Incredible budget efficiency on visuals, but $0 spent on plot

At the end of the day filmmaking is a business: a truism that has been on glaring display this year thanks to the prolonged WGA strike and the teeth-pulling difficulty of getting studios to the negotiating table.

And, as in any business, cost efficiency is the name of the game: how much return can you get on your assets? In the post-COVID world, the answer to this has been "not much"; audiences turn out to theaters for the highest-budget, biggest-action movies, and even those tend to flop more often than not. (Just look at the 2023 box-office disappointments Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny which, as some of the most expensive movies ever made, together cost $600 million and struggled to recoup it.)

That's why The Creator, a new science-fiction film from Rogue One director Gareth Edwards, deserves some credit for trying its best, even if its screenplay and performances end up too messy and forgettable for the film to live up to its potential.

Through a classic exposition sequence, we're introduced to an alternative world, in which artificial intelligence (AI) became rapidly advanced in the 20th century, coexisting peacefully and productively with humankind until 2055, when a nuclear warhead was detonated in the Los Angeles metro area. The resulting deaths of millions caused Western countries, headed by the United States, to ban AI. Eastern countries, headed by the invented Southeast Asian region "New Asia" disagree and continue to work with AI and harbor robots. In particular, the mysterious "Nirmata" (Nepalese for "Creator"), inventor of AI, is reportedly living underground in New Asia and developing a new weapon; the US is keen on finding and killing him before he completes it.

All of this world-building leads us to Joshua, a US military operative  undercover in New Asia searching for Nirmata. Things go haywire in his mission; his pregnant New Asian wife Maya is killed, and he leaves the military for good. That is, until he's approached five years later with an opportunity to rejoin a special ops group picking up on a warm lead for Nirmata's whereabouts. Joshua is staunchly opposed to the offer until the generals in charge inform him that Maya may still be alive and working with Nirmata. This is enough motivation for Joshua, who sets out to New Asia to engage in all sorts of futuristic battles on a seemingly doomed quest. Along the way, he picks up "Alphie," a humanistic AI child with seemingly extraordinary power, and the two then form a bond as they barrel through one sci-fi climax after the next.

The film is chock-full of breathtakingly cool visuals set within a completely original landscape. For a movie with this budget and scope to be built off of no intellectual property (IP) in this day and age is refreshing, and as we're introduced to each new locale, weapon, and character, we have no choice but to marvel at the cleverness and sheer quality of the work. A huge drone ship headquarters, the USS NOMAD, is particularly striking. As hinted at above, this is especially impressive considering the team worked with a fraction of the typical cost; director Edwards and freshman cinematographer Soffer have worked wonders on a budget of just $80 million (for a project that would normally have cost $300 million, by one estimate). In interviews, they discuss using the low-cost Sony FX3 camera, relying mostly on natural lighting, and shooting on site location as ways to lower spending while making the film more immersive, succeeding on both fronts.

It's a shame, then, that the accolades stop there. The cast is as flat as could be: John David Washington does not convey his potential as a leading man, Gemma Chan is dull and distant in what could have been a riveting revolutionary role, Allison Janney is horrifically miscast as a military colonel with a laughable backstory, and besides his striking voice, Ralph Ineson is nowhere near threatening enough to be the antagonist this film needs. The strongest performance is that of seven-year-old newcomer Madeleine Yuna Voyles who plays the mostly wordless AI child, Alphie.

To be fair, the actors, while leaving a lot to be desired, aren't given much in the way of a script. Written by Edwards himself, there's some solid conceptual groundwork — political themes around drone strikes, the war on terrorism, advanced technology, and the East-West divide. Ultimately, though, it fails to say anything interesting or conclusive by the end of the film, instead being waylaid into all sorts of scriptwriter improbabilities, "reveals" that land with a thud, and an uncountable number of deus ex machina moments. If the movie is rough thematically, individual moments verge on painful. Allison Janney's hard nosed soldier repeatedly says "Hack everything!"; half-baked one-liners like "Whoops, sorry, took a wrong turn!" are unfortunately reminiscent of the new Star Wars; we see the same romantic flashback probably half a dozen times. Couldn't they have shot more B-reel footage? Even Hans Zimmer, who does the score, phones it in.

In the challenging economic environment of Hollywood in 2023, The Creator sets a commendable model for how to be smart with a budget and avoid retreading the same IP. Movies looking to follow its footsteps just need to accomplish these feats with a better script and a more talented cast.