Thursday, October 12, 2023

Film review: The Creator

Nice America you got there—shame about your Asia

I became intent on seeing The Creator as soon as I saw that it was from the man who directed Rogue One, my favorite piece of media Disney Star Wars has produced. It certainly looked intriguing; a near-future science fiction story with a good deal of action? I’m all for that. Unfortunately, the end result is somewhat uneven, but overall worth seeing.

Twenty minutes into the future, an automated system nukes Los Angeles, turning the United States government against all forms of artificial intelligence. By the time of the actual plot, the only places willing to openly host AI are various cells in the vaguely defined superstate ‘New Asia,’ which a map seems to imply is a peculiar amalgam of Japan and the stretch of Southeast Asia from Myanmar to the Philippines. The action properly kicks off with US special operative Joshua Taylor (John David Washington) being sent on a raid against one of these AI cells, where he finds a robot child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) eventually christened Alphie, who happens to know something he desperately wants. They then go on a wild goose chase all throughout New Asia to find what they both need, all the while pursued by the US government.

The best part of this film is the relationship between the two leads. They are both conflicted, on the run, and setting out to do something they had been told time and again not to do. They have a sort of teacher-student interaction where, as the best of these stories always have, the teacher learns as much as the student. They have to see both sides of American imperial power, both abroad and later domestically.

It is the portrayal of the US, a few decades in the future, where the worldbuilding in this film really shines. The Pentagon now carries a big stick that happens to float: NOMAD, as they call it, is a hulking behemoth in the sky, going all over the world to wreak havoc on rogue artificial intelligence (it has a suitably scary way of announcing its presence). It is the ‘War on Terror’ gone digital, the logical conclusion of drone warfare, the expansion of the ‘frontier’ to the digital realm as well as to an Asia that America has ravaged before. It’s a futuristic, all-too-believable extrapolation into a future that Nikhil Pal Singh described in these terms:

Defending the launching of the global War on Terror, U.S. diplomatic historian John Gaddis gave scholarly imprimatur to the settler idiom: the borders of global civil society were menaced by non-state actors in a manner similar to the “native Americans, pirates and other marauders” that once menaced the boundaries of an expanding U.S. nation-state. Foreign affairs writer Robert Kaplan concurred: ‘The War on Terrorism was really about taming the frontier,’ as he heard U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq repeat the refrain, ‘Welcome to Injun Country.’


The history of the American frontier is one of mounting casualties and ambiguous boundaries, of lives and fortunes gained and lost. In the settler narrative, “collective security” never meant just the existential kind of safety, that is, situations where material survival and self-defense were mainly at stake. Freedom is essential to the equation, and freedom in this conception is built once again upon dreams of a blank slate—this time cheap, empty, exploitable lands and resources that must be cleared of any competing presence.

However, what pained me, as a Filipino-American on my mother’s side, was the frankly lazy portrayal of Asia. As previously described, the AI and their supporters are hiding in a superstate ‘New Asia,’ an unwieldy amalgam of disparate countries that were last unified, if one could call it that, when Japan rampaged across the region in World War II. The scenery looks Vietnamese, echoing many Vietnam War movies, but the urban areas are vaguer, filled with what appears to be Chinese writing (which could easily be Japanese). It’s a blatant hodgepodge which, to be blunt, made it seem like the filmmakers just didn’t care enough to set this in a real Asian country.

They could have easily done something like Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl, unambiguously set in Thailand. I’ve read comments from Thai people saying that it’s clearly written by a Westerner, which is something I'm not sure can be avoided at all, but it at least tried to engage with the complexity of a real Asian country. This film didn’t. (Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon may also be relevant here).

What results from this lushly developed America and a smorgasbord Asia is a film about American empire from an American (or Western—director Gareth Edwards is British) point of view. Many have observed that these wars have barely had any effect on the day-to-day lives of Americans on the whole (veterans, refugees, and their families excepted), and it is easy to mush all American wars into ‘Asia’ or ‘the Middle East’ stereotypes. That’s what this film does: it reduces several countries to cardboard cutouts into which to smash American special forces to kill, die, and steal. It commits the grievous sin of forgetting that the targets of American guns are people, too, with agency and beliefs and histories.

I wanted to like The Creator more than I did, and in many ways it is a fine movie. The action is exciting, the American characters get good development, and the future is believable technology-wise. It falls, however, in portraying American wars as solely American experiences, which is both its greatest failure and, inadvertently, its most potent element of commentary.


Highlights: great action, great futuristic aesthetic when it isn't being orientalist

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.