Sunday, June 4, 2023

Is The Creator the first (or last) in a new wave of sci-fi movies about AI?

It’s been a while since we had a truly great movie about devious, dystopian AIs priming themselves to take over the world, in which the key choices made by mere humans will decide whether we end up as just an organic footnote in histories written by our machine conquerors. Alex Garland’s Ex-Machina (2014) springs to mind, while 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron was a fun comic book romp, if lacking the spiky gravitas and sly intellectual thrust of Garland’s debut. Grant Sputore’s I Am Mother explored similar territory in 2019 with a rather more claustrophobic, yet devastatingly incisive touch. Now there’s Gareth Edwards’ The Creator, the first trailer for which debuted this week, arriving just as very real concerns about the ability of artificial intelligence to really muck things up for us humans are rearing their terrifying digital heads.

At first glance, it looks as if Edwards has thrown in all our favourite sci-fi tropes. The basic scenario – tooled up military man fails in mission to wipe out robot child because she is just too cute – reminds us of kind-hearted Din Djarin’s inability to bounty hunt Grogu in early episodes of The Mandalorian.

There are shades of Ex-Machina too: in that movie, Alicia Vikander’s Ava was only able to escape the facility where she had spent her entire existence in thrall to Oscar Isaac’s sociopathic tech bro Nathan Bateman because kindly, lovestruck, intellectually inferior Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) turned up to free her. The Creator hints at another tale of humans being out-thunk by their future machine tormentors.

The artificial intelligence expert Geoffrey Hinton recently told the Guardian he left Google in order to be able to speak out on the dangers of advancing AI because “I don’t know any examples of more intelligent things being controlled by less intelligent things”. If you happened to be one of those intelligent things, it would make sense to play on humanity’s weaknesses in order to manoeuvre yourself into a position of control, and being cute or sexy are certainly very good ways of avoiding being put to death as an imminent danger to the future of mankind.

This is a fascinating, if much-trodden, sci-fi sandpit – even if the real moment when the machines win control of the Earth is more likely to take place in a west coast US programming suite than it is in hi-tech military facilities. Still, the trailer’s depiction of a future in which mankind is both living alongside and battling robots looks stylishly menacing.

Madeline Voyles as Alphie in The Creator. Photograph: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Is Edwards the film-maker to pull off such high-concept futurism? This is the guy who brought us the remarkably low-budget Monsters more than a decade ago, before veering off into the mainstream with the disappointing Godzilla. Lucasfilm was forced to bring in Tony Gilroy to save the mess that Edwards’ Rogue One had become during production, and it is Gilroy who was later handed the keys to the Star Wars kingdom. The Creator is co-written by Edwards and Chris Weitz, another Rogue One alumnus who has also helped deliver the screenplays for American Pie, Cinderella and one of the god-awful Twilight movies (which he also directed). There’s a decidedly mixed heritage on display here.

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Yet this movie appears to have everything I’m looking for in a man v the machines sci-fi flick, from dusty visions of a twisted mech-future to brain-boggling questions about the very nature of humanity. This is the good stuff. There has been much discussion recently about AI film-making – perhaps there’s time for one last great film about AI before the robots take over the multiplex.

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