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REVIEW – ‘The Creator’ is a Beautiful But Unsettling Sci-Fi War Epic

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The Creator, a science fiction war epic from 20th Century Studios, rightfully lauded for being an original blockbuster film, which is increasingly rare in the current Hollywood landscape. Even beyond Marvel or DC, it’s much safer for studios to adapt an existing IP, which at a minimum has some kind of fanbase and an established story. As such, aside from legendary directors like James Cameron or Steven Spielberg, it’s not easy to get high concept films made with the full support of a major studio.

Director Gareth Edwards may not yet claim the lofty status of Cameron or Spielberg, but his ability to craft a visual spectacle on par with the greats is on full display with The Creator, which is a breathtakingly beautiful film. The world that Edwards has created for this film, which is familiar yet distinct from our own, is expansive and intriguing, and demands to be explored in detail.

While the visuals and world building in The Creator are exemplary, the details are where the film stumbles. The story is suffers from undercooked ideas and the film’s message is undercut by its heavy handedness. If there is any film that would have benefited greatly from the insight and experience of a diverse creative team, it’s this one.

For those who can forgive its shortcomings, The Creator is a highly entertaining film with intense action and mind-blowing cinematography. It’s certainly worth seeing on the big screen to fully appreciate the epic scope and majesty of the world that Edwards has created.

The Creator premieres in theaters September 29, 2023.

The Creator Theatrical Poster
The Creator Theatrical Poster

Official Synopsis

“The Creator” is set amidst a future war between the human race and the forces of artificial intelligence. Joshua (Washington), a hardened ex-special forces agent grieving the disappearance of his wife (Chan), is recruited to hunt down and kill the Creator, the elusive architect of advanced AI who has developed a mysterious weapon with the power to end the war…and mankind itself. Joshua and his team of elite operatives journey across enemy lines, into the dark heart of AI-occupied territory, only to discover the world-ending weapon he’s been instructed to destroy is an AI in the form of a young child (Voyles). The film is directed by Gareth Edwards, with a screenplay by Gareth Edwards and Chris Weitz from a story by Gareth Edwards. The producers are Gareth Edwards, p.g.a., Kiri Hart, Jim Spencer, p.g.a., and Arnon Milchan. The executive producers are Yariv Milchan, Michael Schaefer, Natalie Lehmann, Nick Meyer, and Zev Foreman.

THE GOOD

It’s hard to watch The Creator and not feel like this is the Star Wars film that director Gareth Edwards wanted to make. While Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story remains one of the most widely praised Star Wars films of the Disney era (which is no small accomplishment for a Star Wars anything), the project had its share of production challenges, ultimately bringing in writer Tony Gilroy to oversee extensive reshoots.

As someone who not only loves Rogue One, but also enjoyed Edwards’ other films like Godzilla and Monsters, I’ve always been deeply interested in what his original vision for a Star Wars film was. In 2015, at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim, I was in the audience as Edwards spoke about Rogue One before it went into production, and recall how he made it a point to emphasize one thing – war. As he said at the time, war is in the name.

War may not be in the title of Edwards’ latest film, but it’s certainly in its DNA. The Creator is a story about humans vs. artificial intelligence that will certainly evoke iconic films like The Terminator and The Matrix. However, while those films may generally cover the same broad ideas, The Creator is far more reminiscent of films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Da 5 Bloods in its examination of war, imperialism and ethics.

A scene still from 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
A scene still from 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

At its best, The Creator proves that Edwards has a unique visual style that stands next to any of the titans of filmmaking. It’s hard to fully communicate just how stunningly gorgeous the film is, from the sweeping shots of the fictional landscape in “New Asia,” to the massive, Death Star-like space weapon floating ominously through the skies. The cinematography, set design and costumes are all magnificent and come together to form Edwards’ futuristic version of Earth that feels familiar, yet distinct.

Another aspect of Edwards’ unique style is his blending of old and new aesthetics to create something original. The United States in The Creator is a terrifying force of mass destruction, with cutting edge weapons. And yet, the U.S. uniforms and overall look seem to be stuck in the 1950s or 1960s. It’s a fascinating contrast, which reflects the stunted societal development of the U.S. in the film. Singularly focused on its self-proclaimed war with artificial intelligence, spending trillions of dollars on developing a technological terror, the United States has failed to progress in other areas.

Actual progress is embodied by the AI that is the target of the U.S. war, referred to as “Sims.” Having escaped east to New Asia, a convenient conglomeration of several East Asian and Southeast Asian countries where the Sims are embraced, they live in constant fear of the American military.

It’s an interesting twist on the human vs. AI concept, in that the story isn’t about what happens when humans play God and create artificial life. Instead, it’s about how often humans play the devil and destroy life, with AI serving as stand-ins for many groups who have suffered the brunt of western imperialism. The parallels to the Vietnam War are unmistakable, as the U.S. military forces invade New Asia and relentlessly bomb the Sims, who all have Asian looking faces, throughout the film.

(L-R): John David Washington as Joshua and Madeleine Yuna Voyles as Alphie in 20th Century Studios' THE CREATOR. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
(L-R): John David Washington as Joshua and Madeleine Yuna Voyles as Alphie in 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

John David Washington plays Joshua, a member of the U.S. military who is on a mission to hunt down and destroy the creator of the Sims. Of course, such missions are never as simple as they sound, and when he discovers that the Sims’ greatest weapon is a child-like Sim named Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), Joshua immediately shifts from would-be assassin to protector; a twist on the Lone Wolf and Cub trope. Washington and Voyles have excellent chemistry as two lost souls who don’t know their purpose.

Washington is a burgeoning blockbuster star, who effectively seems both strong and vulnerable at the same time. Voyles, in her first major role, does an impressive job breathing life into her Sim character, finding the perfect balance between the innocence of a child and and awareness of things beyond human understanding. Both Joshua and Alphie need to save and to be saved, and the two bring a much needed humanity to the story.

THE BAD

As strong as Washington and Voyles are, the characters around them, human and Sim, lack depth. The rest of the humans are little more than cookie-cutter soldiers, who point and shoot. Even Allison Janney, who plays the leader of the U.S. forces on the mission, can’t do much with what the script has given her.

On the other side, Gemma Chan and Ken Watanabe play Maya and Harun respectively, both leaders of the Sims. Maya is a human who was raised by the Sims and Harun is a leader of the Sims resistance forces. Unfortunately, we don’t see Maya do any actual leading, or much of anything, and the film doesn’t bother to explain anything about Harun’s character beyond his role. Maya in particular had the potential of an interesting character as a human who understands the value of a Sim’s life, but that potential is never fully explored. That’s the primary problem with most of the characters outside of Joshua and Alphie; they’re little more than pieces on the chessboard that exist to advance the plot, and lack development or layers.

A scene still from 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
A scene still from 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

For a film so heavy on symbolism, the one-dimensional Sims, all of whom have Asian faces, reflect the lack of diversity on the creative team. Written by Edwards and Rogue One scribe Chris Weitz, the Asian looking Sims are treated with the same lack of depth and nuance that plague too many Asian characters in Western media. Chan and Watanabe, who are both incredibly talented actors, are largely wasted as glorified background characters.

Even more disturbing is that the Asian Sims don’t exist just to help advance the plot; they exist seemingly to get blown up. The theme of war is never more prevalent than when the U.S. forces are bombing the Asian Sims in a variety of ways, on multiple occasions, and with brutal intensity. This is where the similarities to the Vietnam War become uncomfortable. While the film’s disdain for U.S. military might and imperialism is clear, the imagery needed to be handled with a much more delicate hand instead of a brute force fist.

Beyond the disturbing lack of care in depicting war on the Sims, the overall message of the film is less about AI than audiences might expect. In the current era of AI advancement, which are major issues in the on-going WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, the public sentiment around AI is largely pensive. While Edwards and his team couldn’t have predicted how AI would be perceived now when they began production on the film, it will be interesting to see how audiences feel about a story that isn’t actually interested in commenting on AI.

THE POC-Y

The Creator desperately needed the richness of perspectives and backgrounds that diverse creatives behind the camera often provide. At a certain point, after you lose track of the number of massive bombs with mushroom clouds that are dropped on the Sims with Asian faces, you start to get the disturbing sense that while the film acknowledges that war is horrific, it also thinks these weapons are really awesome and I fear that too many will walk away from this film with a strong sense of the latter.

Donnie Yen, who starred in Rogue One, shared in an interview with GQ Magazine that he made suggestions on his character for that film so that it wouldn’t be a generic Asian martial artist. The Creator would have benefited greatly from that kind of perspective, especially for a film that heavily incorporates Asian aesthetics.

THE RATING – 3/5 Pocky

Pocky Rating 3

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Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture.  He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.

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