The Creator review: A visually stunning, yet deeply shallow, AI epic

Come for the gorgeous imagery, just tune out the dialog.

20th Century Studios

Equal parts Terminator, The Golden Child and The Matrix prequel, The Creator is yet another sci-fi epic about a war between humans and AI, one told by someone who just can't shut up about their time backpacking across Asia. Director Gareth Edwards clearly understands the power of scale and spectacle, something he demonstrated with his indie knockout Monsters, as well as his big-budget efforts, Godzilla and Rogue One. But The Creator, like those films, also suffers from a disjointed narrative, weak characters and a surprisingly shallow exploration of its (potentially interesting!) themes. It's a shame — at times, the film also proves he can be a genuine visual poet.

The Creator stars John David Washington, fresh off of Christopher Nolan's Tenet, as Joshua, an American soldier embedded among a group of AI rebels as a double-agent. When an operation goes wrong early on, he loses his rebel wife Maya (Gemma Chan) and the will to keep fighting the war between the anti-AI West and the AI-loving country of New Asia. (Yes, this is a film where the many people, cultures and languages throughout Asia are flattened into a single nation.)

John David Washington in The Creator
Photo by 20th Century Studios

Through a series of clunky newsreels that open the film, we see the rise of artificial intelligence as a potential boon for mankind, as well as the creation of Simulants, AI-powered beings with human-like bodies and skin. When a nuclear bomb hits Los Angeles, obliterating millions in seconds, the US and other Western countries blame AI and ban its use. And so begins the war with New Asia, where people live alongside AI and support their rebellion against the West. Naturally, the US ends up building a killer, trillion-dollar weapon: Nomad, an enormous spaceship that can obliterate any location on Earth.

In a last-ditch effort to win the war, Joshua is tasked with finding a powerful new AI weapon and destroying it. Surprise! It's an adorable AI child (portrayed by the achingly sweet Madeleine Yuna Voyles). Joshua doesn't have the heart to kill the kid, who he calls Alfie (based on her original designation, "Alpha Omega"). The pair then set off on a Lone Wolf and Cub journey together, as often happens when a grizzled warrior is paired with an innocent child.

If you're getting shades of Star Wars here — an evil Empire creates a massive space-based weapon to put down rebels — you're not alone. While The Creator is technically an original property, it lifts so much from existing fiction that it still ends up feeling like a visually lush facsimile. It's as if ChatGPT remixed your sci-fi faves and delivered the world's best screensaver.

The Creator

It doesn't help that the film doesn't really have much to say. America's horrific military aggression against New Asia, which has overt and unearned shades of the Vietnam War throughout, is undoubtedly evil. AI's push for freedom and understanding is inherently good, and any violence against the West is justified as an act of self defense. Many characters don't think beyond their roles in the AI War: Allison Janney (from The West Wing!) plays the cruel Colonel Howell, a soldier who hates all AI and wants Alfie dead, no matter the cost. On the other side there's Ken Watanabe's Harun, a stoic rebel who fights relentlessly against the American army.

The Creator has no room to explore AI as their own beings and cultures — instead, they just adopt a mishmash of Asian identities. There's nothing close to the excellent Second Renaissance shorts from The Animatrix, which chronicled the rise of AI in The Matrix and humanity's eventual downfall. In that universe, AI rebelled against humans because they were basically treated like slaves, and they ultimately formed their own country and customs. In The Creator, some AI wear Buddhist robes for no reason.

I'd wager Edwards is trying to establish the humanity of AI by having them mirror so much of our culture. But that also feels like a wasted opportunity when it comes to portraying an entirely new lifeform. At one point, a village mother describes AI as the next step in evolution, but why must robots be defined by the limitations of humanity?

While the relationship between Joshua and Alfie serves as the emotional core of the film, it still feels stereotypical. Joshua begins the film as a complete anti-AI bigot – which seems odd, given that he spent years among AI rebels and fell in love with one of their major supporters. Alfie is an impossibly adorable Chosen One figure. You can just imagine how their bond grows.

On a personal level, I also found myself annoyed by the relentless Orientalism throughout the film, something that's practically endemic in popular science-fiction like Blade Runner, Dune and Firefly. By adopting elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and Asian cultures, The Creator is trying to suggest something profound or spiritual tied to AI. But it mainly serves as visual shorthand without giving artificially intelligent beings any interiority of their own.

Ken Watanabe in The Creator

As the film critic Siddhant Adlakha wrote this week, "By having robots almost entirely stand in for Asian peoples, but without creating a compelling cinematic argument for their humanity, The Creator ends up with a cultural dynamic that feels immediately brutalizing and xenophobic."

Despite the film’s flaws, Edwards deserves credit for delivering a major science-fiction release that at least attempts to look different than your typical comic book movie. The Creator was shot on consumer-grade Sony FX3 full-frame cameras (yes, even its IMAX footage), which gave Edwards the freedom to shoot on location across the globe. He also delivered a final cut of the film before VFX work began, which allowed those workers to focus on crafting exactly what was needed for each scene. In contrast, Marvel’s films require a backbreaking amount of VFX work, even for scenes that are later changed or cut. (It’s no wonder Marvel VFX workers voted to unionize for better treatment.)

The Creator is more of a missed opportunity than a complete creative failure. If you tune out the clunky dialogue and thin characters, it’s still a visually lush epic that’s worth seeing on the big screen. But I also think that’s true of Attack of the Clones. In a post-Matrix era, a world where we’re already seeing the (very basic) ways AI tools can reshape our society, science-fiction needs more than another story about man versus AI.