The Creator is set in a not-so-distant future that feels as if it could be just around the corner.
Expository news reels start by introducing an alternate history where robotic AI has been around for some time before a tragic event forces the West’s hand.
Robots are now outlawed across North America, but AI factions in Asia are fighting for their right to live peacefully whilst contending with an orbiting superweapon known as NOMAD.
The stage is set for a pulsating thriller across a war-ravaged future, as ex-special forces agent Joshua (played by John David Washington) embarks on a mission to reunite with his missing wife Maya (Gemma Chan).
Along the way, he comes across an incredibly advanced robotic child whom he names Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) and their unlikely bond becomes the soul of Gareth Edwards’ daring new science-fiction adventure.
In a world that seems more under threat from advancing AI than ever, Edwards’ speculative premise of empathising and even humanising intelligent robots is a risky one.
Originally conceived in 2018, the Rogue One director had no idea that the world in the early 2020s would be closer than ever to his AI-populated landscapes.
While Joshua’s riveting story is still firmly within the realms of science-fiction, some inspired design choices place the director’s uncannily convincing robotic creations in inventive real-life settings that feel almost within reach.
The film is at its best exploring these tableaus; robots equipped with both anonymous machinery and synthetic human faces populating religious temples and shanty towns implicitly posing the question of where humanity ends and AI begins.
Plus, newcomer Voyles is an instant star as Alphie, whose endearing, soft features permeate through even the more violent moments to lend the story a serene quality – perhaps not since ET has a child actor been so decidedly un-annoying in a sci-fi flick.
Unfortunately, the film’s predictable and occasionally clunky script stops The Creator short of reaching masterpiece level.
This is largely a generic action thriller, albeit with a refreshing robotic skin, some strong performances and evocative themes of futurism and acceptance artfully laced in.
Edwards wears his influences on his sleeve, and The Creator borrows liberally from the likes of Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now and Ex Machina.
Alison Janney does good if forgettable work as Joshua’s military adversary Colonel Howell, whose Aliens-inspired marines try their best to bludgeon their way through the otherwise compelling narrative, while Ken Watanabe’s Harun offers a more reserved parallel on the robotic frontlines.
There are also plenty of narrative shortcuts to arrive at an otherwise stirring third act – though all this admittedly doesn’t matter to an audience with tears in their eyes for a robot child without a soul.
It’s commendable to see Disney and 20th Century Studios take a risk on Edwards’ original concept in a media landscape that has largely boxed science-fiction into the Star Wars franchise and other familiar properties.
While the ending makes it obvious that a sequel to The Creator wasn’t the directors’ end goal here, fingers are crossed it proves a hit for sci-fi aficionados and ensures his next film isn’t another seven-year wait away. Vote with your wallet and see it on the biggest screen possible.
The Creator releases in theaters on Friday, 29 September.