Even with its story hiccups — and by the end, they’re practically contagious — “The Creator” creates images of the future you have not seen before, at least not quite this way. The movie is messy and knotty but co-writer and director Gareth Edwards has yet to make an uninteresting piece of science fiction.
This is his fourth feature, following his scrappy low-budget debut “Monsters” (2010); the grave and highly gratifying 2014 “Godzilla”; and another large-scale franchise entry, also good, the “Star Wars” spinoff “Rogue One” (2016). “The Creator” belongs to no franchise, though certainly it owes a lot to the harsh wonders and narrative devices of many earlier movies, from “Blade Runner” to “Akira.”
Equal parts grit and sentiment, Edwards’ script, co-written by Chris Weitz, begins in 2065 before jumping forward, and then backward. A nuclear strike, made by artificial intelligence creations known as simulants, has left a million dead in greater Los Angeles. In the film’s beautifully edited opening minutes, we’re briefed on the humans’ global war with the simulants, whose human-like emotional wiring (literal wiring, that is) exceeds even that of Haley Joel Osment’s roboboy in the Spielberg/Kubrick collaboration “A.I.” The simulants with human faces are not easy to kill, though the film also features scads of more anonymous and entirely faceless “Clone Wars”-type simulants, designed for quick and easy expiration.
Over in New Asia, humans and simulants are still getting along. But “The Creator” wastes little time in ginning up the havoc and the mass slaughter there, with the U.S. military deploying its fearsome aircraft, the U.S.S. Nomad, to target and destroy the simluants’ villages and their allies’ camps. Recalling the chaotic and often brutal guerrilla combat of his “Rogue One,” Edwards here evokes America’s war in Vietnam, and in particular the Vietnam war fantasia “Apocalypse Now.”
Our way into this world is meant to be simple and easily trackable, though “The Creator” struggles a bit with that part. John David Washington plays undercover ops agent Joshua, whose pregnant wife Maya (Gemma Chan) is killed, apparently in a raid gone wrong. Years later, back in Los Angeles, Joshua is offered an unrefusable mission from military brass played by Allison Janney and Ralph Ineson, the latter saddled with the clunkiest pair of eyeglasses on future Earth.
Joshua’s mission: Find the inventor “Nimrata” and eliminate Nimrata’s secret AI weapon that spells probable doom for the planet. Janney’s character mentions, with strategic casualness, that Joshua’s wife may still be alive. So there’s his motivation.
The first half of “The Creator” pulls us in; the second half is less sure-footed in its flashbacks. Periodically, chapter titles (“The Child,” etc.) appear on screen to class things up. The movie’s quite grueling in its violence; the same was true of “Rogue One” and director Edwards isn’t one for no-fuss good vs. evil. The movie’s future exists in irradiated shades of grey.
“The Creator” cost a little more than half of “Rogue One” and looks twice as original. It’s also fuzzy-headed and (for me, anyway) a little vexing in its unfolding, with some misjudged comic relief. There are also a few ideas that are so good, you want more done with them. My favorite is the digital mechanism (basically a recording device) that, when inserted in the neck of a recently deceased character, brings that character back to life for an additional 30 seconds.
Much of “The Creator” devotes its screen time to Joshua’s fatherly relationship to the simulant everyone’s after. The “lil’ sim” (that’s what Joshua calls her) turns out to be a sprightly, empathetic messiah figure nicknamed Alphie, played by Madeleine Yuna Voyles. Like all simulants, she’s easily spotted by the cylindrical hole in her metallic head. The script presents Joshua, and the audience, with a series of decisions: Is this simulant going to save us all? Whose side are we on?
One more question, relating to the movie’s leading actor: Is Washington enough of a star to anchor a movie? I’m not sure he has the presence or the technical command. With “Tenet” and, to some degree, with “The Creator,” Washington isn’t quite enough to help us navigate a tricky storyline. Joshua’s an essentially recessive and reactive role. Washington isn’t bad, but I’m waiting for the movie that activates him in surprising ways.
As for what “The Creator” says about the evils of AI, well, there’s a bit of a twist there, nothing startling or hard to predict. “You can’t beat AI,” one wise simulant informs us along the way. “It is evolution.” Whether this spells moral complexity or narrative indecision will be up to the moviegoer. Either way, at least Edwards’ movie has a human pulse and a visual landscape worth exploring. Tangled plot threads and all.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for violence, some bloody images and strong language)
Running time: 2:15
How to watch: In theaters