Despite its story’s hiccups — and they end up being almost contagious — “The Creator” creates visions of the future you’ve never seen before, at least not quite this way. The film is messy and intricate, but co-writer and director Gareth Edwards has yet to make an uninteresting piece of sci-fi.
This is his fourth feature film after his low-budget debut. “Monsters” (2010); serious and extremely satisfying 2014 “Godzilla”; and another large-scale franchise entry, also good, the “Star Wars” spinoff “The Fraudulent One” (2016). While “The Creator” doesn’t belong to any franchise, it certainly owes a lot to the gritty wonders and narrative devices of many earlier films, from “Blade Runner” to “Akira.”
Co-written by Chris Weitz, Edwards’ script begins in 2065, moving first forward, then backward, where grit and emotion are equal parts. A nuclear attack carried out by artificial intelligence creatures known as simulants killed one million people in Los Angeles. In the film’s beautifully constructed opening minutes, we learn about humans’ global war with simulants whose human-like emotional connections (that is, literal connections) exceed even those of Haley Joel Osment’s robot child in the film. Spielberg/Kubrick collaboration “Artificial Intelligence” Human-faced simulants aren’t easy to kill, but the film also features hoards of more anonymous and completely faceless “Clone Wars”-type simulants designed for quick and easy expiration.
In New Asia, humans and imitators still get along. But “The Creator” wastes little time in unleashing destruction and mass murder there, as the U.S. military deploys its fearsome aircraft, the USS Nomad, to target and destroy the villages of the simluants and their allies’ camps. Reminiscent of the chaotic and often brutal guerrilla warfare of “Rogue One,” Edwards here evokes America’s war in Vietnam and, in particular, the Vietnam war fantasy “Apocalypse Now.”
Our path into this world is supposed to be simple and easily followable, but “The Creator” has a bit of a hard time with this part. John David Washington stars as Joshua, a black ops agent whose pregnant wife Maya (Gemma Chan) is apparently killed in a raid gone wrong. Years later, in Los Angeles, Joshua is offered an irrefutable assignment from the military ranks played by Allison Janney.
and Ralph Ineson wore the bulkiest glasses on future Earth.
Joshua’s mission: Find the inventor “Nimrata” and eliminate Nimrata’s secret AI weapon, which spells possible disaster for the planet. Janney’s character mentions with strategic indifference that Joshua’s wife might still be alive. So he has motivation.
The first half of “The Creator” draws us in; The second half is less sure-footed in its comebacks. Periodically, section headings (“Child”, etc.) appear on screen to classify events. The film is quite grueling in terms of its violence; The same was true of “Rogue One,” and director Edwards is not an unequivocal advocate of good versus evil. The future of film exists in irradiated shades of gray.
“The Creator” costs a little more than half as much as “Rogue One” and looks twice as original. It’s also blurry and (at least to me) a bit frustrating in its development, with some misjudged comic relief. There are also a few ideas that are so good you want more to be done with them. My favorite is the digital contraption (basically a recording device) that, when placed around the neck of a recently deceased character, brings that character back to life for another 30 seconds.
Much of “The Creator” is devoted onscreen to Joshua’s fatherly relationship with the impersonator everyone is after. The “little sim” (as Joshua calls her) turns out to be a cheerful, empathetic messianic figure nicknamed Alphie, played by Madeleine Yuna Voyles. Like all imitations, it is easily recognized by the cylindrical hole in its metallic head. The script presents Joshua and the audience with a series of decisions: Will this imitation save us all? Whose side are we on?
Another question about the movie’s leading actor: Is Washington a star enough to be the precursor to a movie? I’m not sure he has the presence or technical command. With “Tenet” and to a lesser extent “The Creator,” Washington isn’t enough to help us navigate a challenging story. Joshua actually plays a recessive and reactive role. Washington isn’t bad, but I’m waiting for the movie that will activate him in surprising ways.
As for what the “Creator” says about the evils of artificial intelligence, there is a bit of a twist here; Nothing surprising or hard to guess. “You can’t beat AI,” a wise impersonator informs us along the way. “This is an evolution.” Whether this leads to moral complexity or narrative ambivalence will be up to moviegoers. Either way, at least Edwards’ film is heart-pounding and a visual spectacle worth exploring. Complicated plot threads and all.
“Creative” — 2.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for violence, some bloody images and strong language)
Running time: 2:15
How to watch: Premieres in theaters September 28
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.