Western sci-fi has long had a history of using a nebulous “Asian-ness” in its designs, from the Middle Eastern-inspired alien backdrops of Dune, Star Wars, and Valerian, to the Japanese-flavored dystopias of Blade Runner, Netflix’s Altered Carbon, and the video game Cyberpunk 2077. This Techno-Orientalism—a term coined in the 1995 book Spaces of Identity—is so deeply entrenched in the genre as to be an ugly default setting, one seldom confronted or deconstructed. Such is also the case in Gareth Edwards’ The Creator, out in theaters today. It’s a movie that, while gorgeously rendered, is narratively messy and dull even without these cultural concerns, which only exacerbate its problems.
The film’s state-of-the-art effects are a refreshing departure from the visual sludge often churned out by Hollywood studios—a result of overworked and underpaid VFX artists—but The Creator also lacks the sense of novelty and perspective necessary to bind its visual splendor into something coherent. Its spiritual leanings, as a means to channel its sci-fi concepts, are superficial at best. Its major filmic touchstones, like Star Wars, aren’t so much inspirations as they are blueprints for a haphazard copy-paste job (Edwards also directed Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, from which he carries forward entire sequences). It brings nothing new to the sci-fi genre, with its malformed tale of A.I. and cyborgs placed in jeopardy by humans, without any of the aforementioned factions being granted enough interiority to matter.
The story, set in 2065, begins with a montage recapping the last several decades, during which A.I. robots were birthed as an enslaved underclass, and allegedly retaliated against the United States with a nuclear attack. This led to an ongoing war between the United States and the newly formed Asian territory known as The Republic of New Asia, a future nation state seemingly made up of every contemporary Asian country. The movie’s problems begin here, with its collapse of hundreds of different cultures under a single umbrella, “Asian”—a label which has political usefulness, albeit with limitations, as a prefix in the west, à la “Asian American,” but which serves an immediately reductive purpose on a global scale. This detail initially seems easy to hand wave as a matter of narrative convenience, or of limited perspective on behalf of the movie’s western colonial powers. But before long, this reductionism becomes folded into the movie’s text, owing to a thoughtless series of cultural mashups that, ironically, dehumanize its Asian subjects in a film that takes aim at dehumanization.
The characters which the movie does manage to humanize, while played by people of color, all belong to the movie’s antagonistic western hegemony, beginning with a couple in Southeast Asia: Joshua (John David Washington), a Black American and former soldier, and his pregnant scientist wife Maya (Gemma Chan), a British Asian woman. That they belong to a mixed family made up of humans and Asian cyborg rebels places them ostensibly on the side of “good,” though in the film’s larger purview, it’s only the characters who primarily speak English (rather than a mix of Asian languages), and speak it with American or English accents, who are afforded full humanity. For the most part, robots and humans alike who hail from mainland Asia are merely part of the backdrop.
Joshua and Maya’s romance is intimate and playful, but after Maya is seemingly killed in a midnight raid by U.S. black ops forces—they’re on the hunt for a mysterious A.I. designer known as “Nirmata” (Hindi for “creator”)—the film skips forward five years and finds Joshua adrift in the United States until he’s presented with evidence that Maya might still be alive. With the backing of the U.S. military, Joshua returns to New Asia in order to find Maya, and to track down a secret A.I. weapon that, he’s told, poses a threat to humanity. This weapon, however, turns out to be a robotic child (the wonderful Madeleine Yuna Voyles), who he nicknames “Alphie” after her designation, “Alpha-O.” Alphie doesn’t seem to speak English at first, but when she does, it’s with an American accent, yanking even the film’s primary Asian character out of its mainland-Asia context (the only other notable Asian character, a robot played by Ken Watanabe, mostly serves the plot progression, and seldom strays from his one-note scowl).
At first, Joshua takes Alphie along as his road trip companion around New Asia (filmed mostly in Thailand) because she might know how to find Maya, though Alphie soon becomes his shot at redemption and fatherhood after a life spent killing people and robots alike. The movie does attempt to draw a distinction between two kinds of robotic beings: CHAPPiE-esque humanoids resembling Boston Dynamics videos, and the more Robocop-like “simulants” who have human faces and exposed metal skulls, and whose likenesses were once donated by real people. However, The Creator is hardly concerned with its own transhumanist musings. Joshua’s own robotic prosthetics, for instance—for limbs he likely lost in war—seem like they ought to have some bearing on his scornful outlook on robots, or the degree to which he sees himself as human, but they’re little more than an incidental detail often covered up by clothing. Similarly, the idea of A.I. copies of deceased human beings is treated as a passing background element, rather than one with horrifying implications worthy of cinematic scrutiny.
This is also the case when The Creator touches on the idea that the memories of dying humans can be temporarily transferred to synthetic bodies. It ends up serving only a brief plot function, as a way for Allison Janney’s villainous American general to gather information as she hunts for Nirmata, but it’s largely ignored as a potential sci-fi head-trip about consciousness and the afterlife—to say nothing of its racial implications, since it first appears when a white man’s consciousness is transferred into a robotic body based on an Indian man. Most of the movie’s scientific and sci-fi concepts exist only to propel its plot to the next action scene, rather than to invoke thought, emotion, or self-reflection.
Do these androids, as author Phillip K. Dick once asked, dream of electric sheep—if they dream at all? It’s hard to know if they have any sort of feelings or perspectives in the first place (except for Alphie, though she’s immediately designated as unique). The film also has the misfortune of releasing at a time when concerns about artificial intelligence replacing human workers and artists are rampant, so its many invocations about A.I. being as valuable as humans fall especially flat without compelling arguments as to why these robots ought to be considered an oppressed class of people. They engage in religious worship reminiscent of Hinduism and Buddhism, but whether these are acts of individual (and collective) consciousness, or simply of imitation—the “simulants” are, after all, digital copies of real people—isn’t something the movie touches. When Joshua and other humans claim the robots’ emotions are merely illusory, the film offers no rebuke.
By having robots almost entirely stand in for Asian peoples, but without creating a compelling cinematic argument for their humanity, The Creator ends up with a cultural dynamic that feels immediately brutalizing and xenophobic.
It also doesn’t help that The Creator has a confused outlook on the robots’ and simulants’ humanity. Where the dialogue often compels characters to consider them on equal footing with human beings, the camera often does the opposite, playing their “deaths” and dismemberment for slapstick laughs at times, before eventually attempting to have them nobly sacrifice their lives. There can be no meaning to these scenes when the film itself has robbed these characters of any weight—which feels doubly insidious when you realize that the movie features very few (if any) actual Asian humans to begin with, other than Maya, who appears to hail from the United Kingdom. By having robots almost entirely stand in for Asian peoples, but without creating a compelling cinematic argument for their humanity, The Creator ends up with a cultural dynamic that feels immediately brutalizing and xenophobic.
What’s more, the imagery it trades on is so ill-conceived as to be offensive, from its scenes of soldiers executing robots draped in Buddhist robes, to its rebels who live in Hindu temples and wave triangular orange flags, the symbols of India’s modern right-wing Hindutva movement and fascist government. It’s a mish-mash of ideas and designs half-considered, even if that, by a white director and his white co-writer (Chris Weitz) whose arguably well-intentioned attempts at drawing parallels between their plot and the dehumanization of real Asian cultures—especially Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, at the hands of American imperialism—ends up sapping their dignity in the process.
While the film’s designs and details are technically vivid, they’re spiritually vapid. Alphie is positioned as a kind of bridge between humans and A.I., but this subplot is sketched without an ounce of originality. She turns out to have secret abilities that resemble the Jedi using the Force, which wields to fight the American empire’s enormous, laser-powered drone ship—the Star Wars Death Star in all but name—and her key emotional moment comes right out of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But The Creator never lays enough groundwork to support the emotional weight of these images. Instead, it quite fittingly borrows them in the vein of ChatGPT, without much care for their underlying meaning.
At most, all the film is able to do is re-tread some of the formal elements of Edwards’ own Rogue One, which—like his 2014 Godzilla reboot—was incredibly adept at portraying scale. But its visual strengths end there. Washington’s Joshua may be the human protagonist, but he’s just as shallow as the Asian A.I. beings, with little sense of outlook or ethos that the film manages to dramatize, or even imply. While he has a singular, easily identifiable objective (finding his wife), he isn’t opened up to any emotional complexities by the complications thrown his way (including reveals that are easy to predict if you know what “Maya” refers to in Hinduism and Buddhism), rendering him even more robotic than the movie’s actual robots.
Unfortunately, even these robotic characters end up representing The Creator in microcosm. They’re technically proficient, but soulless. They lack wonder, warmth, and humanity—and eventually, a point.
Published on September 28, 2023