The Creator review – vast and exhilarating sci-fi actioner rages against the AI machine

This colossal sci-fi thriller from Gareth Edwards features John David Washington and Gemma Chan in vast mysterious panoramas and vertiginous vistas which deserve to be shown at Imax-plus scale; it also shows that Christopher Nolan isn’t the only British director in Hollywood thinking (and acting) big. After a stint making franchise movies such as Godzilla and the enjoyable and underrated Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Edwards has now crafted this ambitious original picture, co-written with Chris Weitz, which is closer in spirit to his ingenious 2010 debut Monsters.

The Creator is an old-fashioned science-fiction actioner with some ideas to match to state-of-the-art digital effects, in the tradition of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, with a creeping colonialist’s fear of the unknown to match that in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. And given that Edwards has served some time aboard the Star Wars mother ship, it shouldn’t be too surprising to find some holograms in the mix and a certain dustbin-sized droid which whimpers something poignant about what an honour it’s been to serve his comrades before lumbering out to face the enemy on a kamikaze mission.

Washington shows us some more of that distinctive self-possession and even slight hauteur as a performer, in playing Josh, a US army special forces undercover officer, fighting a strange, dirty war in a postnuclear world upended by the dominance of artificial intelligence. Some time from now, a rogue piece of AI software dropped a nuclear bomb on Los Angeles; since then, America and its allies banned all AI. But the Asian countries stayed loyal to AI, and the number of self-replicating bots there has created what amounts to a posthuman population, for whom AI is part of their cultural and spiritual identity. This has caused a tepid war between them and the United States, which now deploys a gigantic mother ship-slash-attack-vessel called NOMAD capable of delivering nuclear war from above. (I like to think NOMAD is inspired by Jonathan Swift’s sinister floating island Laputa from Gulliver’s Travels.) Its columns of laser-surveillance light tracking across the various terrains create some unforgettable images.

Josh is now behind enemy lines where he has fallen deeply in love with and married Maya (Gemma Chan), who is now pregnant; he has to all intents and purposes gone native. He is devastated when a sudden US attack sweeps in, on the hunt for the AI controlling intelligence which is effectively the enemy’s operating system; they exfiltrate Josh and appear to kill Maya. Back with the Americans, who are reluctant to forgive his apparent disloyalty, Josh is curtly informed by his commanding officer Andrews (Ralph Ineson) and a fiercely anti-AI operative Howell (Allison Janney) that Maya is still alive and is the embodiment of the enemy’s AI – and it is his patriotic duty to help them hunt her down and kill her.

But there appears to be a child now, called Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). Is Josh the father? The child is developing a telekinetic control, a mastery of what in another franchise universe would be called the Force; she is a veritable tiny Dalai Lama, a creator, or even a Christ child of the new AI peoples with Maya as the Blessed Virgin and Josh the bewildered Joseph. As Joseph leads the American military into the hostile territory, he comes to believe it is destiny to protect them, no matter what.

It’s an intriguing, stimulating, exhilarating movie, which really does address – with both head and heart – the great issue of our age, AI. I have to say that the splurge of action spectacle towards the very end means that some of the narrative tendons slacken a bit and the film loses focus on specific jeopardy. But there’s a tremendous boldness here and a readiness to conjure up an entire created universe.

• The Creator is released on 28 September in Australia and the UK, and 29 September in the US.