Set in a parallel universe or an alternate cosmos, say, one where mid-level material not derived directly from existing intellectual property is on movie screens every few weeks, “The Creator,” written and directed by forty-eight-year-old Brit-born writer-director-cinematographer Gareth Edwards, who has the winds of “Rogue One” (2016), “Godzilla” (2014) and “Monsters” (2010) at his back, is richly detailed, punchy, pulpy, punkish entertainment that still has highly serious subjects in mind, without growing didactic and with substantial heart.
I could summarize the story in a tight, manic paragraph that sounds bonkers as all get-out, but would also give away what appears to be going on in the story. I can’t vouch for the logic of the screenplay, which appears to have been profitably tilled and turned in the editing room, without any special regard for the distraction of mere coherence. Lots of scenes rush up in media res, with no bagginess in the telling. Shreds of tenuous dream: that’s the fabric of this confident, cool-tempered yet giddy film.
John David Washington is an intelligence operative working in remote New China, years after a singularity-or-somesuch of artificial intelligence reputedly loosed a nuclear catastrophe on Los Angeles, an epic “coding error.” The opening montage of this history is taut and tart: the world to be built is etched in seconds. In a firefight, red streaks of laser sights battle the orange fire of tracer bullets, against a backdrop of gorgeously photographed post-sunset tropics. The operative Joshua Taylor, with prostheses for his left arm and leg, must escape, and his pregnant wife is left for dead.
Five years later, 2065: The battles of humans versus bots of several orders rage on and Taylor is found, and dragooned, to seek long-hidden compounds near where he was attacked. There’s a weapon, the ultimate weapon, and only he can find it.
Edwards openly confesses he was drawing thirstily from the wells of films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Blade Runner,” and there are canvases of cities that resemble full-handed Ridleygrams, as bristling and bright and bold as Ridley Scott’s work.
There’s a gleam and a glow to the futuristic nightscapes that parallels the fine photography of Liam Wong, as well as the wonky scenarios in visuals by Simon Stålenhag; we even get a clanky bomb that’s like a spindle-legged washing machine drawn like a Chris Ware robot.
He finds a child with powers: a five-year-old girl who may know or can discern the route to the weapon. Along the way, the colors are rich, often splendiferous; not the terrible teal of so many studio movies: so many greens flow, the range of grass and verdigris, pumpkin and piss.
We also discover the girl is an A.I., labeled as Alpha-Omega, and he gives her the name, “Alphie.” Their journey across mostly Thai settings and fantastic future settings includes islands that seem like the many secret, “unlisted” islands among the 263 that constitute Hong Kong. All sorts of beguiling details litter the frame, populating without distracting.
Also: primal scenes of all sorts, about myth and myth-making, about mankind and power, and, y’know, What Does A. I. Really Want? (Especially when one of its envoys is Ken Watanabe.)
The score by Hans Zimmer is just right, and a wildly diverse bunch of songs includes “Fly Me To The Moon,” two Deep Purple cuts and Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” prefacing a fiery onslaught on a village. Later battles by American forces suggest Vietnam-era village leveling and modern-day drone warfare. Edwards’ movie shares the sardonic, steely politics of Jim Cameron’s filmography. (Hi, “Aliens”!)
Most of the movie was shot on a small camera system devised by Edwards along with co-cinematographers Oren Soffer and Greig Fraser (“Rogue One,” “Dune,” “The Batman,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Bright Star”). “We used an incredibly lightweight cinema camera from Sony, which is so sensitive to light that you can shoot at night with just the moon,” Edwards says in the press kit. “This also meant we didn’t need the usual giant lights… Some of the LED lights we used were so small and lightweight that we often didn’t need to put them on a stand, instead the best boy would hold it on a pole, much like the sound guy holds a microphone, meaning as the actors moved around, the lighting could instantly adapt, without losing hours a day in moving giant equipment.”
Edwards had the advantage of knowing who was working behind the scenes on the production: “Being able to shoot organically like this was much easier knowing there was a powerhouse visual effects company behind the film. ILM went out on a limb to help the realism of the film, allowing us to film actors without motion capture suits, or have tracking markers on location everywhere. I feel this naturalistic approach paid dividends in the final VFX. That said, it was clear a few locations in our film would be impossible to find on earthbound locations. In those situations, we opted for StageCraft, the LED screen production technology born out of early experiments with Greig Fraser on films like ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.'”
“The Creator” is peak pulp poetry and bountifully batshit until an ending it appears to resist with all its might until the film succumbs to it. Yet, all is forgiven.
“The Creator” is in theaters. Yes, see it big.