John David Washington (left) and Madeleine Yuna Voyles try to make a case for an amicable existence with AI in "The Creator."
Perhaps it’s just bad timing. The same week that the Writers Guild of America reached a deal with studios following a 148-day strike —prolonged in part due to negotiations over the exploitative nature of artificial intelligence — the futuristic epic “The Creator” offers an awkward counterpoint.
The movie, hitting theaters Friday, centers on a lone man (John David Washington) determined to protect humanistic AIs from the decidedly evil people trying to eviscerate it. The not-so-subtle takeaway is that humans are the villains who need to put aside their issues with the technology, which has destroyed and advanced society in equal measure, and show some empathy — because it’s our future.
If you’ve seen any sci-fi or tech thrillers over the past, oh, several decades, you know that they’ve often rested on the idea that AI, while incredibly nuanced, is fundamentally villainous and will outlive us all. They’ve ultimately been cautionary tales.
Those include countless episodes of “The Twilight Zone” from the late ’50s to early ’60s, 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” 1995’s “Johnny Mnemonic,” 2022′s “M3GAN” and this year’s “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One.”
So, to see a major Hollywood film such as “The Creator” offer a contrary perspective is a bit jarring — and tone-deaf, considering the particular urgency of the matter today.
Either way, no movie should be expected to provoke one specific reaction from its audience, or align with our personal politics. But it is interesting that something like “The Creator” would come from a Hollywood that’s been pushing the film’s exact agenda for well over three months in the real world — one that was wrong at the start of WGA strike and is wrong now, as picketing Hollywood actors continue to wait for their own deal.
As astonishing as "The Creator" is to experience on the big screen, it also comes at a time when our relationship with AI is troubled, at best.
But “The Creator” is also, as many other reviews have pointed out, one of the most astonishing sci-fi theatrical experiences this year. That’s not nothing.
Director Gareth Edwards imagines a spectacular, technically advanced yet morally depleted world where androids and humans unhappily coexist amid an explosive war that has divided the two.
Both sides have suffered losses as a result of the ongoing battle, which has only made humans angrier and more aggressive against the relatively less dominant AIs that have gathered in Southeast Asia after being banned in Los Angeles.
This feels, or perhaps should feel, like some sort of culture clash between the (mostly white) human race and the mostly Asian AI. But neither “The Creator” nor its white male writers seem too bothered to delve into that or its historical influence. It just hovers, frustratingly, over the surface.
Much of the film’s energy is put into the apparently more pressing issue at its core: the harmful relationship between humans and AI. The machines are the beating heart of “The Creator,” prompting you to root for them over the evil humans.
With multilayered AI characters and cartoonish villains for the human parts, "The Creator" makes a firmly pro-AI statement.
Some of this is due to the heavy-handedness of the script, a collaborative effort by Edwards and Chris Weitz. But a large part of it is that the humans are not written very well, whereas the AIs are more three-dimensional. We live mostly in the AIs’ world, and less so among the humans.
A bright spot is Joshua (an entertaining Washington), a straight-to-the-point special agent hired by his fellow humans to help “turn off” the AIs in Asia years after his wife, Maya (Gemma Chan), went missing. (As a side note, it’s nice to see a mainstream film show an interracial couple in which neither person is white.)
Through flashbacks of Maya and Joshua, we learn how grief has numbed him in the present day to the point where he is drained of any empathy. But during his dangerous assignment, Joshua encounters an AI “child” (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) that is the most powerful form of the technology to exist. Joshua becomes so attached to The Creator that he dubs it Alphie, even though he’s given strict orders to eradicate it.
The movie spends so much time on this increasingly emotional, tremulous relationship between Joshua and Alphie that we almost forget it’s not actually human. And then a fellow agent, a cartoonish villain like all the other people in the movie, yells to Joshua that it’s just a robot.
But it’s not. And, for what it’s worth, the human characters aren’t just one thing either. They should be just as multilayered as the AI, with a discernible motivation beyond eliminating it. There’s some opportunity to discuss the pitfalls of an AI existence with Col. Jean Howell (an underutilized Allison Janney) in the story of her son being killed. But it’s untapped, only lasting about three minutes.
Washington, as a special agent named Joshua, fights to defend AI against the terrible humans in "The Creator."
There’s no balance. Despite legitimate and deeply concerning real-world issues involving AI — including how it negatively impacts newsroomssuch as BuzzFeed (which owns HuffPost) and creative people like actors — people who make pro-AI arguments typically at least try to discuss it in a nuanced way.
That’s part of what makes “The Creator” pale in comparison to some of its tech film predecessors. For instance, we got to live with both the humans and the AI in 2001’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” as well as in 2002’s “Minority Report.” Those stories were both complex and probing.
“The Creator” asks the audience to care excessively about AI and dismiss the justifiable concerns of its human characters — even as our real-life battle against the technology rages on. Why should we? Because the robots can cry and have homes and families?
As effective as that is cinematically and for anyone with a heart, we don’t see enough of the advances that AIs presumably made for human society (or their cost to human existence) to validate this emotional effort or the movie’s scapegoat ending.
So, what was it all for then?