Typically, when a filmmaker lands in “director jail,” it’s because their movie was a commercial and critical misfire—the type of project that leaves studios wondering whether this person can be trusted with another sizable investment. (Unfortunately, director jail tends to disproportionately affect women filmmakers.) How curious, then, that it’s taken Gareth Edwards seven years to release a new film after Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
By all accounts, Rogue One was salvaged by Tony Gilroy, who was hired to oversee extensive rewrites and reshoots, but even though Gilroy received widespread credit for Rogue One’s success, it’s not as if Edwards’s influence is completely absent from the film. And as he proved in his 2014 Godzilla remake, Edwards excels at creating a terrifying sense of scale: Seeing the newly constructed Death Star looming over planets and leveling entire cities with just a fraction of its power adds to the feeling of helplessness among the Rebel Alliance. (Not to mention the cold indifference of the Empire’s lackeys, who describe the weapon’s destructive might as “beautiful” from the safety of outer space.) Even if the characters in his movies leave a lot to be desired—do you remember a single human from Godzilla?—Edwards sure knows how to stage apocalyptic scenarios with real weight.
Having finally escaped director jail, Edwards once again dials up the doom and gloom in his latest project, The Creator, which taps into anxieties that have been at the forefront of the entertainment industry’s labor strikes: the use, and prevalence, of artificial intelligence. In the film’s not-so-distant future, mankind and AI have developed a harmonious relationship—the latter is now responsible for everything from food delivery to law enforcement. (Hopefully, it hasn’t also replaced screenwriters.) However, in 2065, a nuclear explosion apparently set off by the defense system meant to protect humans destroys much of Los Angeles, killing millions. In response, the United States outlaws AI and goes to war with AI sympathizers in “New Asia,” where humans and robots continue to live together in peace.
When American intelligence learns that a mysterious robotics architect known as Nirmata has developed a new superweapon that could end the war, former special forces agent Joshua (John David Washington) is tasked with tracking down its whereabouts. Joshua is a valuable asset for the military, having previously infiltrated a group of robot sympathizers in New Asia before falling in love with his mark, Maya (Gemma Chan). After Maya appeared to die in a missile strike—an incident that also caused Joshua to lose his arm—he left the military behind. But surveillance footage showing that Maya is still alive in the jungles of New Asia gives Joshua a renewed sense of hope. If Joshua can find Nirmata and destroy the weapon, there’s a chance he’ll also reunite with Maya. But Joshua’s mission is thrown a curveball when he discovers what, exactly, Nirmata has created: a robot (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) in the form of a little girl.
It should come as no surprise that Joshua is hesitant to pull the trigger; he even gives the diminutive robot a name, Alphie. From there, the two go on the run, evading both sides of the AI conflict until Joshua can make up his mind on whether he should turn Alphie in to the U.S. military or keep protecting her. A hardened man accompanying a gifted (robo)child who softens his edges during a perilous journey that’s teeming with adversaries? We’ve seen this story before; I’m shocked Pedro Pascal wasn’t available. In fact, there’s plenty of familiarity baked into The Creator: The inciting incident of the war against the machines recalls The Terminator; the world-building is like Blade Runner by way of Southeast Asia; the overarching AI sentimentality is very, well, A.I. Edwards even constructs his own version of the Death Star: NOMAD, an American military spaceship that hovers above the action like a bird of prey, spraying bombs on the enemy with a laser targeting system that wouldn’t feel out of place in Call of Duty. (By portraying the U.S. military as a sinister, invading force throughout New Asia, The Creator also intentionally evokes Vietnam War epics like Apocalypse Now.)
But for all the allusions to other works of science fiction, The Creator is still an increasingly rare sight in Hollywood: an original blockbuster. These movies need as much support as they can get in the current theatrical landscape, which makes it all the more disheartening that The Creator’s stars haven’t been able to promote it. (The Writers Guild of America reached a deal with the studios on Wednesday; the Screen Actors Guild remains on strike.) But while The Creator is the kind of project we’d like to see Hollywood throw its weight behind, that doesn’t mean it should be graded on a curve.
The same issues that plagued Godzilla—and, presumably, Rogue One before Gilroy was brought on—hinder The Creator. True to form, Edwards is way more accomplished at world-building and orchestrating chaos than he is at developing characters. The inevitable bond between Joshua and Alphie is frustratingly one-note, which, while largely due to the unconvincing script cowritten by Edwards, also calls Washington’s movie star bona fides into question. (Between The Creator and Tenet, one has to wonder whether Washington has had the misfortune of playing underwritten sci-fi characters, or whether he is a complete charisma vacuum—maybe it’s both.) It’s also difficult to take in a film that tackles one of the biggest hot-button issues affecting several industries—the infiltration of AI—and paints humanity as the villain, especially when Edwards enlisted a company to create an AI-generated score in the style of Hans Zimmer. (Thankfully, The Creator ultimately went with the real Hans Zimmer, who, Edwards said, found the AI score “amusing.”)
But even if The Creator ends up underwhelming at the box office, there’s one facet of the movie that could be a game changer throughout Hollywood: how it was made. Edwards, a former special effects artist, decided to shoot the film on location throughout Southeast Asia—the CGI was then reverse engineered into the shots during the editing process. (Edwards employed a similar technique with his directorial debut, Monsters, albeit on a much smaller scale.) As a result, The Creator had a somewhat modest budget of $80 million but looks better than countless blockbusters that cost three times as much. (Seriously, it’s hard to believe something as hideous as The Flash had more than double The Creator’s budget.) I would go so far as to call it a stroke of genius in its simplicity: The world of The Creator feels so authentic and tactile because it is. The special effects complement the real-world locations, rather than the other way around. That distinction might not matter to a studio executive, but the fact that Edwards’s approach proved to be so cost-effective certainly will.
As for Edwards, this revolutionary method of filmmaking could keep him in the good graces of the studio system while also inspiring other directors to follow his lead. Admittedly, this would be a bizarre way for The Creator to be remembered—less for what it achieved as a film, and more for the blueprint it could establish across an industry that’s become way too reliant on overworked visual effects artists. In any case, the good elements of The Creator far outweigh the bad: I’ll take an ambitious, unrefined original tentpole over another by-the-numbers IP extension any day of the week. Given Rogue One’s highly publicized reshoots, Edwards is still searching for the first truly great movie to call his own. The Creator may not clear that bar, but Edwards has shown more than enough promise for his stint in director jail to remain a distant memory.