For such a thoughtful film, THE CREATOR is curiously underwritten. Building to several emotional crescendos during its two hours and thirteen minutes of running time, the intended resonance is, alas, subsumed by the spotty nature of a narrative that proceeds gamely from one set piece to another without giving us much in the way of the moment-to-moment motivations for our characters. Why is someone climbing aboard a missile? If you think hard, you can figure it out, Maybe.
Then there are the plot holes, like leaving a vitally important control room unguarded during a red alert. Really? Why would a competent war machine of a government do that? If you think really hard, there is still no figuring that one out.
You can’t fault John David Washington’s performance in all of this. He grounds the story with a palpably emotional reality. He also brings a vibrant immediacy to his character that is far more lively than a directorial mood that, despite many explosions and bursts of death from near-future style weaponry, maintains a strict air of reverential torpor.
That character is Sgt. Joshua Taylor, a soldier fighting for what is left of the United States after A.I. detonates a nuclear device in Los Angles a few decades from now. It is a government run by old white men, which is the first clue that something is off. The second is that the guy in charge, General Andrews (Ralph Ineson), is a growl and a scowl who addresses Congress with a promise to wipe the A.I. loving New Asia off the map, and then destroy the A.I. machines that were banned over here after that nuclear explosion.
In a narrative that takes the scenic route, there are many episodes in Joshua’s story, starting with the pregnant love-of-his-life (Gemma Chan) getting terminated in a raid, and eventually channeling itself into his mission to destroy the Alpha-O. That would be the ultimate weapon constructed by Nirmana, The Creator of the title, and currently residing in the western part of New Asia.
I am giving nothing away, at least nothing more than the ads for this film have, in telling you that the weapon in a five-year-old simulant (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). Except for that hole in the back of her head, she looks like any other child, though more solemn and serene. Instead of destroying the weapon he’s discovered, the two of them set off in search of Nirmana. It’s an adventure that re-unites Joshua with an old friend (Marc Menchaca) who has gone native, and introduces Joshua to the spiritual side of A.I.
The film does an intriguing job of presenting that side of the robots (who look like robots) and the simulants (who have faces donated by humans via a scan). They observe rituals, they form attachments, and the simulants take part in many other human-like things, like eating, sleeping, and inhaling controlled substances. A fine metaphor for the evils of slavery is achieved with nary a whiff of the didactic, while making a subtle case for A.I. being the next logical evolutionary step for us all. It also presents a logical projection of what 2070 or so might look like, just different enough to be futuristic, without losing the familiarity of the present. The whiz-bang item is NOMAD (no relation to the NASA probe nor to the Star Trek allusion). Spanning much of the sky with its gull wings and curtains of laser beams, it is the U.S.’s weapon designed to destroy its enemies, human and other, once and for all by raining death on small villages. Not on cities, for reasons that are never quite adequately explained.
Eventually the U.S. military, led by a lethally focused Allison Janney, comes after Joshua and the child he nicknames Alphie. It’s a chance to replay the destruction wrought by American troops on small Vietnamese villages, in this case, also threatening a puppy (which survives unscathed and yes, it’s a spoiler, but one I’d want to know about). This leads to more meandering and the introduction of a nifty device that can lift consciousness from the dead.
Joshua and Alphie have many adventures, helped and hindered by Harun (Ken Watanabe), a simulant with a secret and an agenda. It’s a fine performance, full of nuance that clinches just how sentient these simulants are. Less nuanced is Voyles. She is fine with the preternatural calm of a Buddha, but when performing her special magic, the one only she possesses, it feels stagey and the concentration a mere simulacrum of that effort. It doesn’t help that she has to do this a lot and during times of great tension.
THE CREATOR is gorgeous to look at. It’s an ambitious effort that fails to hang together meaningfully. Full of big ideas, it plays them fast, loose, and occasionally hackneyed as it lopes between lethargy and acumen.