A text entry in a pseudo-biographical dictionary assigns the name ‘Nirmata’ to the architect of an advanced AI technology that has changed the world forever. This elusive figure, the titular ‘Creator’ who gives Gareth Edwards’ epic sci-fi feature its title, has acquired a semi-divine status from the mechanical beings that he has engendered and the humans who value them – but he has also had to go into hiding after AI ‘terrorists’ have been blamed for a horrific nuclear explosion in Los Angeles. Now, as old-school newsreel economically reveals at the beginning of The Creator, America is committed to a second War on Terror, using all military means at its disposal (including the lethal missile-launching satellite NOMAD) for the eradication of AI robots from the world, while the New East has become a sanctuary for AI, and is presumed to be where Nirmata is hiding.
Joshua (John David Washington, Tenet) lives in the New East with his pregnant wife Maya (Gemma Chan), but he is also on a deep-cover mission sleeping with the enemy. For the US military has assigned him to try to get close to Maya’s father, who is rumoured to be Nirmata. After Maya is hit by a NOMAD airstrike, Joshua returns to America a broken man, his loyalties divided between his abiding love for his late wife and the child that they will now never have together, and his deeply ingrained belief that the robots must be stopped at all costs. This inner conflict is inscribed on his body, where severed limbs have been replaced by bionic prosthetics, so that he is already on his way to merging, Ghost in the Shell-style, with what he most despises – and that compromise will play out in different permutations across The Creator, as we see humans and robots in all manner of complicated interpersonal relationships that go beyond the United States’ straightforward hostility to friendship, love and family. In the New East, as once in the West, the AI robots have become throughly integrated working members of society, and are not regarded as any threat. To them, it is the Americans who are mindlessly killing their labour force, as well as any civilians who get caught in the crossfire.
When intel suggests that Nirmata has created a new AI superweapon capable of bringing down NOMAD and possibly ending humanity, robot-hating Colonel Howell (Allison Janney) persuades the reluctant Joshua to return to the New East and to help her infiltration squad extract the weapon, luring him in on the promise that Maya is still alive. Yet when Joshua meets Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), a young, TV-addicted girl who is also an unusual new kind of AI, his allegiances are tested to their limits, as he starts to wonder if he is fighting for the right side, and indeed if he can ever find a place for himself in Heaven.
That last point is important. For while you can readily check off Edwards’ influences – of course the rebelling, emancipation-seeking robots from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), the gung-ho soldiers from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) – a film which also dealt with prejudice against robots – the adoration of a child robot for its mother in Stephen Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), the space gardens of Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972), and even the sentient bombs from John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) – there is a new focus in this film on the robots’ religious lives. Here the more advanced robots are devoted monks, here a rebel base is also a mountain-top temple, here Alphie is as much messianic Golden Child as emerging tech, and here acts of deliverance, redemption and self-sacrifice come to define characters both mechanical and meat-based. This intersection of the material and the spiritual perhaps finds its closest analogues in Alex Proyas’ I, Robot (2004) and especially Kim Jee-woon’s remarkable short film The Heavenly Creature (featured in the 2012 anthology film The Doomsday Book). Edwards’ film is, after all, named after a common term for God.
The other creator here, Edwards himself, has engaged in his own impressive world-building, carefully extrapolating from our own past and present a future Earth (and the heavens above) where natural beauty and technological hubris meet on the beach, where neon cities harbour multicultural mingling and miscegenation, and where overwhelming weapons of war bring Apocalypse Now to a riverside village. It is a film of immense visual appeal, and its narrative offers all the thrills of the chase, all the ethical ambiguities of double agency and all the messiness of asymmetric warfare – but what will give it real staying power is the breadth of its ideas. For Joshua’s journey stages a long human history of slavery and liberation, oppression and resistance, massacre and salvation, while the very hybrid form of the film itself – merging real locations, physical models and CGI – both imagines and instantiates the way that the fleshily real, the materially practical and the digitally artificial can combine and collaborate to create a bigger picture.
At a time where AI has become a dirty word and an easy target, Edwards takes the more difficult route of showing a tech that, though created, warts and all, in our own image, can not merely imitate but also idealise us, indeed becoming our apotheosis. Simply put, in the annals of futurist humanism and transhumanism, The Creator is (r)evolutionary.
strap: Gareth Edwards’ soulful sci-fi epic heralds the (r)evolution of AI as a technological second coming to test humanity
© Anton Bitel