Fantastic Fest 2023: Gareth Edwards’ Vision For THE CREATOR is Stunning

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The piece below was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

(L-R): John David Washington as Joshua and Madeleine Yuna Voyles as Alphie in 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The Creator is exactly the kind of sci-fi epic I needed right now.

Written and directed by Gareth Edwards, who made a great little indie film called Monsters (2010) and then was seemingly plucked from the herd of insanely talented indie filmmakers to mega stardom as he directed both Godzilla and Rogue One, The Creator is nonetheless a bit of a redemption arc tale for Edwards. While I personally love Rogue One and consider it one of my favorite Star Wars projects of the Disney era, it’s fairly well documented that the film was taken away from Edwards at a certain point and largely completed by Tony Gilroy, who went on to make the excellent Andor. Edwards has been relatively quiet since Rogue One in 2016. And if The Creator is the result of Edwards’ challenging personal and creative journey over the last several years, then I’m grateful to him for assembling this gorgeous and heartfelt sci-fi epic that feels like it’s uniquely Edwards’ own vision.

We talk a lot about the dearth of original vision these days, about how studios are only interested in IP, and how studios themselves are only divisions of larger mega-corporations without a core vision for filmmaking. And yet, along comes The Creator. Edwards was seemingly able to convince studios he could pull out his old tricks from his Monsters days and craft a stunning visual feast of a film for a fraction of what other productions of this scale would cost. I look forward to digging deep into “making of” and behind the scenes realities on The Creator someday, but for now it’s safe to say that Edwards did indeed craft a visually stunning, massively scaled film that he himself wrote and directed from no existing intellectual property. I hope this is something all cinephiles can root for and find excitement in, even if their reactions to the film itself may vary. 

I’m not going to tell you The Creator is a perfect film. But I flat out loved this story of a totally unique family of the future who are swept up in a global war to stamp out artificial intelligence. Just because it isn’t based off an IP doesn’t mean that The Creator wasn’t influenced by dozens of earlier sci-fi visions. The film definitely gives off shades of Children Of Men as a lone hero (John David Washington’s Joshua) must traverse a cataclysmic future warzone with a young woman (Madeline Yuna Voyles’ Alphie) who may contain the key to our salvation. Edwards also harkens to the visuals of someone like Neill Blomkamp with gorgeously realized robots and ships and weaponry and vehicles that feel wholly photorealistic and tactile. Joshua is truly catapulted through this new world the audience is being introduced to, and if there’s any complaint with the script it’s that it does take a while for us to understand who Joshua is, what he’s mixed up in, and what is going on in this future war. It turns out Joshua begins the tale as an embedded undercover agent on the hunt to find and eradicate The Creator, the leader of the AI resistance. We learn that in this future reality mankind invented AI but AI detonated a nuclear weapon in Los Angeles decades earlier and in the film’s present day America is hunting down the last remnants of Artificial Intelligence, even if it means fighting that war on foreign soil in New Asia. 

A scene still from 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Joshua’s journey is a complex one, himself a firsthand survivor of the LA nuclear blast that killed his family and took two of his own limbs, he’s nevertheless madly in love with Maya (Gemma Chan) when we first meet him, and expecting a child… even though he’s deep undercover. I won’t spoil a ton of the plot here, but Joshua’s motivations and convictions become challenged as he dives ever deeper into America’s war on AI and comes to know and understand Alphie (an AI child) on a personal level. What resonated with me quite powerfully in The Creator is that our characters are all swept up in a massive war that is bigger than any of them, but Edwards finds the space for each of them to build and develop personal relationships. And it’s within the human (and not-so-human) connections that our characters make that they find their convictions and paths forward. The Creator does what all great sci-fi does and convicts our assumptions about the world we live in. Filmed in Thailand (gorgeously so), the future-Asia setting evokes the repeated mistakes of Vietnam fairly obviously. But it also calls into question America’s deep resolve to retaliate against those who attack us at the expense of all else. The Creator doesn’t have an enormous amount to say about Artificial Intelligence and post-apocalypse that hasn’t already been explored before, but it does meet us at a new time when AI is having a deeper impact on our current society than ever before, and suggests we simply have to carve out a path forward that includes the integration, rather than destruction, of the technology. 

Madeline Voyles as Alphie in 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Because this is a massive sci-fi film, there needs to be spectacle. And I believe that the greatest strengths of The Creator lie in its ability to deliver relentlessly gorgeous and captivating imagery and scale all while further drawing us into an investment in the characters. I care pretty deeply about Joshua, Alphie, and Maya by the climactic final set piece. And as the music swells and the drama climaxes, I was brought to tears by Edwards’ screenplay that took its time but ultimately got me to believe in our characters. That said… damn is the spectacle incredible. Humankind has developed a massive weapon against the AI, a Death Star-like roaming destructor called NOMAD. NOMAD offers some incredible sci-fi visuals as it shoots blue scanning beams down over entire villages and rains nukes from the sky on hives of surviving AI. Edwards’ ability to shoot massive swaths of the film on location and then build a future sci-fi world AROUND the natural beauty of our world results in breathtaking visuals. But also the sheer design on display is monumental. The design of the AI people is stunning and always fully convincing. The tech, weapons, ships, and tools of war all sing and sell this unique world at a level of detail that would make James Cameron proud. (I’m particularly charmed by a robotic bomb design featured prominently in one set piece that reminded me of the berserker Orc who blows up the wall in LOTR’s Battle Of Helm’s Deep). It’s this visual depth that does make me want to argue for Edwards as a great visionary filmmaker, even if many will find fault in the execution of the story.

The Creator brings us filmmaker-driven original sci-fi on a grand scale. It calls into question our penchant for war and revenge, and posits some new ways forward as we integrate AI into our lives. It features an emotional core set against a grand visual splendor. It’s a personal vision greenlit by a major studio, and it’s exactly the breath of fresh air we need right now as cinema itself faces an uncertain future. 

And I’m Out.

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