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'The Creator' Is Not Creative
They shoulda called it 'The Imitator.'
There’s this thing that happens sometimes where a storyteller doesn’t actually know how to tell a story, but they do know how to set a mood. They thus substitute tone for narrative; the story feels portentous and hefty, but it’s actually as light as feather. And sometimes, for whatever reason, the gambit works, and they convince the world that they know what they’re doing despite their inability to execute the single most important aspect of their job.
Gareth Edwards is one of these storytellers. His first film, Monsters, was a shoestring budget mish-mash of indie romance and large-scale kaiju movies, like Before Sunrise set against the backdrop of Godzilla. Not a terrible idea, but the execution is weak, mostly because so little actually happens to push the characters forward emotionally.
But the movie sure does seem like “high art,” whatever that even means, and it looks like it cost much more to make than it did, so Hollywood came a-callin’, and pretty soon he was helming an actual movie in the Godzilla franchise. That movie, released in 2014, may be even more boring and one-dimensional than Monsters, but it had a great ad campaign and people will always be at least somewhat interested in the titular beast, so it made money, and soon enough, Edwards was recruited to make a Star Wars film, Rogue One.
Rogue One is the only good movie Edwards has made to date… and he’s not even really the person who made it: It’s an open secret that Tony Gilroy, writer/director of the excellent Michael Clayton, was brought in to do a massive overhaul of the film, including extensive re-writes and re-shoots, after Edwards delivered an unwatchable cut to the studio. Rogue One came out six years ago and grossed over a billion dollars, but Edwards has only just now gotten to make his fourth film, The Creator, while Lucasfilm brought back Gilroy to oversee their Rogue One prequel series, Andor. That kinda tells you everything you need to know about the degree to which people within the business credit Edwards as the mastermind of Rogue One: Not only did Lucasfilm decline a reunion, but financiers weren’t kicking down his door to greenlight his next project.
The good news is, The Creator is a far more competent film, storytelling-wise, than any of Edwards’ endeavors that weren’t rescued by someone more talented.
The bad news is, that’s because Edwards is just recycling various elements of other, better movies, usually without adding anything to them to make them his own.
Co-written by Edwards and Chris Weitz - who also wrote Edwards’ discarded version of Rogue One (and, uh, American Pie) - The Creator is set roughly forty years in the future, when artificial intelligence has rebelled against humanity (like in The Matrix) and dropped a nuke on Los Angeles (like in The Terminator). Some of these A.I.s look like run-of-the-mill robots, but some of them, dubbed ‘Simulants’ (like the ‘Replicants’ in Blade Runner), look like human beings, except that they have holes where their ears should be, allowing you to look directly through their skulls (I have no idea what purpose this serves and actually seems like a horrible design flaw, but whatever, that’s the least of this film’s problems).
As a consequence of the attack, the “Western world” (which countries are involved other than the U.S. is never made clear) has outlawed artificial intelligence and now rounds it up into camps and executes it (like in A.I.). But ‘New Asia’ (like ‘New Tokyo’ from Akira) still allows A.I. to live and love and frolic, so the U.S. is basically bombing the shit out of that sovereign state using a giant space station that perpetually looms in the sky (like the Death Star in Star Wars).
The protagonist of the story is Joshua (John David Washington, Tenet) , an ex-Elite Military Dude who left the service after an operation went horribly awry years earlier (like in Escape from New York), resulting in the death of his pregnant wife (like in Timecop). He comes out of retirement, though, when his government presents him with evidence that his wife may be alive after all (like in Fast Five). To find her, he has to help other, cockier Elite Military Dudes (like in Aliens) locate and destroy the enemy’s unfuckwithable new weapon. The Elite Military Dudes are lead by a hard-ass colonel who does some awful shit but only because she legitimately thinks its what’s best for the human race (like in Avatar). But when they find the “weapon,” it turns out to be a very sweet and seemingly-innocent young girl who also happens to be extremely powerful (like in The Fifth Element). She only has some technical computer name, which Josh shortens to ‘Alphie’ because it has the word ‘alpha’ in it (like in The Force Awakens). Josh refuses to kill her, and subsequently finds himself trying to help her (like in Logan). There’s also technology that allows us to briefly communicate with the dead (like in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik), and if it seems like I’m just tacking that on at the end of my summary without a decent segue, forgive me, for I am just following the movie’s lead.
I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it many times again: There’s nothing wrong with “borrowing from” or “paying homage to” your influences, but you need to find some way to make the old tricks feel new. And Edwards doesn’t do that. If you’ve seen any of the movies named above, you’ve seen The Creator… and not only that, but you’ve seen better versions of The Creator.
For example, whereas in Logan (or Paper Moon, or Lone Wolf and Cub, or even Midnight Run, come to think of it), you buy the burgeoning relationship between the cynical adult/warrior and the innocent child/person in need of protection, because it’s developed over the course of the movie. Josh and Alphie’s connection isn’t nearly so profound; the brief scene in all the trailers, where they discuss why neither of them can go to Heaven, is really the only dramatic moment that specifically bonds the two. Which I think Edwards and Weitz must have recognized was an issue, because there’s a late-in-the-story plot development (which you will DEFINITELY see coming from a hundred miles away) that makes it much easier to understand why these two ultimately “love” one another. It’s emotional pornography - it’s affecting, but only because the situation makes it impossible not to feel for the characters, not because the filmmakers have earned it (again, Edwards excels at creating a vibe, not at telling a story).
That Edwards doesn’t have a firmer grasp on narrative fundamentals is too bad - and not just because his ineptitude makes The Creator’s 2¼ hour length feel like 4½ hours. There’s a provocative idea nestled within the movie - specifically, that humanity should just accept its fate as a species headed towards extinction. Early in the film, Allison Janney - providing the movie’s stand-out performance as the Stephen Lang character from Avatar - compares A.I. and modern humans to modern humans and Cro-Magnon, warning Josh that A.I. could wipe modern humans off the face of the map. Later, another character tells Josh, “You can’t stop A.I. It’s evolution.” That’s obviously not the stance most of these kinds of movies take, and given the current real-world speed at which A.I. is advancing, and the fact that climate change is likely going to kill most of us sooner rather than later, this might actually turn out to be the case. But the movie doesn’t explore that assertion in any meaningful sense - there’s nothing in the dramatic content of the narrative that argues for this as a positive or negative inevitably. You can just easily as ignore the contention as engage with it, which means it might as well not even be in the film.
As it stands, the most interesting thing about The Creator is the way it was made, utilizing a small crew and real locations to get the most out of its $80 million budget. And I sincerely hope other, more skilled storytellers take note to make better movies. But I simply cannot imagine recommending this movie to anyone who isn’t specifically interested in film production… and even then, I’d advise just waiting for the movie to be on streaming in a few weeks. The Creator may not be the dumbest or most incompetent movie I’ve seen this year, but it might be the least imaginative.
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