Producers: Gareth Edwards, Kiri Hart, Jim Spencer and Arnon Milchan Director: Gareth Edwards Screenplay: Gareth Edwards and Chris Weitz Cast: John David Washington, Madeleine Yuna Voyles, Gemma Chan, Allison Janney, Ken Watanabe, Sturgill Simpson, Amar Chadha-Patel, Marc Menchaca, Robbie Tann, Ralph Ineson, Michael Esper and Veronica Ngo Distributor: 20th Century Studios
At a time when virtually every action movie that comes down the pike fingers some all-powerful specimen of artificial intelligence as the ultimate villain, you at least have to give writer-director Gareth Edwards credit for positing it as a benign, peace-loving entity (sorry, “MI: Dead Reckoning”). It also takes chutzpah for “The Creator” to portray the inhabitants of “New Asia” as the good guys and the western world headed by the United States as the bad ones, employing a gargantuan flying WMD called Nomad as the means of eradicating all traces of AI wherever they might be found, without any consideration of national sovereignty or thoughts of war crimes. One wonders how American audiences will respond. (Chinese and Indian ones will probably applaud.)
Yet that’s about the extent of the narrative creativity found in the movie, which is notable for some impressive visuals achieved on a relatively modest budget but is otherwise derivative, chaotic, often politically cringe-worthy and, in the end, sloppily sentimental.
The premise is that humanity embraced AI for its many benefits—including robot policing—until 2055, when a nuclear explosion destroyed Los Angeles and was blamed on AI. That turned America, and the western world as a whole, against the technology as an existential threat (wrongly, of course, as an aside later in the film will reveal). The wholesale western war against all AI is in contrast to the East, now reconfigured as New Asia (though precisely what that entails is never fully explained), which continues to revere its AI regime for its benevolence. By 2065, most of the destruction is wrought by Nomad, a huge U.S. airship that can fly uninhibited anywhere in the world to annihilate whatever targets the West deems appropriate.
John David Washington is a stolid, uninteresting presence as Joshua, a veteran with multiple prosthetics who’s introduced in a loving relationship with gorgeous Maya (Gemma Chan, lovely but equally dull), his pregnant wife, in a coastal paradise somewhere in the Far East. Their idyll is cruelly interrupted by the arrival of Nomad, which disgorges an army of battle-hardened marines to wipe out the community. Maya is apparently one of those obliterated by blasts from Nomad as they try to flee in their simple boats.
But Joshua survives, protesting the raid as mistimed. It turns out he’s an undercover American operative sent behind enemy lines to locate the Nirmata, the titular creator of AI. As the plot unfolds, it will demonstrate that he’s been a singularly obtuse agent, since he’d apparently been part of the group for quite a while but failed to recognize the truth right under his nose.
Years later he’s persuaded by rigid General Howell (Ralph Ineson) and gung-ho Colonel Howell (Allison Janney) to rejoin the fight when presented with evidence that Maya might still be alive. In the interval the Nirmata has supposedly contrived the ultimate AI weapon, something that must be located and destroyed, and so Joshua joins Howell’s jackbooted team, which terrorizes a village of peasants to gain entrance to the Nirmata’s underground laboratory. (The obvious pictorial allusions to the atrocities of the Vietnam War are rather tasteless, though undoubtedly unsettling.)
The big surprise is that the weapon turns out to be a darling half-human, half robot little girl named Alpha-O, though Joshua calls her Alfie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), the most lovable AI tyke since Haley Joel Osmont’s David from Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.,” though she also might be a female cousin to “The Last Airbender.” Joshua becomes her protector as they travel through many perilous confrontations and hair’s-breadth escapes on their way to a Buddhist retreat high in the mountains, where among AI monks Joshua hopes to find Maya and Alfie hopes to find her Mother. Do you detect the possibility of conflation here?
Along the way other characters are introduced, like Harun (Ken Watanabe), leader of an AI squad looking for the fugitives, and Shipley (Sturgill Simpson), an old buddy of Joshua’s who, along with his partner Kami (Veronica Ngo), gives the pair shelter until the U.S. goons find their hiding-place. Amar Chadha-Patel appears as the face of a series of law-enforcement simulants. But the most amusing creatures in the movie are bomb-carrying robots that look like garbage cans with legs, and are programmed to say how honored they are to do their duty as they depart to blow up themselves as well as their targets; kudos to the sound team headed by Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van Der Ryn that created the thumps of their footsteps as they run toward their prey.
But of course eventually Joshua and Alfie must find their way aboard Nomad in order to definitively end the aggression of the colonialists against the locals, content as they are with their AI regime (though, from the sequences involving checkpoints, it doesn’t seem quite so pacifistic as they might claim). Self-sacrifice and saccharine reunions jostle with lots of derring-do and big explosions in the extended finale.
Edwards seems to be under the impression that he’s dealing with big, important ideas here, but in reality the screenplay boils down to some very simplistic notions about what it really means to be human, and a clear-cut struggle of good versus evil. Nor does the movie escape a feeling of cinematic déjà-vu: it’s hard not to think of bits and pieces from models like “Blade Runner,” “Star Wars” and many others as the chase goes on.
It would help if the performances had much zest, but despite some exceptions—the exaggerated intensity of Janney, for instance—things are pretty dreary in that department. But while the effects (supervised by Julian Levi and Jay Cooper) are sometimes a mite messy, they’re remarkably good given a budget estimated at only $80 million, miniscule compared to most contemporary behemoths—a testament to the innovative processes Edwards has pioneered; the widescreen cinematography by Greig Fraser and Oren Soffer is mostly excellent, too. It’s difficult by assess the production design by James Clyne in view of the fact that so much of the movie is really computer-generated imagery, but Jeremy Hanna’s costumes are fine (if not always very futuristic). And though the editing by Hank Corwin, Joe Walker and Scott Morris doesn’t always keep the action ideally clear, the blame falls less on them than Edwards and co-writer Christopher Weitz; there are only so many ways you can make a last-minute escape from obliteration exciting. Responsibility for the overeager score, on the other hand, rests entirely with composer Hans Zimmer.
One of the aspects of the design of the AI simulants deserves mention. For some reason they have rotating tunnels in the back of their heads, empty tubes—a hole in the head, as it were, which you might think reflective of the empty-headedness of “The Creator” as a whole. Then there’s the praying gesture Alfie makes when accessing her telekinetic powers. It might encourage you to mimic her and pray the picture will end before adding yet another chapter to the already overstuffed plot.
It won’t work, though.