If the dolls also had voices, they would have screamed, “I didn’t want to become human.”Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), dir. Mamoru Oshii
In an alternate timeline with a divergent future, mankind’s development of artificial intelligence became our primary mode of progress. Cybernetics and robotics transform our world to one primarily occupied by sapient machines, artificial bipedal beings a primary point of contact for things like fast food, manufacturing, or policing. Of course, given the current state of the world, it’s not particularly challenging to see the developing familiarities – even if we’ve apparently opted to ignore the possibilities of easing our collective burden through automating tedious labor and have instead decided to crush creative endeavors through the artificial, soulless homogenization of corporately disseminated art. Thankfully, amid a sea of blockbuster drivel that feels increasingly steered into muddy oblivion by way of creative bureaucracy, Gareth Edwards’ The Creator never fails to feel like a refreshingly stunning, earnest effort of worldbuilding and immaculate visual craft.
Certainly, it’s disappointing that it’s never much more than that. The central drive of the narrative comes when artificial intelligence detonates a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles, plunging the world into a war between a now fiercely anti-AI United States and New Asia, who stand up for the lives of the robotic beings they have created. The battle for victory comes down to the United States’ superweapon space station NOMAD, and an unknown threat being developed by Nirmata, AI’s creator. Joshua (John David Washington), a US special forces agent, is tasked with hunting down Nirmata to end the war, only the unknown threat he discovers is an artificial child – and his sympathies begin to shift his priorities. A fine premise but that’s all it is; a premise. The sheer amount of narrative for something so consistently simple is what drives the failures of The Creator, a film persistently interested in the thematic fascinations of cyberpunk but only ever executing rote, familiar storytelling couched within a beautifully constructed landscape.
Soon enough, the broad strokes are really all you need. Nothing is ever surprising or narratively daring, and each new beat seems a new opportunity to question the logical tissue connecting anything happening here. When influence hangs so heavy over the look and feel of the film; pulling either thematic ideation or visual splendor from the likes of Akira (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Blade Runner (1982), it’s difficult not to be disappointed in a complete lack of any philosophical musing on existence in an increasingly digital landscape. In The Creator, artificial beings exist, but it’s never really interested in questioning their humanity, or what makes one human. Technology is shown to be capable of snapshotting one’s brain before death only to transfer it to another body, but it’s never really interested in exploring the digitization of consciousness or what it could mean to exist inside somebody else’s head. A nuclear bomb is detonated, transforming an entire cityscape and propelling billions into a state of abject fear at what their own technology is capable of, yet any potential insight into the ramifications of these moments in a people’s existence is abandoned as the film immediately leaves Los Angeles for the sun-soaked wetlands of Southeast Asia.
It’s easy to want more, especially when so much of The Creator is flimsy at best and disintegrates in your hands when you begin to give it a second glance to make something meaningful out of it. Yet despite the completely stagnant plot devices that make up the propelling force, Gareth Edwards remains impeccably capable of crafting stunning, arresting imagery with electric energy, moving its 136 minutes by with swift strength. The real core of the film is in how convincingly it is all crafted, a vibrant landscape that feels genuine and lived in. It’s easy to question the why of so many things, but you never really want to because it’s so convincingly designed. Picturesque landscapes dotted with hard-edged, elegant sci-fi design work, space stations, and lunar shuttles. Villages teeming with buzzing robots and whirring machinery, people laced with cybernetic enhancements, massive explosions sending blistering shockwaves across jungles and oceans. The Creator is an $80 million dedication to the future of science fiction cinema, a good faith argument that we should be far more interested in earnest originality than we are in bloated, massively overbudgeted slop presented as if it’s the best we can do. It might fall short of landing among the staggering influence of the films it pulls from, but it’s still a pretty damn convincing argument.