The Creator (PG-13) ★★★½

Review Date: September 28th, 2023

When a movie invites comparisons to the work of James Cameron and Christopher Nolan, it's apparent that the director (in this case, Gareth Edwards) has done something very right. The Creator may rely on numerous common science fiction concepts but it blends them in a way that feels original. And, although there are structural similarities with the recent Robert Rodriguez/James Cameron collaboration, Alita: Battle Angel, Edwards avoids the critical misstep of the 2019 feature by allowing The Creator to stand on its own.

CGI naysayers will be delighted to hear that Edwards has eschewed the green screen approach, preferring instead to rely on old-school practical effects. This gives The Creator a unique aesthetic among recent science fiction films. It feels more tactile and looks grittier - all the better to engage with. The scope is epic but the length is not. At 133 minutes, this is considerably shorter than a great many of today's destination blockbusters yet, because it isn't tarted up with pointless, tedious "action" scenes, it tells a story in a reasonable time. Pacing is rarely an issue - Edwards uses economical flashback sequences to fill in the backstory as needed – with the only possible misstep being that the final half-hour feels rushed.

The Cameron influence, whether intentional or subconscious, is evident. At (different) times during Creator, I was reminded of Terminator and Avatar. Bits and pieces of the Nolan Brothers can also be found - Christopher's Interstellar and Jonathan's Westworld TV series. Edwards has also cited E.T. and Blade Runner, and one doesn't have to look long or hard to understand why. A fusion of so many familiar ideas and narrative arcs might easily have resulted in a disjointed bastardization but The Creator flows with a seamless energy that makes the references seem like homages instead of rip-offs.

Events transpire in a near-future Earth (2065 to be precise). It is an era when AI has ascended to achieve quasi-sentience. The detonation of a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles has resulted in a war between the human simulacrums/robots and the homo sapiens living in the United States. In Asia, however, AI creations continue to work in concert with human beings. An advanced airborne AI hunter/killer system called Nomad gives the West a decisive advantage but the mysterious "father of AI" has engineered a counter-weapon that the U.S. fears could end the war in the robots' favor. Using hard-won intel, they send a commando squad led by Colonel Howell (Allison Janney) into enemy territory to find and destroy this new weapon. On her team is an ex-special ops agent, Joshua (John David Washington), whose experience working undercover in the AI community is deemed critical. After a disastrous beginning to the mission, Joshua achieves the first objective, discovering that the AI savior, Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), is modeled after a young girl. Unwilling to terminate her, Joshua instead goes on the run with her in a pursuit that has him hunted not only by her protectors, led by Harun (Ken Watanabe), but by Howell, who believes him to be a traitor.

This represents John David Washington's second lead performance in a high-profile film (the other being Nolan's Tenet) and continues his evolution as an actor. He shows emotional range and evinces a solid chemistry with his 9-year-old co-star, Madeleine Yuna Voyles, who is making her feature debut. (One might liken their on-screen relationship to the one Washington's father, Denzel, enjoyed with Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire.) Gemma Chan (as Joshua's wife, Maya), Ken Watanabe, and a fierce Allison Janney provide supporting performances.

The Creator fires on almost all cylinders. The emotional components - relationships between Joshua and Alphie, and Joshua and Maya - are strong without becoming saccharine. Character motivation is solid, with Howell having a credible reason for her hatred of the enemy and Joshua's attitudes being understandably divided. The action is genuinely exciting and, perhaps most importantly, the concept of "Artificial Intelligence" is given more than lip service. It is addressed in an intelligent, penetrating fashion rather than being thrown in as a plot point.

Edwards' world-building and vision are sufficient that this could represent the gateway for a wide variety of projects such as sequels and/or a streaming series. But it's self-contained, offering a satisfying ending that doesn't demand additional installments. So, regardless of what the future holds for The Creator, the present is bullish for those who enjoy splashy, intelligent science fiction that engages rather than bores. Entering the 2023 movie season, this wasn't on my list of potential Top 10 candidates. Exiting the year, however, it will almost certainly be highly placed on that list.

© 2023 James Berardinelli