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Robots, humans and simulants. They all hate us.

Movie

The Creator
(2023)

 

If anything, the tepid reviews for this one have been too generous. Gareth Edwards makes first-rate science-fiction movies when it comes to the purposes of furnishing computer wallpaper, but they’re utterly defeated in providing the essentials. Like a dynamic plot, tangible stakes and memorable characters. As a visual stylist, Edwards’ work is impeccable, but he makes Joseph Kolinski – also oft maligned for favouring visual lustre over content – look like a consummate all-rounder by comparison.

Ironically, it’s still Edwards’ spartan debut, Monsters, that works best; unfettered by the demands of big budgets and action beats, he was able to deliver a piece that relied heavily on ambience and atmosphere, and was all the better for it. The Creator’s palette – and its sound design – is heavily influenced by Blade Runner, and I suspect, all things being equal, Edwards would prefer the luxury of establishing worlds one could soak up, rather than submitting to the onus of propelling the viewer somewhat mechanically from incident to incident. It might paper over his transparent lack of facility in those aforementioned areas – he co-wrote this with Chris Weitz – and apparent determination to assemble casts who make a negligible impression on his landscapes. And this isn’t a thing of his preferring understatement; they’re players who only tend to draw attention to the deficiencies in the writing.

After 4 movies doing that, one has to assume it’s intentional – that he seeks to ensure the environment is never eclipsed by the performance – but given the paucity of resonant thematic and conceptual material in his projects, he achieves only a sense of the threadbare: superbly polished and consummately packaged, but almost entirely empty under the hood.

The Creator’s premise is of the overfamiliar “protect the special child” variety; there are, of course, variations on this. Sometimes the child is a special adult. Sometimes (often, if its genre) there are messianic overtones to the sheer specialness of the special child. Usually, the protector is world-weary, battle/job-hardened and possibly suicidal, and often – depending on how “realist” the tale thinks it is – this protector will sacrifice (himself) to ensure his ward’s continuance, forever to be remembered as a saviour-of-the-saviour figure. Or some such. With the “special AI” aspect of The Creator, what we have isn’t so very far removed from Blade Runner 2049 (albeit, that picture understood the whole deal of slow-burn, absorbing ambience, even if Sir Ridders thought it a chore).

The threat – or, if you’re Ascended Machine Technology in the antimatter universe, potential; just watch out for the nasty AIs there – of Artificial Intelligence is an evergreen, particularly NOW, with the warnings of Hollywood going there for its screenplays (I mean, they couldn’t be worse, right Gareth?) and ChatGPT offering “informed” replies/essays on anything you may be foolish enough to ask it. Science-fiction has habitually presented dire warnings of singularity consequences while simultaneously presenting its transhumanist offshoots as an inevitability; this is frequently accompanied by the intimation that man’s creations possess the vital spark – the soulfulness – now lacking in humanity itself, with its empty materialism and programmed responses (this is, give or take Sir Ridders insisting Deckard’s a Replicant, the main takeaway of Blade Runner). It’s an essentially Luciferian vision, of man as creator-god (and one who has entirely divorced himself from his own creator-god). Apotheosis is left to the “machine” because humanity has lost all interest.

Edwards has it that AI is responsible – Or is it, huh? How’s that for pulling the rug from under expectations? – for nuking LA in 2050 (so far, so Skynet). Consequently, AI is banned in the western world while, to the West’s ire, New Asia (all the better for those Sir Ridders-esque, neon-infused visuals) continues to develop the tech, and indeed treat them like equals. The US military seeks to assassinate Nimata, the titular figure responsible for AI. Albeit, one has to wonder, if Nimata’s so shit hot, that they can’t come up with simulants who pass entirely for humans. The latter seem to have a whacking great designer holes in their heads, as if built by Apple, which isn’t so sim-ilar. Many of the robots, meanwhile – how long before the AI class system results in unrest between the have-human-features and have-nots? – look a little too much like The Phantom Menace’s Battle Droids for my tastes (all that’s missing is a “Roger, Roger” from their police units… Actually, that might have given them some vague personality).

Our main protagonist Joshua Taylor (John David Washington) is sent undercover to locate Nirmata 10 years later. He falls for Maya (Gemma Chan), the creator’s possible daughter, but he believes he has lost Maya when the operation is botched. For definite, he has lost an arm and a leg (but don’t worry: transhumanism). That takes us up to 2065, the rest of the story’s time period, with Taylor enticed – by the carrot that Maya is still alive – to find and destroy a new AI weapon. Of course, he soon learns the AI is a kid (Madeleine Yuna Voyles’ Alpha-O/Alphie) and, inevitably, one with amazingly special skillz (it can remotely control technology). Because he’s a decent guy and a sucker for aesthetic and sentimental distinctions, he just can’t bring himself to complete his mission. And so, he becomes her protector, pursued by his dogged superior Colonel Howell (Allison Janney, who looks a bit like an AI herself since her face-lift, although I tend to wonder, with any given recent celebrity face-lift, if it really is that person any more). 

Inevitably, there are “revelations”, ones that mostly seem rather rote; Maya turns out to have been the 2nd Nirmata (after her father died) and is alive but in a vegetative state (Taylor pulls the plug), while Alphie is based on a scan of their unborn child, “a new kind of life” that will grow up like a normal human (it would appear that there are no other child simulants in this world, the obvious explanation for this being that, in contrast to Spielberg’s movie that leaves the implication hanging like a bad smell, they’d be popular with paedophiles). Alphie’s destiny is to turn the tide of the war in the AI’s favour (so they can live in peace; that’s right, they’re all nice-as-pie AI). Oh, and the nuking? That was down to human error (a coding error). Wouldn’t you know it?

Still, good AI doesn’t prevent Edwards from aping other Cameron movies, most notably Aliens, with its drop ship and gung-ho marines (the effect is cheap, obvious and lazy, like a computer-game facsimile, or an AI one. Or a Paul W Anderson sequence). Throw in some Doctor-Octopus tentacles during the Moon-bound climax – kind of: Taylor and Alphie land a lunar shuttle on USS NOMAD, the North American Orbital Mobile Aerospace Defence. Yes, this is very much a globe Earth SF vision – and Taylor “reuniting” with Maya (a sim Maya) before the NOMAD blows, and you have a movie that is almost exclusively derivative.

Admittedly, there’s an occasional moment, a glimmer or spark of life. There’s the dog who picks up a bomb and deposits it amid the robot police who threw it (just about the only tension in The Creator comes from whether the dog will survive; he does, but tragically, Taylor and Alphie don’t take him with them). Then there’s the bridge scene with its running bombs, like barrels with legs, a neat riff on strictly functional design. 

Kami: What do you want, sweetie?
Alphie: For all robots to be free.

Great play is made of the humanity of the AI, but this is a facet of just about every movie featuring them, except where its utterly inimical to human life (Skynet again. But even that has Arnie learning about tears). What this means, for Edwards’ purposes, is that there aren’t even good AI and then bad AI; they’re all good, persecuted human substitutes who legitimately want to be treated as equals.

Alphie: We can’t go to heaven because you’re not good, and I’m not a person.

Because they’re good, they nurse aspirations to spiritual awareness. Or Alphie does, anyway. She’s inquisitive regarding a notional heavenly realm, while jaded Taylor has no investment in such a concept (“It’s a peaceful place in the sky”, he recites, unconvinced). Actually, not just Alphie: we meet an observant Buddhist monk simulant who religiously guards the comatose Nirmata (they cannot harm her). The afterlife conversation, like everything thematic here, feels somewhat pat and unformed, lacking any depth of feeling or resonance (contrast this with Roy Batty summoning the spectre of Paradise Lost as he reaches his end in Blade Runner). There’s also a curious reference to Neanderthals, one designed to promote the tired old concept of Darwinian evolution while intimating that transhumanism is its inevitable final destination: “we raped and murdered them out of existence”.

As I suggested, the cast all draw a blank. Washington is no chip off dad’s block in the charisma stakes; that suited someone called simply “the Protagonist” in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, but it’s far less appropriate to the Taylor’s intended emotional range. I doubt anyone could have done much with this, though; Edwards only ever casts actors destined to be forgettable. Chan is similarly nondescript. Voyles is fine; she at least manages an air of conviction. Ken Watanabe frowns and looks slightly constipated, as he tends to in Hollywood movies. Ralph Ineson plays a general. Janney is dreadfully miscast, compounding a takeaway sense of inelegance, of failing to kneed the live performers into a convincing future society(ies). The robot ones can’t be faulted.

So Edwards has made a rather stale, redundant “root for the robots as they overthrow the cruel human yoke” movie, one where the only good humans wind up dead. Yes, the AI shall inherit the Earth. What could be more comfortingly transhumanist than that? Honestly though, The Creator is so bereft of discernible self-belief, I’m unconvinced there’s any legitimate reading of its message that doesn’t culminate in a shrug and a “Maybe, but who cares?” 

The Creator is set to flop; vaguely in its favour is that it looks much more expensive than it is (at $80m, it’s barely a sneeze in the average Disney budget’s handkerchief; of course, they’re just throwing money, and handkerchiefs, into the furnace right now, safe in the knowledge that the Mouse House is guilty of sins that simply cannot be atoned for; nothing short of total assured destruction will suffice). I’m all for original genre movies, ones that are neither remakes nor sequels, but this isn’t that. Maybe Edwards will direct a decent picture again one day, but he’d probably be better off programming an AI to make one for him.

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