Wednesday 4 October 2023

Which side are you on?: "The Creator"

The Creator arrives amid a decidedly pregnant pause. The old world of exclusively human creative endeavour looks to be at an end, as far as Hollywood is concerned. (Hence the ongoing labour disputes, hence the weird yet perceptible production slowdown that has seen our multiplexes stocked with more reissues than ever before.) Yet the turbocharged new world of Movies by AI™ hasn't fully emerged as promised or threatened. Into this interregnum comes a new movie from the director of 2010's Monsters that tries to imagine where we might all be some forty years from now, and winds up inhabiting a halfway house, neither one thing nor the other. In its visual design, The Creator is plainly the work of a singular, hands-on creative imagination, capable of endowing scenes with agreeably idiosyncratic choices. (It will likely be the one film you see this year where a detonator ends up in the paws of a monkey, an image that sustains the overarching thematic interest in evolution.) Yet the film's ghostly, often intangible plotting appears to have been scraped from any number of more forceful sources, and even momentarily feels like an attempt to monetise social media's enduring Baby Hitler meme, revolving as it does around a child who holds the future in the palm of a tiny hand. The ambition is state-of-the-art speculative sci-fi, picking up where the Avatar sequel left off at the start of the year. The results, alas, mostly go to illustrate what a tenuous state that art is still in. The Creator is a placeholder movie fashioned by a business stuck in a holding pattern - it's really scant surprise audiences want something more clarifying and decisive for their ten bucks.

Narratively, Gareth Edwards' film vacillates between two worlds. The big idea is that, by 2065, Asia will have fully embraced the possibilities of artificial intelligence, and in so doing been deemed responsible for a nuclear attack on L.A. that would at least put the film industry out of its misery. America, meanwhile, grows only more hostile, to the extent of dispatching special patrols to hunt AI's so-called creator, much as Navy SEALs were once sent to take out Osama Bin Laden. Foremost among these soldiers: John David Washington's pill-popping Marine Josh Taylor, an amputee whose robotic limbs indicate some affinity for technological leaps and bounds - though these prove no help when his pregnant wife (Gemma Chan) is taken out in a reel-one retaliatory strike. Thereafter, Edwards and co-writer Chris Weitz spend some time outlining the editorial back-and-forth. As The Creator has it, AI isn't as bad nor as inimical to human life as some folks on screen are heard saying. (The counterargument is proposed by a range of Asian characters, offering a way for the film to make back internationally what it loses at home.) There's a corollary: that humanity isn't always as good as we like to believe. To prove this, Edwards and Weitz engineer a run of scenes that dig back even further in the American consciousness, past 9/11 to Vietnam: lots of gruff, gung-ho grunts doing grim things in South East Asian villages. The real litmus test comes when, instead of the fabled/feared Creator, Taylor's platoon encounters a shaven-headed kid (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) with a processing terminal where her ear should be. Here, at least, the film demonstrates some classical screenwriting savvy, pairing a bereaved father-to-be with a youngling his instincts (and orders) are telling him to kill. Great, you think: it's an inversion of Terminator II, or The Omen with helmets on. Either of those movies might have played, but the one we have suffers from a near-pathological reluctance to grasp the nettle when it counts.

Two worlds, two screenwriters, two cinematographers, too; maybe it's to be expected the film finds itself caught in two minds, vainly trying to clear room for some human interest between the noisy smashing together of pricey kit. Edwards has been this way twice in the decade since his breakout feature, first with 2014's Godzilla (which relaunched a franchise) and then, less happily, with 2016's Rogue One (which helped bury Star Wars as a cinematic proposition). The Creator makes a less than promising start to this task. Washington - one of our unhappiest stars, bright enough to intuit he's made it long after the best films and parts have gone - doesn't get any cheerier for witnessing his loved ones vapourised, and it's vaguely dispiriting to see Allison Janney playing Sigourney Weaver in Avatar. (She gets off lighter than Ralph Ineson, apparently cast as "Mr. Bronson from Grange Hill, only Army".) The movie starts to come into focus in its centre stretch, a road movie that notionally carries Edwards away from the studio suits and back in the direction of the movie that made him; it helps that this hour of bonding between jockish Josh and the iPod Nano (or whatever the kid is supposed to represent) was shot against actual Asian backdrops rather than green screen. Even so, you can't help but wonder whether the faxes came through insisting Edwards tone the film down. The central pair skirt nervily around images and ideas that hint at a more striking, horror-adjacent, R-rated treatment of this material: a gag about facial recognition that demands ad hoc facial surgery, a factory churning out androids at heinous pace, what look like radicalised airfryers, repurposed as suicide bombers. One reason I was never quite sure about The Creator is that Edwards always seems ready to cut away at any moment, where the Cameron of the Terminators would have held firm and landed the punch; the film is temporary in its very form, as if constructing its own bowdlerised in-flight version of itself.

It's not that there's nothing going on here. Quite the opposite, in fact: the ideas Edwards raises prove more interesting than the framework they've been encased in. But it's rare to see would-be escapism that reminds you so directly and so frequently of its own creation: how our bigger movies are themselves made of multiple moving parts, and how these parts get tinkered and tampered with before being set before the consumer. (The hole in the child's head extends to the film itself: you can see right into it, and possibly even out through the other side.) Back when producers cared that their product was fit for purpose, movies like this used to be rigorously audience-tested in shopping malls across the Western world. I don't know whether that process has been abandoned post-Covid - it's hard enough getting people out to watch films they want to see nowadays - but for better and worse, The Creator doesn't appear to have been tested at all, which may account for the fact it plays like a very early, uncommonly tentative and hesitant cut. Edwards - as directors go, a combination of traffic cop and centrist dad - keeps hedging his bets narratively and thematically. In this version, at least, he's not picking sides out of a self-defeating desire to keep everybody (middle America, Asia, techbros and Luddites alike) reasonably happy. The tactic hasn't worked commercially, if the opening weekend figures are anything to go by, and the two-and-a-bit hours of this distinctive, instructive failure only carry us all that much closer to a rapidly approaching line in the sand: turn left to rescue what remains of humanity, and right to follow Elon Musk into techno-oblivion, the revenge of the machines. The Creator can't make its mind up about its material because the movies haven't yet made up their mind up on this subject: it's a perilously expensive way of kicking a pressing issue into the multiplex long grass.

The Creator is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

No comments:

Post a Comment