'The Creator' Is a Masterpiece of World-Building and a Failure of Storytelling

Directed by Gareth Edwards

Starring John David Washington, Gemma Chan, Ken Watanabe, Sturgill Simpson, Madeleine Yuna Voyles, Allison Janney

Photo: Oren Soffer

BY Prabhjot BainsPublished Sep 27, 2023

Gareth Edward's previous directorial efforts have mostly been handcuffed by the needs of existing lore and studio agendas. Both 2014's Godzilla and 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story boast some of the most striking visuals and intricate world-building their respective franchises have ever seen, but are kept from true greatness by their half-baked characters and stilted storytelling. This requirement to serve a larger, ongoing narrative doubles as a dark cloud that consistently stifles Edward's encompassing vision.

With The Creator, Edwards returns from a seven-year break between movies armed with full creative control, and he puts it to great use, crafting one of the most unique and breathtaking cinematic worlds of the century so far. But, surprisingly, it continues to suffer from the same malady of his previous films. This bold, and at times clever, dream of the near-future is diluted by the clichéd and mawkish story at its centre, creating great moments that are attached to a middling sci-fi movie.

The Creator opens with a space-age advertisement for androids called Simulants, that gives way to a bleak alternate reality. It's a world where the East and the West are fiercely divided by their acceptance and integration of artificial intelligence. After Los Angeles is levelled by an atomic bomb, the United States launches a full-scale war against "New Asia" (a super-country that amalgamates the continent's various languages and cultures) and their Simulant diaspora.

The story follows Joshua (John David Washington), a hardened and grieving ex-special forces agent who is recruited to hunt down and eliminate Nirmata, the elusive and enigmatic architect of a weapon that has the capacity to not only end the war but exterminate humanity. Joshua and his team of elite operatives, led by Colonel Howell (Allison Janney), head deep behind enemy lines and discover said weapon is in the form of a child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). Joshua's loyalties are quickly tested when the child, whom he names Alfie, hints that his deceased wife (Gemma Chan) is alive, setting him on a crusade to reconnect with her.

These opening sequences are among the The Creator's best, unfolding like a sci-fi Vietnam War film, replete with soldiers interrogating villagers and setting their homes ablaze. It's an opening chapter that is thematically rich, tackling American imperialism from a crafty angle. The neo-Asian setting, where Hindi, Mandarin Chinese and Japanese are spoken interchangeably, is wonderfully realized and truly singular in execution. Edwards imbues the verdant landscapes with protruding artificial towers that are both contradictory and complementary, building some of the most awe-inspiring images the genre has ever featured. 

Edwards juxtaposes these cybernetic skyscrapers against the natural beauty of New Asia with grace and tact, compelling viewers to pour over every detail of its immaculate, layered design. The cyberpunk cityscapes, full of hawker stalls and Simulant sweatshops, blend seamlessly into painterly ricefields and atolls, forming a vision that truly feels alive, despite the seemingly hollow machinery that runs through it.

That effect is at the heart of Edward's visual approach, as through images alone he is able to conjure an abundance of powerful themes and emotions. He crafts a world where humans are the most inhumane entities and Simulants, who are fighting for their survival, are the ones who are most attuned to the natural and spiritual planes, desperately clinging to their newfound sentience. Fusing the theological with the technological, the film touches on our growing disconnection with nature and the world's most fundamental processes. As such, The Creator is transportive filmmaking at its best.

What takes away from the film's greatness, though, is when the focus shifts to the derivative tale penned by Edwards and Chris Weitz. Joshua's arc represents the film's biggest failing, ultimately devolving into little more than an excuse to traverse ravishing vistas. It's a flaw that would be forgivable if it weren't so sentimental. The dynamic between Joshua and Alfie is as predictable as it is saccharine, and Washington's natural charisma doesn't do enough to elevate the material.

For so much visual creativity on display, The Creator's narrative feels like a tired hodgepodge of the most unsatisfying parts of films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Blade Runner. As a result, its rushed third act fails to elicit much of a reaction outside its technical spectacle. If Edwards and company opted for a more contained story about characters dealing with more personal conflicts, The Creator would be a far more effective film, but its reliance on the "Chosen One" trope mutes the staying power of its sweeping vision.

Edwards's epic may not be original in the truest sense, but the movie's magnificent world-building makes it an experience worth taking part in. It's rare to see a high concept sci-fi film not affiliated with any existing IP get green-lit in today's landscape of endless franchises, and though it suffers from many of their same shortcomings, The Creator should be heralded as a minor miracle in a sea of the mundane.
(20th Century Studios)

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