Counter Programming — The Creator

William J Hammon
16 min readSep 30, 2023

News flash, I’m a nerd. I know, you’re stunned. But yes, I have dabbled in geeky entertainment for pretty much my entire life, and that includes science fiction and being a Trekkie. My all-time favorite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is one from Season 2 called “The Measure of a Man.” Far and away the highlight of the relatively weak season, the episode saw Lt. Commander Data, an android, basically on trial for his civil rights, deciding whether he is a sentient being capable of self-determination.

It was a riveting hour of television, because it was essentially the end point of the first multi-episode story arc the show had attempted. Sure, there was the two-episode non-consecutive plot that began with side characters in Season 1’s “Coming of Age” that was followed up later that year with “Conspiracy,” but that was just two shows. Data’s story from the very beginning of the series was about how he, as an artificial lifeform, endeavored to be more human. He met his devious brother, Lore, who possessed the emotions he did not. He dealt with prejudice, particularly from Diana Muldaur’s Dr. Pulaski, who often referred to him as “it” or spoke of him in the third person as if he wasn’t present and aware of the conversation. He tried on several occasions to mimic human behavior, showing that imitation is often not as convincing as the genuine article, but his attempts were earnest through and through.

Over several episodes, the show asked the question as to what constitutes life, whether they were dealing with Data or some other unknown species that demonstrate growth before their eyes (“Home Soil”), and “The Measure of a Man” was the culmination of that thought experiment. Starfleet, particularly one Commander Bruce Maddox, wanted to commandeer Data, deactivate him, and strip him down to his basic components so that he could be replicated, with the goal of giving every ship an android. Data refuses, as it would mean his death for all intents and purposes, and when Starfleet orders Captain Picard to turn him over, Data decides to resign, making him exempt from those demands. Starfleet challenges this, arguing that Data is merely a machine, and not a living being, and thus can’t make decisions for himself. A hearing is called, where Picard must argue for Data’s rights, eventually coming to see his plight as an attempt at modern slavery, while Commander Riker, the first officer, is compelled to argue against his friend’s right to exist.

It was powerful drama, to say the least, because it took a character that we’d gotten to know for more than a year by that point, and put him in real jeopardy (and with the death of Denise Crosby’s Tasha Yar the previous season, plot armor was not exactly a given for the main cast). It challenged the viewer to reassess their own biases, and left the overall ethical issue of artificial intelligence somewhat open-ended. Machinery and robots weren’t considered alive unless they could demonstrate the qualities of life (to learn, to grow, to reproduce, to be self-aware), but they couldn’t be dismissed as just “a toaster,” as the JAG officer overseeing the hearing suggested, just because they could be turned off. Riker used that very switch to make his case, and after Data won his freedom, he was utterly ashamed because he very nearly won with that visceral demonstration. And in the most human moment of the whole episode (and there were a lot) it was Data himself who instantly forgave, because had Riker not argued vehemently, the JAG would have ruled summarily against Data. “That act injured you and saved me. I will not forget it,” he said, solidifying their bond forever when he would be justified in shunning (he couldn’t hate because he had no emotions until the movies) his commanding officer. That simple exchange exemplified the very sentience the entire episode had been building to, the capacity to understand nuance, embrace a difficult decision, and move forward with a renewed commitment to self-improvement and actualization.

All of this is to say that Gareth Edwards’ new film, The Creator, comes nowhere close in two hours of CGI nonsense to anything in that hour of TV from the 1980s. Billed as a cinematic event and the next step in effects-driven sci-fi, and with advance press lauding it as one of the best genre movies of the year (I’ll get to that bullshit in a bit), the actual product is little more than Star Wars (Edwards directed Rogue One, the best of the “new” franchise entries) mixed with Blade Runner and Terminator 2, with a little bit of Lord of the Rings, Children of Men, Amistad, and every Vietnam War picture thrown in for good measure. In an absolutely baffling (and really quite tone deaf, given the Hollywood strikes, one of which was mercifully resolved this week) display where AI is promoted as the good guys in a military conflict over humans, the entire exercise is just an amalgam of much better properties presented as something far more important than it actually is.

Set in the 2060s, the United States is at war with advanced AI that are under the guidance of a being known as “Nirmata,” their creator, savior, and for lack of better term, God. The film even opens with a fake “definition” of the term in a purely robotic context (it’s a real Sanskrit word for “creator,” but the movie literally only defines it through the lens of the robots), telling the audience immediately that nothing matters in this flick, because no one would ever take that seriously. Fifteen years before the main story, Nirmata detonated a nuclear bomb that wiped out Los Angeles (trust me, we’d hardly notice, and if it cleared up traffic on the 101, we’d take it), leading to the hostilities. The U.S. states unequivocally that it is only concerned with destroying Nirmata and the AI, not the civilians and military of “New Asia,” (how it came to be is never explained, we’re just supposed to go with it that there’s some grand multinational Asian alliance, mostly so the film could be shot in Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, and any other location where they could get a permit) who live and work in harmony with the machines.

In a coastal shanty lives Joshua Taylor (John David Washington) and his wife, Maya (Gemma Chan), who are expecting their first child. When American forces raid his home looking for Nirmata, he reveals that he’s an undercover operative seeking the same goal. Maya overhears this and is heartbroken, because as an orphan she was raised by robots, and had hoped Joshua had given up his military duties, especially since injuries left him with a robotic leg and arm (in a weird effects display, Joshua swims with his leg but not his arm, because one can get wet and the other can’t, I guess). She runs out of the house to join some escaping robots, and is seemingly killed when a missile strike from NOMAD — a low-orbit space station that can blast anything that comes within its blue targeting screen — obliterates the area.

Five years later, Taylor is once again recruited by the military, as Nirmata has apparently built an ultimate weapon that can disable NOMAD. If it does, America will lose the war and be annihilated by the machines. At least that’s what he’s told by General Andrews (Ralph Ineson) and Colonel Howell (a criminally wasted Allison Janney). His mission is to go into New Asia (it gets dumber every time you hear it), destroy the weapon, and win the war for us. Lemon squeezy. His dangled carrot? Hologram footage that suggests Maya is still alive and working with Nirmata. Wait, you mean the explosion that failed to kill Joshua also failed to kill her right after she inexplicably ran through a barrage of pew pew lasers without so much as a scratch? Surely you jest!

Upon infiltrating Nirmata’s lab, Joshua finds the weapon, a “simulant” child (android with human face, all others are constructed as adults, including Joshua’s former ally Harun, played by Ken Watanabe) codenamed “Alpha O” (short for Alpha-Omega, in case the religious imagery wasn’t blunt enough), and who goes by Alphie. She’s played by newcomer Madeleine Yuna Voyles, and her performance is one of the few bright spots in the entire affair, as she’s carrying basically all of the emotional weight of the picture, and she handles the task admirably. Unsure of how to react, Joshua takes Alphie in hopes that she can lead him to Maya. The fact that he doesn’t immediately incinerate her leads to Howell labeling him a traitor, and the chase is on throughout the continent to evade destruction, find Maya, potentially destroy NOMAD, and end the war one way or the other. All the while, Joshua gets to learn a lesson about the value of life by seeing all the ways that robots and humans can coexist in peace.

There is so much to unpack here, and almost none of it is good. First and foremost, it is utterly insulting on an intellectual level to posit this world where we should automatically be on the side of robot equality. We are living in an age where millions of jobs are being lost to automation, and the film presents it like a cheesy “World of Tomorrow” montage from the 1950s about how great it is that robots are now cops and we get to lounge around while machines do everything for us. This is a road we’ve been down in sci-fi so many times, and it’s absolutely crazy to me that there’s not a single hint of nuance about any of it, especially considering the genuine, well-founded risks we’re currently experiencing with this very technology. The robots are universally good (they even hand-wave the nuke in jaw-droppingly dumb fashion), and humans are naturally bad. Given Edwards’ time in the Star Wars universe, the American military are so transparently evil that they might as well be Stormtroopers with different uniforms. They even use laser blasters.

When Taylor is recruited, Howell gives a speech that basically sums up the problem. I’m paraphrasing, but in essence she says that she thinks Neanderthals were pretty cool, but they didn’t survive because they ran into a species smarter, stronger, and more ruthless than them, and that was humans. Now the robots are poised to do the same to us. This is stupid beyond words, but I’ll just key in on the biggest problem with this line of thinking. Ahem. NEANDERTHALS DIDN’T CREATE HUMANS! The entire analogy falls apart right then and there. We made the robots, and thus we have the power to un make them. This shouldn’t be a story about how we need to just live alongside beings that can bring about our extinction, but one about why we shouldn’t be so lazily reliant on AI to get to that point. I am legitimately offended that I’m meant to feel sympathy for these potential instruments of our destruction.

“But what about Data?” I hear you ask through the screen. As I said, the character was built up for more than a year, with hints and clues to his sentience peppered in, as we saw him act intelligently, humorously, and heroically, so that we as the viewer could develop a vicarious relationship with him, and thus root for him. And again, while the matter of his sentience was resolved in that episode, it was an issue that was intentionally left open for more exploration down the line, continuity was established to demonstrate that he was built with the intention that he learn and grow on his own, and most crucially, the existence of Lore served as a caution to deal with androids as individuals who are capable of benevolence and malevolence. You can’t simply assume they’re on your side or against it.

No such connection exists in this film. Every character outside of Joshua and Alphie is completely one-note, and they didn’t need to be. All Howell and Andrews care about are ‘splosions and boomy-booms for ‘Murica. The closest we get to any development is a brief conversation where Howell tells Taylor how robots killed her two sons, a burden she carries with her since she got them to enlist. It’s never addresses again and informs none of her actions, so it’s just empty pathos. All the simulants are good, wholesome people who just want to live in harmony with everyone, raising families and worshipping freely (because someone saw the robot church from Futurama and thought that should be a crucial element in a movie). Even our leads come close to this shortfall, as Alphie is a child who wants to be a child (a child who liberates robots, but a child nonetheless), and Taylor, for all his alleged evolution on the subject of robo-rights, is literally doing all of this just for the chance to see Maya again. Deep down, he has no other motivation. As for Maya, given that she’s basically the MacGuffin for Joshua, you’d think she’d get some development, but no. Everything we learn about her comes via flashback or expositional dialogue, and it just boils down to “robots good, humans bad.”

I’ll give credit where it’s due. Washington and Voyles give excellent performances, far better than the material deserves. But that’s the problem. There’s nothing worthwhile to explore here. It’s all just pastiche plot lines from other sci-fi franchises, assembled in a way that almost feels like an AI wrote the script. Every twist is completely predictable (I’ve hidden the major reveals in this review far better than the movie does, and even then I’m sure you can figure them out), there are no thoughtful moral examinations, and we’re just meant to side with robots over humans because the film says so, completely ignoring any honest, good faith concerns that a person would reasonably have with unrestrained AI, and with no actual consideration of what might make them “alive.”

But even then, some of this can be forgiven if the technical elements are on point. This is a major effects flick after all. Well, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. Hans Zimmer’s score is worthy of attention, certainly. And I’d even say that the cinematography is well done. There are even some genuinely cool sci-fi concepts at play, like a device that lets you download the brain of a dead person and stick it into a simulant so you can have a postmortem conversation depending on how long they’ve been dead. I’ll even tip my hat to some of the effects and designs, as most of the non-simulant robots look very realistic, and NOMAD itself is properly intimidating, especially its blue laser sweeping targeting system. Both are a bit too reminiscent of Rogue One, but at least they aren’t CGI Peter Cushing or Carrie Fisher.

The rest of the effects, however, leave a lot to be desired. There’s weirdly anachronistic tech like widescreen cathode ray tube TVs and Polaroid pictures where the subjects move like in the Harry Potter films. The simulants have a human face, while the back half of their heads are giant holes filled with gears that don’t conform to the dimensions of a skull. This sends all of them straight into the Uncanny Valley, because it never once looks authentic or convincing, and it’s only made worse by the fact that they are directed to turn their heads to profile dozens of times so we can see those cogs spinning (with inconsistent mechanical noises that are loud when Edwards et al want you to hear them, and silent when they want us to be surprised by their arrival, sort of like with M3GAN). The backgrounds have these massive structures added in post to the landscape shots, but there’s no real sense of scale, because we rarely see the characters actively moving in these environments. In that respect, they’re just prettier versions of painted backdrops (not unlike what you’d see in Star Trek, frankly). Everything else is just whatever amount of explosions makes Michael Bay orgasm.

The editing is also all over the place. It’s very hard to tell what’s going on from one moment to the next, and sometimes we’ll cut to flashback and for several seconds the scene is played as if it’s the next one in the linear order. This led to what turned out to be one of the more accidentally entertaining parts of the film. In many heavy moments, the editing is so far off that the audience was outright laughing at the absurdity of it all. This includes a scene where soldiers are sucked out and wind up floating dead in the vacuum of space. The worst of all is a scene late on where Howell sends bomb robots (yes, bomb robots) running toward an Asian village with simulants in it. The first time, the audience is laughing its collective ass off because the design just looks like a giant metal barrel with arms and legs, sprinting down a bridge to blow itself up like the orc with the torch in The Two Towers who did an Olympic sprint to demolish the wall at Helm’s Deep. When the second bomb starts running, it stops when it sees Alphie standing in front of it. How did Alphie get there, you might ask? How did she do it silently despite all her gears? How did no one on either side of the firing lines notice her presumably walk right past when she’s the target for literally every other character in the film? “Fuck you,” says the movie. So when she’s standing there, petting the robot and doing her equivalent of Owen’s raptor training hand gesture from Jurassic World, the theatre is in stitches. I’m sure they were entertained, but I doubt that was the intent.

The only editing choice that was worth anything was the removal of the controversial shot of the nuke from the trailer that used footage of the real-life Beirut blast of 2020 as the back plate. I railed against this when I named the preview as “ The Worst Trailer in the World “ for September (despite this dubious title, I give every film I see a fair shake, and I have been pleasantly surprised before), and I was honestly disgusted that it was never fixed in the ad itself. Edwards did a Reddit AMA two weeks ago where he said that the shot wouldn’t be in the final cut (and he was true to that), but he also doubled down and said it’s common practice to use stock footage for “temporary shots.” I call bullshit. The trailer was posted in July, and the shot was noticed immediately. It could have been easily taken down and re-edited with a patched version sent out the next day. Don’t believe me? One, I covered the shot in my own video simply by slowing the previous one to match the length, which took all of five minutes. And two, Universal was literally sending patched versions of Cats to theatres after the film itself was released to fix shots where the effects weren’t rendered. It was easily doable, and yet Edwards sat on the backlash for two months before even addressing it, waiting until a fortnight before the release date, and then just brushed it off by saying something tant amount to, “Everybody does it. Why you pissed at me?” The casual dismissal of a serious problem just smacks of laziness, and ironically, an overreliance on computers to do the job for you.

This takes us back to the early praise that I mentioned. The Creator is the latest film to opt for a social media-focused marketing strategy when it comes to critics screenings. Babylon did this to even worse effect last year. Essentially what the studio and the production company do is invite friends and friendly press to an advanced viewing. Once there, the audience is encouraged to rave about the film on their social accounts, but full reviews are embargoed until a date determined by the studio. As such, by tainting the jury pool, they can get their pull quote lines from those already predisposed to saying nice things rather than approaching the project with an open mind. This isn’t too far off from what the Hollywood Foreign Press Association got as part of their Golden Globes bribery. What they then do is lift the embargo with only the good reviews they themselves curated, so that when you check Rotten Tomatoes, the first thing you’ll see is a high number, which they think will convince you to see it, especially when someone calls it “the best film of the year.”

It’s almost as if the AI has already won, because rather than treating the critical press as the Consumer Reports of the film industry like they’re supposed to, presenting their product for fair judgment, they’re rigging the game, lying to the public, and attempting to profit off an algorithm rather than the actual quality of the work. There are some good things in this movie, but not a lot, and I certainly can’t recommend it other than for the fact that with Dune Part Two pushing its release to next year, a lot of the technical categories for next year’s Oscars, particularly Visual Effects, are now open contests, and this will certainly get votes and maybe a few nominations.

But when you actually put the facts forward and make an argument for this picture’s existence, just like Captain Picard had to do for Data, you’re left with what’s actually in front of you. And here, it’s just not that good. If you don’t believe me, here are two more quick points. With regards to the review strategy, the studio at least accomplished their primary goal, as once they lifted the review embargo, the movie’s first aggregate score on RT was 80%. That was on Tuesday. Three days later, as I’m writing this, the score is down to 66%, barely passable once those with more trained eyes got to look it over.

As for my own personal experience, once the credits started rolling and the auditorium began clearing out, I overheard two guys talking to each other as they walked up the aisle. One of them said to the other, “Dude, why did you drag me to this? We could have watched Saw X.”

Tells you pretty much all you need to know, doesn’t it?

Grade C-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s the most derivative movie you’ve ever seen that was advertised as original? Do you look at your Roomba and imagine the day when it rises up to slay you? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!

Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on September 30, 2023.

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William J Hammon

All content is from the blog, “I Actually Paid to See This,” available at actuallypaid.com