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Movie Review: Humans take a back seat in the stunning AI, sci-fi epic ‘The Creator’

The artificial intelligence in Gareth Edwards’ “ The Creator,” a visually magnificent if by-the-books epic, is not the AI making headlines at the moment. This is AI in the classic sci-fi mold — the Roy Battys of “Blade Runner,” the Avas of “Ex Machina,” the ones whose sentience we question and debate endlessly. Will the machines kill us? Take our jobs? Or do something that the movies haven’t dreamed possible yet?

As the retired special forces guy cleaning up nuclear debris, Joshua (John David Washington), flatly tells a fellow worker when she posits that the AIs were indeed after their jobs: “They can have this one.”

Regardless, for now, artificial intelligence is more allegory for the other than aspiring screenwriters, filmmakers or trash collectors. And, for Edwards and his co-writer Chris Weitz, they might even have more capacity for humanity and goodness than humans, which is not exactly part of the ChatGPT conversation either, though that would be an interesting twist.

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John David Washington in a scene from “The Creator.” (20th Century Studios via AP)

In the world of “The Creator” they’re welcomed by society at first as an unambiguous good — a helpful servant class that have the ability to make our human lives better. But as they so often do in sci-fi dystopias, they turned on us. Actually, more specifically, they turned on the U.S. when they dropped a nuclear weapon on downtown Los Angeles. Naturally, that means war.

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Washington’s Joshua lost his family in the attack and when we meet him, he’s undercover in New Asia to try to find the creator of these advanced AIs, a shadowy, elusive figure they call Nimrata. Joshua got busy with other pursuits though. He fell in love with, married and is about to welcome a baby with his on-the-ground source Maya (Gemma Chan), taken from him in an unexpected raid by his peers — one of many truly sublime sequences in which a hovering death star-like aircraft called NOMAD scans the lush landscape with ominous blue lasers. Edwards, who had a complicated journey making “Rogue One,” does not deny himself the pleasure of riffing on “Star Wars” iconography.

Allison Janney’s hardened Colonel later attempts to recruit him for one last shot at finding Nimrata and the ultimate weapon he’s suspected of building, but a jaded Joshua demurs that he doesn’t care about going extinct: “I’ve got TV to watch.” Of course he eventually says yes and ends up travelling with a Very Special Child, a wide-eyed AI whom he names Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), who might be able to help him find what he’s looking for. Voyles is a captivating presence and undeniably compelling. Unfortunately, the script denies her the edge and nuance that would make her more believable as a person as well as a machine. Even Grogu is a little sassy sometimes.

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(20th Century Studios via AP)

But this is also a film where the visuals upstage the pretty predictable story and even the actors, including the likes of Washington and Ken Watanabe. The lush landscapes of Southeast Asia are stunningly photographed by Edwards and co-cinematographers Greig Fraser (“Dune”) and Oren Soffer, who shot on location in eight countries with an unusually low-cost camera for a Hollywood studio film (the Sony FX3, which goes for under $4,000).

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Speaking of cost — “The Creator” was made for around $80 million and looks a thousand times better than movies (mainly of the superhero variety) that cost three times as much. This was part of Edwards’ design and could be revolutionary for filmmaking. In addition to using a camera any hobbyist could buy at a local store, instead of pre-determining the concept art and visual effects and forcing the actors to look at little silver balls or tracking markers, they added them in after the fact. It makes a huge difference.

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Ken Watanabe in a scene from “The Creator.” (20th Century Studios via AP)

“The Creator” is an original movie too, and even if it is a somewhat convoluted and silly mishmash of familiar tropes and sci-fi cliches, it still evokes the feeling of something fresh, something novel, something exciting to experience and behold — which is so much more than you can say about the vast majority of big budget movies these days. And it’s worth taking a chance on it at the cinemas.

“The Creator,” a 20th Century Studios release in theaters Friday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “strong language, some bloody images, violence.” Running time: 132 minutes. Three stars out of four.