Gareth Edwards shot his directorial debut Monsters (2010), a love story terrorised in its margins by aliens, for less than $500,000. In Hollywood, that’s considered pocket change. So, when the film became an unexpected hit, the franchise machine was quick to descend. First came Godzilla (2014), then Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). He blessed both with a sense of visceral, ground-level chaos – the feeling of total insignificance in the face of a mountainous, monstrous kaiju lumbering out of the fog.
However, Hollywood, in turn, ignored their own investment, as well as the economic ingenuity Edwards had shown with Monsters. He was tossed into the centre of these bloated productions and, in the case of Rogue One, then had said production wrested from his hands for even more expensive reshoots. Now, he’s returned with The Creator, a sci-fi epic about a war against AI waged in Southeast Asia by American-led, western forces. Written alongside Rogue One’s Chris Weitz, and shot for a modest $86m, it’s both Edwards’s “personal film” and a challenge to the industry status quo – with all your money, The Creator asks, why can’t you make your films look as good as this?
Edwards, with the aid of Dune’s cinematographer, Greig Fraser, and his protégé Oren Soffer, embellishes his real-world locations with futuristically mundane but mesmeric sights: AI robots in repose, jagged outlines of metal against a beautiful, scarlet-shaded Thai sunset; an AI robot with a cat nestled in its lap; a group of AI robots huddled around a glitchy, fuzzy hologram depicting the erotic gyrations of other AI robots.
The story here is somewhat basic, yet another Lone Wolf and Cub pairing of a war-wizened, emotionally stunted man whose barriers are gradually broken down by the adorable, wide-eyed adoptive child they’re tasked with escorting. Joshua (John David Washington – Pedro Pascal was presumably busy) is an ex-special forces Yankee parachuted into the Republic of New Asia in order to track down and kill a weapon fashioned by the Creator, the inventor of advanced AI. The weapon – surprise, surprise – turns out to be a very cute, robotic child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) prone to heartfelt speeches and making audiences cry.
The Creator is periodically clunky. Washington swings from stiff to charismatic alongside the film’s quality of dialogue and tone. It’s also a film that is unexpectedly very funny for 15 minutes and then almost never again. But Edwards presents himself as an ideas-on-his-sleeve kind of guy, who’s invested in readdressing the meaning behind some of the most commonplace sci-fi imagery.
Much of the genre’s aesthetics have been appropriated from Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, and yet its stories have been repeatedly relocated to the west or far out in space (see: Star Wars, Blade Runner, Dune). The Creator features the typical blended, pan-Asian aesthetics. It’s also a film explicitly set in Southeast Asia, with a largely Asian cast (alongside Voyles, Ken Watanabe and Gemma Chan play major roles as AI and human leaders in the war). Allison Janney, meanwhile, plays Joshua’s commander and arrives on the scene with all the no-bulls*** style and militant competence of an Ellen Ripley or a Sarah Connor. Yet, for all those trappings of lean-in feminism, we’re reminded that a woman in power is no victory if that power is exclusively evil.
Edwards then wraps it all up with a nuanced take on an extremely prescient issue, specifically the matter of if and how we transpose blame onto technology itself and not the people who wield it. It’s the perfect question for The Creator to ask – it is, after all, an increasingly rare piece of mainstream cinema that proves CGI can be good for art when placed in the right hands.
Dir: Gareth Edwards. Starring: John David Washington, Gemma Chan, Ken Watanabe, Sturgill Simpson, Allison Janney. 12A, 133 minutes.
‘The Creator’ is in cinemas from 28 September