They're so robotic. When they open their mouths, they regurgitate lines that feel borrowed from other people. They go through the motions of having aspirations, making important decisions and forging lasting connections with others, but they feel like a facsimile of a person. They're more normal than normal, so much so that you begin to question how real they actually are.
But these aren't the droids you're looking for. I'm referring to the human characters in “The Creator,” a new science fiction epic that presents a grim, not-too-distant future where humankind and the artificial intelligence that was created to make flesh-and-bone folks' lives easier are at war. It attempts to tell its story without being based on a piece of intellectual property, which is increasingly rare these days, but the word “original” doesn't come to mind when thinking of the ways director/co-screenwriter Gareth Edwards borrows concepts from other sci-fi properties, adds some Biblical imagery, then throws these ingredients in a bowl and tries to whip up an allegory pitting East versus West. The results are bound to try your patience, but hey, at least it looks real pretty.
At the center of this brave new world is the elusive titular figure, known as Nirmata, the architect of advanced AI, also called Simulants. (“Blade Runner” callout? Check.) If you are to believe the North American version of events, Nirmata was behind a nuclear attack on Los Angeles, with its obvious echoes of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” that was the opening salvo for this war. Thus, Nirmata becomes the subject of a hunt by Western countries, but really, it's mostly the U.S. of A., hoping that his capture will mean humankind will get to trounce those evil computers with human faces and what look like “Tron” cycle wheels where their ears ought to be.
The film starts with a 1950s-style video that's cute and toothless in laying out the central conflict in broad strokes. Someone like Brad Bird would have run with this and make it pop, but under Edwards' square-jawed stewardship, it just sits there, functional yet flat. That's before Edwards introduces his protagonist. Joshua (John David Washington), a U.S. special forces agent, has infiltrated a group in the Republic of New Asia believed to be protecting Nirmata, but things go sideways when his cover is blown.
Years pass, and Uncle Sam comes a-knocking asking for his help. He's about to turn them down when they hold the ultimate carrot before him: footage of his wife Maya (Gemma Chan), presumed dead but apparently still alive. We're only privy to Maya and Joshua's relationship in brief flashbacks that play like TV ads for Sandals Resorts, but we're somehow meant to care for them, because Joshua enlists, and away he goes into enemy territory under the command of Col. Howell (an overqualified Allison Janney). His mission: to find and destroy an AI secret weapon meant to wipe off the human race from the face of the Earth.
One would think “The Creator” would finally kick into gear once Joshua discovers that this doomsday device is actually an AI in the form of a young girl (newcomer Madeleine Yuna Boyles) who likes anime and is a walking remote control. But no. One keeps waiting for the movie, which morphs from militaristic action to outlaws-on-the-lam thrills, to get started already, but Edwards, working from a screenplay credited to him and Chris Weitz, struggles to find his footing for a sizable chunk of the film's two-hours-plus running time.
This struggle is, sadly, nothing new for Edwards, who made “Monsters” (2010), his intriguing debut feature about big aliens hiding in Mexico, and hasn't been able to strike that film's balance between human intimacy and otherworldly spectacle ever since. Edwards is undeniably adept at staging elaborate setpieces, and his subsequent projects, “Godzilla” (2014) and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” feature skillfully staged action. In between those scenes, however, are mostly one-dimensional characters with all the freshness of day-old pizza. In “Godzilla,” for example, Edwards elicited wooden performances from the likes of Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche. I know many Star Wars purists swear by “Rogue One,” but I do not think Felicity Jones and Diego Luna fare much better than the A-listers in “Godzilla.”
So, call it a breakthrough that “The Creator” features a full-throated star turn from Washington. Even though Joshua's relationship with Maya remains maddeningly abstract and out of reach, his bond with the pint-sized AI, whom he names Alphie, feels tangible, even affecting, by contrast. The “BlacKkKlansman” and “Tenet” actor carries this weighty, ambitious picture on his shoulders, so to the extent that it remains watchable despite the uninspired way it's put together, credit him.
But just when you're about to write it off as yet another underwhelming, albeit visually arresting, Edwards effort, “The Creator” comes to life with just over a half hour left to go. The concepts that had been buried underneath gobs of muddled storytelling snap into focus. Edwards and Weitz subvert Star Wars' Rebels-versus-the-Empire story mold to serve up a stinging takedown of the United States as an imperialist world power more effective at destroying bridges than rebuilding them. Its portrait of humans' hatred of AI as a form of xenophobia is heavy-handed, but considering it makes power-hungry Western nations complicit in the commitment of atrocities, it still packs a punch. Coming from a major studio release, well, that's not nothing.
“The Creator” also benefits from a heist-like climax that plays to Edwards' strengths as a craftsman. (The visual effects here are impeccable, if too much on the traditional side.) The eleventh-hour boost comes too late, unfortunately. This is idea-driven sci-fi (yay!) where the ideas, however stimulating they are, take too long to crystallize (boo!). Say this for Edwards: there's enough talent on display that you keep rooting for him despite his repeated stumbles. Maybe next time he'll finally get it right.
“The Creator” is now playing across South Florida in wide release, including IMAX engagements at Regal South Beach, AMC Aventura, AMC Sunset Place, Regal Kendall Village and the AutoNation IMAX at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale.