Sunday, October 01, 2023

The Creator

Huh, thoughts on this went a bit longer than Letterboxd-length, even if I don't quite love it like some do. Give it credit for making one think a bit once the credits roll, which ain't nothing.

On a side note, it's the first time I've been in the Imax screen since it was closed for renovations earlier this year. I think it was already using the Imax Laser system before that, but they've upgraded the seating from older-style stadium seating to recliner-style rockers like the ones in some of the Kendall Square screens, as padded as the recliners in the other screens but with the rows too close together for that much leg room. It's kind of weird-feeling, actually - at least in the front section, it feels like you could trade a little armrest space for seats a couple inches wider, and there's not quite enough leg room to really stretch out but you can't really put your feet on the armrests in front of you (which I know you're not supposed to do but, c'mon, it's the most natural-feeling way). Also, given that the AMC Stubs app only offers the option to have snacks delivered to your seat rather than picked up for that location, I wonder how it works when the place is busy and there are a few dozen people getting popcorn brought to them right at show time. I'm usually alone in a row up front, so it's easy enough to have stuff brought to me, but there isn't leg room for when you've got three or four parties in a row.

Not that I'm saying to avoid this screen; it just feels kind of odd, especially from my seats.

The Creator

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 September 2023 in AMC Assembly Row #1 (first-run, Imax Laser)

The Creator is just good enough for the fact that it's not more to be disappointing, perhaps unfairly. It's more interesting than the generic title and previews would lead one to believe, a more idiosyncratic take on its sci-fi material than writer/director Gareth Edwards could manage with the stewards of a couple of massive franchises were going to allow.him to get away with.

The previews lay out the basics of the story - 15 years after an autonomous defense system set off a nuclear weapon in Los Angeles, leading the United States to ban artificial intelligence, ex-soldier Joshua (John David Washington) is being sent on a mission to destroy an AI superweapon in a "New Asian" enclave, only to discover that this "Alpha Omega" is a humanoid sim in the form of a little girl (Madeleine Yun Voyles). What it leaves out is that she's about the age Joshua's daughter would be, and that he had met his wife Maya (Gemma Chan) as the target of an undercover operation to find the reclusive "Nirmata", whose research created advanced AI and continues to advance it. He's uninterested, at least until the brass shows him evidence that Maya is still alive.

The science fiction of it is on the questionable side, especially at a moment when people are talking a lot about artificial intelligence; this movie really doesn't have anything to say about how "advanced AI" are different from human beings in their outlook or society, or how their presence changes the world, which is unfortunate, given how much public misconceptions about AI have likely been shaped by movies like this where they are metaphors for human issues. In this case, they're a metaphor for the Vietnam War on the one hand and tell the story of an ex-soldier wrestling with his guilt on the other. Maybe they're the same hand.

Now, make no mistake - the reexamination of the Cold War is interesting, the reason why the film is pointedly set in Southeast Asia rather than the more commercially-promising China (although the credits are subtitled in Japanese for some reason). Every bit at the margins where you see people worn down by war, horrific disrespect by the American forces for the local people, and a propaganda campaign that makes stopping it impossible hits. Floating military platform NOMAD is American power writ large, the American military-industrial complex ignoring borders and raining death indiscriminately but also taking up an enormous portion of the country's budget. Even the faux-newsreel beginning featuring a speech to Congress staged like a State of the Union but given by someone in military uniform hits the right note, believable but also unnervingly off.

The film zooms in on one guy, though, pushing John David Washington into more or less constant action, really only examining his personal demons, and it can't help but feel like an opportunity lost. He's fine, although I sometimes wonder if directors subconsciously try to have him deliver lines like his father would even if the rest of his performance is quite different. He maybe could use more time to play off Gemma Chan to solidify the personal stakes of the movie, even if it plays up how their characters didn't know each other nearly as well as they thought. It makes for a very mission-oriented movie even when it really needs to stop and think.

It all looks amazing, though - the filmmakers know a striking image when they see one and get their visual-effects departments to integrate the CGI with the live action better than a lot of films with bigger budgets trying to make it easier on themselves do. For all that my brain rejects a lot of things on screen as anachronistic in a goofy way, I do love the tractor, anti-Apple aesthetic enough to tell myself that advanced AI obviously uses the materials used to make touchscreens 40 years earlier, and how the Southeast Asian settings contrast with the brief glimpses of Los Angeles to make its future seem different but not patronizing about non-Western cultures. Bits are just enjoyably loopy, from a dog's reaction to a grenade to a polite walking bomb; I suspect Edwards has read a lot of 2000AD from that.

It all makes me curious about what served as bits of inspiration and what was meant to serve as the spine of the film, because The Creator has a ton of good pieces and Edwards is good enough at making movies that you wonder why more blockbusters with twice the budget don't look this good and flow so well. But, man, if he had just followed some threads where they led in the spots where he decided to be conventional…

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