The Creator review | The best science fiction film of 2023

the creator review
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The director of Star Wars: Rogue One returns with a visually awe-inspiring sci-fi thriller that needs to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. Here’s our review of The Creator.

I really want to visit The Creator’s version of South East Asia circa 2070. I want to visit one of those sprawling, golden temples jutting out of the top of a mountain. I want to sit on a gravity-defying boat on a winding river, playing cards with a group of voluble androids.

The near-future world that director and co-writer Gareth Edwards has dreamed up for The Creator – his first film in seven years – is so bewitching because it feels tangibly real. Where the lush planet Pandora of James Cameron’s Avatar felt distant and fantastical, like a Roger Dean painting, The Creator’s patinated vision feels like a place you could reach out and touch.

It’s the first sign that Edwards has made something quite special here. After the bruising experiences of his two studio movies, 2014’s Godzilla and in particular 2016’s Star Wars: Rogue One, Edwards has returned, in a way, to the style of filmmaking that first made his name. Monsters, his 2010 debut, was shot on a budget of $500,000, but ingeniously mixed handheld, location footage with homemade CGI to create a near-future Mexico trembling beneath the feat of gigantic alien creatures.

Although made on something closer to a Hollywood budget, The Creator’s $80m is still tiny compared to your typical Marvel production – last year’s Thor: Love And Thunder, for example, cost an estimated $250 million. But by bringing some of that Monsters indie spirit to bear on his sci-fi thriller, Edwards manages to make a movie that has a scale that dwarfs most recent comic book movies – and what’s more, its marriage of travelogue-style shots of real Thailand locations with ILM’s colossal flying battleships, and androids with eerily human faces, is absolutely seamless. In short, The Creator looks and sounds (thanks to Hans Zimmer’s typically bombastic score) bigger than movies that cost three times as much.

The Creator imagines an alternate Earth where humanity made huge breakthroughs in robotics around the middle of the 20th century. As a result, fully-autonomous, artificially intelligent beings – or ‘Synths’ – are an everyday reality by the turn of the millennium, and regularly work alongside humans in everything from medicine to space exploration. The detonation of a nuclear weapon in the middle of Los Angeles, however, sparks a war between humans and Synths; the United States aggressively cracks down on all artificial life, and takes a threatening stance to other countries, like New Asia, that give them a haven.

In its war against AI, the US has even gone to the financially questionable expense of creating NOMAD – a colossal flying fortress, capable of targeting hidden camps and bases of Synths on the ground and destroying them with guided missiles. For much of the movie, it hangs in the distance, wings spread, like a loaded gun.

Against this backdrop, US special forces agent Joshua (John David Washington) is given a mission: to locate and destroy a secret weapon created by Nirmata – an anonymous scientist the Synths regard as a Messiah. Matters are complicated when that weapon turns out to be a disturbingly human-looking child, which Joshua eventually calls Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). Understandably, Joshua refuses his orders to exterminate the poor creature, which makes both of them the target of the US and its formidable weaponry. The story also takes in an embittered colonel in hot pursuit, played  by a singularly intimidating Allison Janney; Gemma Chan as Joshua’s estranged wife; and Ken Watanabe as a quietly formidable AI freedom fighter.

Edwards keeps the action moving at an engrossing pace, and his script – co-written with Chris Weitz – cleanly shifts from the darkly intense to the drily comic to quiet pathos. The debts the film owes to other sci-fi movies, meanwhile, ranges from the subtle to the obvious; the futuristic, militarised US forces and their clash with New Asia’s ragtag AI guerrilla fighters is equal parts Star Wars, Aliens, and the aforementioned Avatar – Janney’s character immediately recalling the latter movie’s Colonel Quaritch, a similarly dogged villain memorably played by Stephen Lang.

The way The Creator reworks and refashions all those debts, though, makes the film feel infinitely more substantial than a forgettable knock-off of other, better films. For one thing, there’s Edwards’ now established talent for creating scale and physical weight in his action sequences. Remember that incredible moment in Star Wars: Rogue One where the Death Star obliterated the city of Jedha? The way the camera tilted back to observe the cloud of dust and ash reach up to the stars, the soundtrack dropping away to deafening silence? Edwards – aided by cinematographers Greig Fraser (who also shot Rogue One) and Oren Soffer – brings that same sense of consequence to The Creator. Gun battles feel raw and lethal. The explosions that threaten to wipe out entire communities feel physical and devastating. After seeing so many mainstream action movies that have largely been shot against a green screen, The Creator’s on-location action – which more often resembles Apocalypse Now than a modern blockbuster – is borderline startling.

Admittedly, there are plot conveniences that allow characters and war machines to appear in the right place at the right time, particularly in the third act, and there are moments where you might guess what’s going to happen next based on other sci-fi films you’ve seen. But everything is made with a craft and sincerity that is utterly disarming and, at times, deeply moving; The Creator is written and made with an earnestness that is sometimes akin to the Spielberg films of the 1980s.

Washington, who for this writer seemed a little uptight and lost in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, is arguably more at home as the prickly, Synth-hating Joshua; it helps that he’s paired with Voyles, whose performance as Alphie is a true standout.

Far from an empty spectacle, The Creator tackles the hot-button subject of AI from a philosophical standpoint that, given the current climate, could strike some viewers as faintly disquieting. Whether you agree with Edwards’ conclusions or not, he’s likely to be right on one thing: to quote Allison Janney’s character, “AI is out of the box” and there’s no putting it back in.

Visually striking and thought-provoking, The Creator is that rarest of things: a large-scale, original action thriller that both looks stunning and has a soul. The best science fiction film of 2023 so far? Undoubtedly.

The Creator is out in UK cinemas on 29 September.

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