… Compromise is made out of peace
But history’s made out of violence …
– From “Sing Along” by Sturgill Simpson.
Though he made his big splash for most audiences with 2014’s Godzilla, writer/director Gareth Edwards has been releasing films since 2005. Of the three projects prior to Godzilla, it’s his 2010 film Monsters that made audiences sit up and take note when they heard Edwards is attached to a project. That film, a tense sci-fi thriller starring Scoot McNairy (Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile), is only the beginning of what Edwards would do in his films to explore the complex nature of humankind, using extraterrestrials, kaiju, empirical forces, and, now, artificial intelligence (A.I.) as his entry point. His latest project, The Creator, co-written with Chris Weitz (Rogue One), is perhaps his most challenging yet, incorporating religion, philosophy, and ethics into a sci-fi drama that effectively recreates the horrors of wars past via gorgeously-rendered futuristic trappings.
The year is 2065 and there is an ongoing war between humans and sentient A.I.. In a bid to end the war, a former intelligence agent, Joshua (John David Washington), is reactivated as his past is the United States’s best hope of delivering a devastating blow to turn the tide. Taking on the mission will require Joshua to confront aspects of himself he thought he knew, placing the balance of all life, artificial and biological, on a precarious precipice.
Of the last three films, only The Creator is an original piece from Edwards and now two-time writing partner Weitz. However, all three of the films — Godzilla, Rogue One, and The Creator — share a powerful thematic connection regarding humanity’s inability to just coexist. It almost always pushes things to a breaking point and then calls itself a victim. It was humanity’s violence that awoke Godzilla, humanity’s pursuit of dominance that created the Empire, and humanity’s hubris that makes them think they are better than the things they give life to. This would be entirely pessimistic if not for the protagonist viewpoint which pushes through a different idea of rebellion, asking for a shift in perspective along the way. To make it believable, though, requires time, patience, and (in cinema) tight pacing, all of which exists within The Creator, making use of every moment in its 133 minute runtime. That might seem lengthy, but one will not feel it in the slightest thanks as much to the performances from the cast, beautiful cinematography, and near-seamlessness of the CG work from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), as well as the aforementioned pacing.
We know from almost the beginning that Joshua is destined to undergo a significant transformation, not just because of the marketing, but because of the place in which the character exists both physically and psychologically. Joshua lives in a post-event Los Angeles, clearing rubble from the event site during the day and struggling at night. He exists in the same space as his people, but due to trauma from his last mission, he suffers from prolonged grief. As portrayed by Washington, Joshua is unable to give up on life yet mostly isolates himself, making himself an easy target for the upper brass (played with alternating dripping rage and cool callousness by Allison Janney (The West Wing)) to get roped back into the field via an irresistible carrot. What’s fascinating about the scenes in this portion of the story is the absence of life-giving energy through the almost complete destruction of nature in order to give way to concrete roadways and buildings. The U.S. portion of the story is tight, uniform, and devoid of anything outside of regulations, a visual language to communicate the stalled connection between Americans and nature. In contrast, the portions of the film set in New Asia (shot in Nepal, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Japan), are positively gorgeous, the cinematography by Greig Fraser (The Batman/Dune: Part One) and Oren Soffer (A Nightmare Wakes) speaking a visual language of direct connection to nature, an openness of mind and spirit that eventually comes to speak to Joshua in a way he’d been closed off to for years. This is the expectation and, unfortunately, what the script does is largely follow that expectation from initial catalyst for Joshua until the final frame. However, one cannot argue with the method and means that Edwards and Weitz utilize to get from point A to point B, delivering a story that’s emotionally powerful, hitting its beats so well that, despite the predictability, it makes one shudder under the weight.
There’re a lot of surprises within The Creator that make dissecting it in a spoiler-free manner incredible difficult because to explain one thing requires an understanding of something else. Instead, allow me to express that Edwards has crafted a striking anti-war film that’s masked as a stereotypical “ra-ra, go American Exceptionalism!” sci-fi adventure drama. The visual language depicting the American forces versus the opposition are echoes of the Vietnam War (Nov 1955 – April 1975), with the American wearing dark, militaristic uniforms and the opposition wearing mostly regular clothes that are appropriate for the region of New Asia that they are fighting in. The American forces are using advanced technology, specifically the U.S.S. Nomad that rests in the upper atmosphere and drops missiles from orbit, going out of their way to terrorize locals to get information, not doing the work to separate civilian from combatant, and generally going about things in the G.I. Joe way. Conversely, the opposition is comprised of humans, A.I. robots, and a mixture called Simulants (yes, they are advertised as “more human than human,” why do you ask?), each one living peacefully amongst themselves and doing what they can to *only* defend themselves, striving to reduce civilian casualties as often as possible. Their weapons are advanced tech, sure, but are typically contained to hand guns, assault rifles, and portable explosives, nothing on the scale that the American forces continually throw at them. We, like Joshua, begin this film in one mindset and the question becomes will we and/or Joshua shift? How frequently can we see violence justified by one side before we cry “Freedom Now in New Asia” or “War on Poverty — Not on New Asia”? More importantly, how long can we, the audience, remain engaged, drawn to the mind-blowing character designs and special effects work that makes everything appear as tangible as the real world does? How long can we remain excited for the next action sequence when all it does is bring pain?
Honestly, the profundity of The Creator is what impresses the most. Amid all the things that the script is obvious about, its clear anti-war stance, its mirroring to the wrongs committed in the name of American expansion and liberty-seeking, its big budget scale from a major studio (20th Century Studios) is startlingly unexpected. So much so that the philosophical impact of the film, if one is open to its message, lingers not just on the mind but the soul.
Side Note: The press screening set up by 20th Century Studios took place at a Regal theater with an IMAX presentation. Though I don’t think one needs the IMAX experience in order to feel the significance of the narrative or the appreciate the cinematography on display, the increased viewing size and enhanced sound does create a significant enough immersive experience that viewers likely will walk away satisfied by the premium experience.
As stated, there’s a lot more going on in The Creator and, in order to provide the kind of spoiler-free exploration that we strive for at EoM, the above doesn’t really touch on the arcs of the mentioned characters, the performances by Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians/Eternals), newcomer Madeleine Yuna Voyles, Ken Watanabe (Godzilla), Sturgill Simpson (The Hunt), Veronica Ngo (Fury/Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and many others. To do so would give way to other details that are best experienced the first time without influence. At a later date (with a little luck), a deeper essay will come forth that will tackle those things. For now, if you’re considering whether or not to go to see The Creator, do know that if you’ve been looking for some original sci-fi from a unique voice and with a profound and clear message, this is the film you’ve been looking for.
Screening during Fantastic Fest 2023.
In theaters September 29th, 2023
For more information, head to the official 20th Century Studios The Creator webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.