Given the rarity of big, bold sci-fi concepts without a “2” after the title, it’s a bit of shame to return a tepid verdict on “The Creator,” director/co-writer Gareth Edwards’ attempt to build a stirring drama around a war-ravaged future pitting humankind against artificial intelligence. While the film traffics in thoughtful ideas as well as spectacle, it doesn’t complete the vital emotional connections between its head and its heart.
Humanizing AI hardly represents a new concept, and the leap forward – with most of the movie unfolding not quite 50 years from now – operates on roughly the same speculative road “Blade Runner” traveled more effectively in 1982, also contemplating fundamental questions about what could make a machine, essentially, human.
The sly (and manipulative) trick here involves dressing up that artificial person in the form of an adorable child, nicknamed Alfie (newcomer Madeleine Yuna Voyles), who carries the unfortunate weight of the world – and the potential key to the aforementioned war – on its slim and tiny shoulders.
As a bonus, the human who stumbles into the task of protecting that mysterious child, former special-forces agent Joshua (John David Washington), is nursing an almost unimaginable wound, having lost his pregnant wife (Gemma Chan) to the prosecution of the war, left sleepwalking through life when he’s grudgingly recruited back to the fight.
The origins of the conflict get rapidly explained at the outset: A devastating event in Los Angeles, described as an attack by AI, upon humanity. The West has responded by banning AI, whereas the people of New Asia still embrace it, leading to war as the West seeks to eradicate the threat beyond its shores.
Still, the West’s sky-borne weapon of mass destruction, called Nomad, could be endangered by an answer developed in New Asia, one capable of neutralizing the technology. That prospect turns the AI child into a prize sought by both sides, and leaves Joshua caught between his growing bond with the kid and the military commander (Allison Janney, underemployed here) who enlisted him.
Having directed “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” Edwards (who shares script credit with Chris Weitz) brings considerable visual flair and massive IMAX-worthy scale to the action sequences and general design, creating a credibly futuristic world where the AI characters, or at least some of them, are identifiable by the whirring holes in the side of their heads.
All that serves as an elaborate backdrop, though, to Joshua processing his grief and his perilous travels with Alfie, which face a dizzying barrage of impediments as they build toward the seemingly inevitably test of the child’s destiny.
That relationship, like our understanding of the AI community, must also unfold on the fly, which can make “The Creator” a tad impenetrable at times, particularly in the early going. Ultimately, the movie boils down to buying into the feeling that develops between man and machine, always a tough bond to sell, and one that as constructed doesn’t entirely pay off here even with the cherubic face of its tiny co-star.
Again, credit Edwards with attempting to tackle what at its core represents a character-driven story wrapped in a big sci-fi bow, one that happily doesn’t feel like it’s trying to create some new franchise to spawn sequels and sell plush toys.
On that level “The Creator” feels intelligent, artificial or otherwise. It’s just not enough to make the movie fully spring to life in the way its creator intended.
“The Creator” premieres September 29 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.