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Did AI write this film? 'The Creator' offers a muddled plea for human-robot harmony

Madeleine Yuna Voyles plays Alphie, a pensive young robot child in <em>The Creator. </em>
20th Century Studios
Madeleine Yuna Voyles plays Alphie, a pensive young robot child in The Creator.

The use of AI in Hollywood has been one of the most contentious issues in the writers and actors strikes, and the industry's anxiety about the subject isn't going away anytime soon. Some of that anxiety has already started to register on-screen. A mysterious robotic entity was the big villain in the most recentMission: Impossible film, and AI is also central to the ambitious but muddled new science-fiction drama The Creator.

Set decades into the future, the movie begins with a prologue charting the rise of artificial intelligence. Here it's represented as a race of humanoid robots that in time become powerful enough to detonate a nuclear weapon and wipe out the entire city of Los Angeles.

As a longtime LA resident who's seen his city destroyed in countless films before this one, I couldn't help but watch this latest cataclysm with a chuckle and a shrug. It's just part of the setup in a story that patches together numerous ideas from earlier, better movies. After the destruction of LA, we learn, the U.S. declared war on AI and hunted the robots to near-extinction; the few that still remain are hiding out in what is now known as New Asia.

The director Gareth Edwards, who wrote the script with Chris Weitz, has cited Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now as major influences. And indeed, there's something queasy and heavy-handed about the way Edwards evokes the Vietnam War with images of American soldiers terrorizing the poor Asian villagers whom they suspect of sheltering robots.

John David Washington plays Joshua Taylor, a world-weary ex-special-forces operative.
/ 20th Century Studios
20th Century Studios
John David Washington plays Joshua Taylor, a world-weary ex-special-forces operative.

The protagonist is a world-weary ex-special-forces operative named Joshua Taylor, played by John David Washington. He's reluctantly joined the mission to help destroy an AI superweapon said to be capable of wiping out humanity for good. Amid the battle that ensues, Joshua manages to track down the weapon, which — in a twist that echoes earlier sci-fi classics like Akira and A.I. — turns out to be a pensive young robot child, played by the excellent newcomer Madeleine Yuna Voyles.

Joshua's superior, played by Allison Janney, tells him to kill the robot child, but he doesn't. Instead, he goes rogue and on the run with the child, whom he calls Alpha, or Alphie. Washington doesn't have much range or screen presence, but he and Voyles do generate enough chemistry to make you forget you're watching yet another man tag-teaming with a young girl — a trope familiar from movies as different as Paper Moon and Léon: The Professional.

Joshua's betrayal is partly motivated by his grief over his long-lost love, a human woman named Maya who allied herself with the robots; she's played by an underused Gemma Chan. One of the more bothersome aspects of The Creator is the way it reflexively equates Asians with advanced technology; it's the latest troubling example of "techno-orientalism," a cultural concept that has spurred a million Blade Runner term papers.

In recycling so many spare parts, Edwards, best known for directing the Star Wars prequel Rogue One, is clearly trying to tap into our memories of great Hollywood spectacles past. To his credit, he wants to give us the kind of philosophically weighty, visually immersive science-fiction blockbuster that the studios rarely attempt anymore. The most impressive aspect of The Creator is its world building; much of the movie was shot on location in different Asian countries, and its mix of real places and futuristic design elements feels more plausible and grounded than it would have if it had been rendered exclusively in CGI.

But even the most strikingly beautiful images — like the one of high-tech laser beams shimmering over a beach at sunset — are tethered to a story and characters that never take on a life of their own. Not even the greatKen Watanabe can breathe much life into his role as a stern robo-warrior who does his part to help Joshua and Alphie on their journey.

In the end, Edwards mounts a sincere but soggy plea for human-robot harmony, arguing that AI isn't quite the malicious threat it might seem. That's a sweet enough sentiment, though it's also one of many reasons I left The Creator asking myself: Did an AI write this?

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.