Monday, October 2, 2023

Love, Death & Robots: THE CREATOR

In a time of Hollywood spectacles that can conjure up incredible digital wizardry to populate all manner of fantasy worlds, it is dispiriting how often it feels like visual effects that can take us anywhere are so often used to take us to a generic nowhere. The same templates of gloopy magics and yawning vistas can be so indifferently framed and formulaically deployed that we might as well stay home and imagine for ourselves. Gareth Edwards films, however, are among the few of their blockbuster ilk suited to drop us into an invented world and almost immediately conjure a real sense of place and space. He shows us what it’s like to live there, placing his camera at a human level, letting it sweep back with a sense of proportionality with the elements in the frame. The people in his shots are dwarfed by the enormity and complexity of their lives interrupted by conflict on a fantastical scale. His scrappy indie debut Monsters and his American Godzilla alike let skyscraper-sized beings tower over his human figures to sell a sense of massive, threatening scale. Even his Star Wars spinoff Rogue One, a film of much-reported post-production compromise, has that visual element of believable dimension and size, never more than when an Imperial Walker or Death Star shakes the ground and blots out the sun. Here are movies that acknowledge the smallness of its human element as a way of not only heightening the believability and the danger of its sci-fi conceits, but to make the human spirit all the more indomitable in the face of it all.

And that’s what makes his latest, the totally involving widescreen stunner The Creator, such a fine work of speculative sci-fi action and thrill. It has ideas—a bit of pop jumble and genre play where imperious American military might is waging a war against third-world countries harboring banned Artificial Intelligence. And it has character—a wounded G.I. mourning his presumed-dead wife, holding out hope that one last mission might bring him back to her. And it has spectacle. Boy, does it have spectacle, wall-to-wall with the kind of visual effects that are so seamlessly convincing that I just completely bought into its every detail. It takes place in a future wherein artificial intelligence is embodied in humanoid robots that took the place of blue collar workers from factories to police forces. It was supposed to protect humans. For some reason that lead the machines to detonate a nuclear warhead in downtown Los Angeles. (Isn’t that always the way?) This kicks off the conflict we join in media res, with John David Washington’s grieving grunt reluctantly called into action to stop a top secret A.I. weapon from being unleashed by a rogue robotics expert who may or may not be related to his late wife (Gemma Chan). That human-sized sadness keeps the violent suspense sequences tied to something real that lets us believe the sci-fi trappings all the more.

Edwards makes propulsive proceedings in whirring and clacking military skulduggery of the hardest of hard sci-fi, a Vietnam-War-movie-inspired edge to heavily-armed squads helicoptering into humble rice paddies and Buddhist enclaves populated with robot refugees hiding from the omnipresent threat of American bombs. Into this grim quagmire drops a bundle of sentimentality—an adorable robot child who may be the one who can bring peace to this violent world. Edwards develops these ideas with a fine degree of complication, with characters torn between seeing A.I. creations as mere programming and those who say, even so, why must we be cruel? Villains Ralph Ineson and Alison Janney are perfectly nasty, brutal figures who want to kill at all costs. We see violent robots, but also ones who just want peace. Some have eerily emotive human eyes with whirring open gears behind their ears; others are blank-faced humanoid machines. Good thing they were all programmed to care. Washington’s a perfectly complicated figure, who slowly navigates the twists and turns until he settles on a feeling of moral righteousness. At every step along that way, the movie is so hard-charging and wide-eyed in detail that every walloping explosion and casually revealed tech enhances the absorbing world-design and the genuinely spectacular spectacle. And yet there’s that undertow of human soulfulness that finds these robots just might bring out the humanity in us—for worse, yes, but for better, too. This is genre filmmaking at a huge scale that for once lives up to its size and scope.

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