Once a dead cert to put bums on cinema seats, blockbusters have been having a torrid time. Superheroes have looked tired, audiences are tired of them, and franchises have been floundering. Let’s just whisper Expend4bles as the most recent example and leave it at that. But, as 2023 eases itself into autumn, it brings with it something of a rarity – a seriously good blockbuster adventure on an epic scale. Yes, really, they do still exist.
We have Gareth Edwards (Rogue One) to thank for The Creator, a post-dystopian action sci fi with its finger most definitely on the pulse when it comes to some of our biggest concerns. Set roughly 40 years in the future, the western world is still reeling from a nuclear catastrophe caused by artificial intelligence, and America has outlawed AI in any form. But in the East, androids – known as simulants – are an integral part of everyday life, so the two halves of the world are at war. Ex-special forces agent Joshua (John David Washington) is recruited to hunt down and kill the Creator, the architect of an advanced piece of AI, one that can end the conflict and possibly destroy mankind as well. Heading into the East, he discovers that the all-powerful weapon he’s been ordered to destroy is in the form of a child …..
The timing of its release couldn’t be much better. AI seems to be everywhere, and that includes at the centre of the film, where it starts out as the villain of the piece and needs to be destroyed at all costs to preserve the world. But as Edwards creates his fractured world in front of our eyes, one where hi-tech and subsistence farming constantly rub shoulders, our emotions and sympathies start to shift. The simulants, which play such a crucial role in the East’s entire social structure, may not be as they’re portrayed. They’re disposable and recyclable: once “off” their metal bodies are crunched up by giant rollers – except that sometimes they’re still “on” and, as they head towards their doom, we witness one of the most memorable and distressing scenes in the film. Anybody would think they were real and, even though in Joshua’s words “they don’t feel sh*t”, it doesn’t look like it. More significantly, that’s not how we respond to them.
If the storyline is reminiscent of classics like Blade Runner and Children Of Men, that’s because those references are built in to underline the narrative, the former especially with its night-time Asian cityscapes. All that’s missing is the constant rain. Edwards’ world creation is superb in both its grand scale and its little details – watch the control mechanism at the base of any simulant skull – and, coupled with a narrative that’s strong on the most human of emotions, there’s a definite sense of one of his greatest inspirations, Spielberg, looking over his shoulder with approval. He’s also adopted the more “old school” style of filmmaking that we’ve seen recently in a number of films: CGI takes second place, with the action sequences filmed almost guerrilla-style and effects added on afterwards. And they’re spectacular, especially as the film moves towards its pulsating climax.
But it isn’t all about tech. Human sensibilities, either as shown by people or simulants, are the constant driving force: John David Washington delivers his most emotional performance for some time as a man still grieving for his wife, Allison Janney kicks ass in style as the military commander and Madeleine Yuna Voyles is spellbinding as the child, a performance built on the minimum of dialogue. Edwards is just as much at home with his actors as with his cameras and his return, seven years after Rogue One, is welcome for its spectacle, intelligence and something that, at times, has seemed in short supply this year. Entertainment.
Sci-fi, adventure | In UK cinemas, 28 September 2023 | 20th Century Studios | Certificate: 12A | Dir. Gareth Edwards | John David Washington, Allison Janney, Madeleine Yuna Voyles, Gemma Chan, Ken Watanabe.