A grand, blustery mess of a would-be blockbuster, Gareth Edwards’s The Creator is all premise, all exposition, all the time. And yet you hardly ever know much for certain. It begins in backfill high gear, with a deftly assembled montage of news footage of an alternate history: A.I.-fueled robots became part of global society sometime in the late 20th century, until they somehow caused a nuclear blast that cratered L.A. Now they’re outlawed, and the U.S. has built a vast ship that roams the globe, unilaterally bombing droid enclaves. The last region where droids and people coexist happily, southeast Asia (“New Asia,” we’re told, though it looks like the old Asia), is now the location of a new, A.I.-built weapon that U.S. forces must find and destroy. Or else. Got that?
Maybe not a bad set-up for a third-person shooter, which is often what The Creator feels like: a confusing video game you can’t play. The military hard-asses in question (led by Allison Janney) recruit Joshua (John David Washington), who in flashbacks we see was working undercover in a bot village and lost his pregnant wife (Gemma Chan) to a raid. Joshua is given hope that his wife is alive, and so he joins the expedition to find the fabled A.I. weapon, which turns out to be a relaxed and adorable six-year-old droid (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), who, when she makes an Anjali Mudrā hand gesture, can sap machines and weapons of their power.
Why a robotic system would make such a thing is an unvetted question. You can also ask yourself why Joshua decides to go rogue and rescue this kid, when droids are getting shot down all over and when he’s actually looking for his wife, who, last time we saw her, was running away from him because he betrayed her as a mole…. But, maybe not.
Long-winded explanations arrive, eventually. Edwards co-wrote the film with Chris Weitz, though you get the impression that 20 other guys were involved and they didn’t talk to each other. It’s a far cry from Edwards’s first movie, Monsters (2010), which posited an alien-infested and quarantined Mexico and was shot guerrilla-style with off-the-shelf cameras, incorporating the real terrain and real locals, most of whom thought they were being included in a documentary. (When the small crew found real traffic, accidents, ruins, or helicopters, they used them.)
That film’s core metaphor was resonant and complicated, while the spontaneous mode of production gave it an immediacy that made you lean in. Since then, Edwards has schooled himself on a muddled Godzilla reboot, in 2014, and on Star Wars (2016’s Rogue One). The Creator cries out for more of the ironic vinegar of that first film, to cut the sludgy blockbuster-y reflexes and plot holes. While Edwards does return to Monsters’ central idea — the matter-of-fact science fictionalization of developing-nation cultures, this time with droids living as Asian cops, soldiers, cooks, and even Buddhist monks — the situation’s potential payoff is ignored. Instead, it’s boom, chase, quip, boom.
Indeed, the sizable chunks during which Janney’s grunts are assaulting Asian villagers — including executions, murdered monks, off-screen mutilations, etc. — deliberately echoes real-life American atrocities in Vietnam, and because the film is so confused about what the characters are doing and why, we’re not sure Edwards isn’t all for it. With its handsome arsenal of futuristic landscapes and funky robot designs (a sprinting garbage-can-with-legs bomb gets a chuckle), the film gives you the impression of being crammed with sci-fi ideas, but there’s actually very little thinking going on. (It’s not clear who “the creator” is, either.) Ultimately, Edwards seems to side with the Vietcong, forgetting about the atomic wasteland of L.A. But I wouldn’t want to bet on it. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.