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‘The Creator’ Digital UHD (review)

Disney

Gareth Edwards’ The Creator begins with a prologue updating us on recent history: an AI detonates a nuclear device in Los Angeles and Western nations outlaw machine intelligence; a country called New Asia defies the ban and allows peaceful coexistence, and in response the United States wages an extended military campaign against said nation, seeking to assassinate the intelligences’ chief designer Nirmata (‘creator’ in Sanskrit).

Film proper begins with a raid on a beachside home: Sgt. Joshua Taylor (John David Washington) happily lives there with pregnant wife Maya (Gemma Chan); turns out Taylor had gone undercover to try get close to Maya, who’s believed to be the daughter of the mysterious Nirmata– falling in love with her wasn’t in his brief.

The raid ends with Maya and her unborn child killed by NOMAD, short for North American Orbital Mobile Aerospace Defense– an all-seeing Angel of Death holding its Damoclean sword over the world, ready to smite all things artificial.

Five years later Taylor is dragged back in from a Los Angelos ground zero cleanup detail and handed a new assignment: turns out Maya may still be alive, and involved in her father’s project to build a weapon meant to end the war. Midway through the mission Taylor finds the weapon: a robot in the guise of a small girl (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), a ‘simulant’ with the ability to turn on and off other machines at a distance, at will– basically a bipedal remote control. The robot has the words Alpha-Omega etched on the side of its head; Taylor decides to call her ‘Alphie.’

The film is actually quite fun, with Edwards’ relatively clean staging of action sequences and firefights, and the occasional striking imagery: NOMAD gliding across the sky’s upper reaches like a triumphant angel out of Neon Genesis Evangelion, scanning the ground with a curtain of blue light for subversive elements; when it finds any– a rebel base say or a village hiding AI troops– it hurls a rocket-propelled slug downwards and the land erupts in a burst of heavenly fury. Think of Indra flinging lightning bolts at his enemies, or God wiping Sodom and Gomorrah off the face of the earth– the visuals are well-done, but what sells the moment is Edwards’ use of sound– the hum of the blue curtain, the phht! of the missile, the breathless pause, the numbing roar. Stealthy giant predators seem to be an Edwards specialty, as evidenced by his depiction of a surprisingly nimble Godzilla stalking the edges of its movie before making a full-frame appearance in the epic finale– call NOMAD the sleeker more sinister hi-tech equivalent.

Weakest element is the script. The premise is inventive enough: yet another battle between humans and robots (Edwards cites Blade Runner as an influence) where the humans code as oppressive American military and robots code as valiant Vietnamese insurgents. Maybe the biggest difference is that Blade Runner reeks of film noir, while this explicitly plays on imagery from Francis Coppola and Oliver Stone; the scene of a US soldier ransoming a dog at gunpoint before a weeping Vietnamese– sorry, New Asian– child is a direct quote from Platoon. The rhetoric is about as simplistic: Ugly Americans on rampage in peaceful Southeast Asian country (the film was shot in Thailand)– we’re not meant to question if perhaps the American military might have a point (the nuking of Los Angeles is what started all this), or if AIs could be trusted not to exterminate us when they’ve gained the upper hand.

That and a plot that seems to count on characters making the dumbest decisions (skip the next three paragraphs if you plan to see the film). NOMAD is the most egregious example: spending a trillion dollars on the world’s biggest drone seems like a debatable use of taxpayers’ money– it’s an easy open target for missiles and a powerful symbol to rally against (New Asians and AIs stand solidly against the Western invader); likewise making the counterweapon a child that still has to grow into full power– why not just build an adult model bulked up with extra batteries (that said, would Arnold Schwarzenegger be as adorable?)? When the bipedal bomb sprints down the bridge seemingly impervious to small-arms fire, no one thinks of blowing up the bridge; likewise, when Alphie and Taylor are surrounded by robot police, no one thinks to ask Alphie to switch them off as he was designed to do.

Taylor’s recruited to the new mission because two-day old footage was found of Maya walking about, with analysis certifying that Maya was human; when Taylor finds her in a five-year coma no one even bothers to explain the discrepancy (Was the footage a lie? An old recording mistaken for new? A simulant misidentified as human?). When Taylor forms a plan to smuggle Alphie up to NOMAD he doesn’t think beyond asking Alphie to pause NOMAD’s operations long enough to plant a mine (meanwhile a few more thousand AIs are destroyed). When simulant and former ally Harun (Ken Watanabe) tells Taylor that the destruction of Los Angeles was ‘an accident’ and not the AI’s fault, Taylor doesn’t bother to question the truth of his friend’s statement– does Taylor trust Harun that much or is he that gullible? Or if the point is moot (he started it / no he started it!) why not say so?

Likewise we’re told by the military that when Alphie’s deactivated she’d normally be taken up to NOMAD for analysis– but they’ve decided on immediate cremation. Couldn’t the writers just send her up directly, or did they need yet another escape sequence, this time from an armored vehicle? When Alphie finds a Maya simulant aboard NOMAD and spends precious time trying to revive her while Taylor waited in the escape pod– did anyone realize that Alphie’s little side mission may have killed Taylor? Maybe exploit this development somehow?

Which matters less than one might expect; the film carries you along with the solid emotional throughline of Taylor’s emerging relationship with Alphie, so that by the end of the picture you’re invested in the notion that the two stay together. We could use more definition to Alphie’s character– but she’s a blank slate after all waiting for a personality to be written in; thankfully she isn’t the standard-issue wisecracking brat so prevalent in recent Hollywood movies.

Key player in all this is John David Washington as Taylor– little comment, little fuss, a lot of running, a lot of fighting, a lot of soulful gazing (call him this generation’s Keanu Reeves). Nice that they include the detail with no commentary whatsoever that Taylor is accepted by the rebels possibly because he’s half robot already, with an arm and a leg he literally has to strap on before he goes into action.

As interesting if not more so were Edwards’ methods making the picture– just shoot on location, assemble the footage, add special effects in postprod. Done this way Edwards only spent $80 million on a film that could have cost $300 million– and the results look fairly good, even if story and plot don’t enjoy the same level of plausibility.

Extras include Making-Of documentary.

Especially interesting is the film’s stance on machine intelligence, which runs counter to the popular sentiment that AI is to be feared not embraced (Taylor does the latter, literally). Edwards’ interviews suggest he took the position opportunistically without giving it much thought, which may be unfortunate– the film did a miserly $32 million first weekend, and may struggle to earn back its relatively low production cost. If you’re going to jeopardize your commercial prospects with a contrarian idea, would probably be more worthwhile if it was at least an interesting contrarian idea– “Love thy enemy” is as old as the bible. I’m thinking of Kubrick’s 2001— with only the sound of an actor’s cool voice on the soundtrack barely able to suppress the onset of panic and mental degradation, Kubrick provokes more sympathy for a rogue computer than for, well, practically any other character in his filmography.

Meanwhile we have this, which isn’t as bad as one might fear, but isn’t quite as good as one might hope.

 

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