THE CREATOR Review: Gareth Edwards Returns with Poignant Sci-Fi Parable
John David Washington and Gemma Chan star in the science-fiction action-adventure.
All art is political, even blockbuster art produced for (and by) a major, profit-oriented Hollywood studio.
The Creator, writer-director Gareth Edwards’s (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Godzilla, Monsters) fourth feature-length film and his first in seven years, qualifies unreservedly as political art.
It’s far from subtle or nuanced in its approach to politics and history, specifically the Vietnam War, then and now seen — rightly, it should be added — not just as a costly strategic and political blunder that it was, but also, a bright, shining example of American imperialism, of binary Cold War ideology used as justification for overriding the self-determination of another country and another people.
The Vietnam War put the lie to the still active, comfortable fiction of the United States as a beacon of liberal democracy, an example for both developing countries and the Eastern bloc countries occupied and controlled by the former Soviet Union. Then and now, the enemy was both real and abstract, the former pitting the military might and industrial power of the United States versus a rural, agrarian country, Vietnam. History tells us that the United States lost for a variety of reasons, most importantly fighting a war of attrition on foreign soil against an ideologically united enemy.
Using familiar tropes drawn from a variety of science-fiction and non-science classics, everything from Star Wars (Rebels vs. the Empire) to The Terminator’s technophobia (A.I. and self-directed robots), Blade Runner’s dystopian view of a climate-challenged near future, through more recent, ideologically driven fictions like District 9, Elysium, and even Chappie, Edwards hasn’t just remixed them, he’s synthesized them into something entirely new, boldly, empathetically siding with the other (or rather the “Other”), depicted in The Creator as a vibrant, cross-cultural nation-state, the Republic of Asia that unites humans, self-aware robots, and “simulants,” neither human nor robot, but to borrow a phrase Edwards lifts from Blade Runner, “More Human Than Human.”
Working from an idea-rich screenplay co-written with Chris Weitz (The Mountains Between Us, The Golden Compass, About a Boy), Edwards centers The Creator on an American solder-undercover-operative, Joshua Taylor (John David Washington, Tenet). Sent by his superiors to infiltrate an A.I.-robot-human collective as part of the ongoing destructive war between a U.S.-led coalition on one hand and an AI-robot-human alliance on the other, Joshua leaves not just his country and training (indoctrination) behind, but in turn, finds his worldview altered and elevated through a romantic relationship with Maya (Gemma Chan, The Eternals), a leader of the collective and, when we first meet Joshua, pregnant with their child.
From the preceding description alone, The Creator certainly sounds, if not cliched, then predictable, and it is to a certain extent. Joshua finds himself attempting to halt an assault by U.S. forces on the collective and loses everything, leaving him a shell of not who he was, but what he had become: As self-aware as the robots and simulants who openly yearned for freedom. The U.S. and its leaders — and make no mistake, Edwards clearly identifies the U.S. as the rigid, inflexible imperialistic force, operating everywhere and anywhere with near-total impunity — have no room for nuance or subtlety, only a war of eradication.
It’s a somber, if not unrealistic, view of what the United States, its leaders driven with an ideological, righteous fervor, represents to the rest of the world, especially non-Western countries (e.g., South/Latin America or Southeast Asia). Edwards makes the imperial might — here clearly referencing Star Wars — of the United States (Empire) through an ever-present sub-orbital platform, NOMAD. Equipped with the latest seek-and-destroy tech, along with a full complement of intercontinental missiles, NOMAD represents the terrifying realty of a country acting and reacting without limits, crossing borders, visibly in the daytime or at night, and striking villages it’s deemed non-compliant.
The Creator turns, of course, not in an abstract war between ideological extremes, but on a literally grounded storyline involving Joshua, begrudgingly recruited by a former superior, Colonel Howell (Allison Janey), to help a U.S. strike team (shades of Aliens), find and neutralize a new, potentially war-ending weapon on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. There’s also a promise, however unlikely, that Joshua will find a still-alive Maya.
Instead, he finds the latest in simulant tech, a preteen girl, Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). She might have been designed as a weapon, but she’s also sweetly naive and innocent, curious about the world and her place in it.
Bonding of one kind or another ensues between Joshua and Alphie, ultimately providing The Creator with a narrative and emotional through-line. It doesn’t always work, especially in a rushed second half where action beats necessarily take over story beats, but elevated by Washington and Voyles’ grounded, naturalistic performances, it works more than well enough to keep audiences fully engaged in their respective fates and the world around them.
The world of The Creator, a mix of old (contemporary) and new tech (circa 2065), logically extrapolated from our own (e.g., cars, trucks, weapons) makes an incredibly believable one. Edwards and his key collaborators, including co-cinematographers Greg Fraser and Oren Soffer, along with production designer James Clyne, created a deeply textured, layered world that feels as believable and grounded as it does lived-in and realistic. Using a low-cost camera, the prosumer Sony FX3, and often doubling as camera operator, Edwards also decided to rely minimally on green screen technology, instead shooting guerilla-style on location in Thailand.
Ultimately, The Creator proves to be far greater than the sum of its influences or parts, delivering incisive, provocative political art embedded in sci-fi/action entertainment. Entertainment value or political allegory aside, The Creator also doubles as a poignant, unironic plea for cross-cultural, cross-ideological empathy and compassion.
The Creator opens Friday, September 29, only in movie theaters, via 20th Century Studios.