By Michael Idato
Save articles for later
Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.
If timing is the key to successful storytelling, then The Creator is onto something right out of the gate. Set on a bleak, war-torn future earth, it is the story of a war between humanity and a civilisation of artificial intelligence that has sprung up in its midst.
We sit down to talk about the film with director Gareth Edwards in the middle of a long and brutal strike by Hollywood’s writers and actors over that very issue – the impact AI will have on filmmaking. Can we solve the thorny topic of AI and its impact on film commerce in a 20-minute conversation? Not likely.
Madeleine Yuna Voyles as Alphie.Credit: 20th Century Studios
But we can establish that understanding AI is not as simple as good guys and bad guys, even if that has been Hollywood’s preferred shorthand for storytelling ever since the perpetually doomed star of The Hazards of Helen was first tied to the train tracks by a moustache-twirling villain.
And Edwards does offer one illuminating anecdote from the film’s development: he has tinkered with the AI engine ChatGPT and at one point typed in the first scene of the movie and asked it to predict what would happen next.
“It gave me four things it thought would happen and one of them was totally correct,” Edwards says. “And it was like, either I’m really predictable or this stuff’s super fascinating. It is very censored at the moment, and it keeps reminding me that it doesn’t have an opinion about anything. It feels like you’re talking to someone who’s got some boss that’s telling him to shut up every time you nearly get to something interesting.”
The film has taken five years – give or take a few months – to get from script to screen. And despite the stunning timing – premiering at a time when AI is very much in the centre of the national, and international, conversation – neither the studio (Disney-owned 20th Century Fox) nor Edwards could have seen it coming.
In truth, he originally intended The Creator to be a parable about “the other”, the culture of fear that is often created between communities and outsiders, such as refugees or migrants. In the film’s story, the world has divided between “the west”, which has banned AI, and “the east”, which has allowed it to flourish.
Madeleine Yuna Voyles and director Gareth Edwards on the set of The Creator. Credit: 20th Century Studios
“When I was writing this, it was five years ago, so [AI] was this far away distant thing like flying cars or living on the moon,” Edwards says. “I was only using robots and AI as a metaphor. Then while we were filming I got a text off a friend about the Google/AI whistleblower. That was kind of mind-blowing. This thing felt like it was really alive.”
The Creator stars John David Washington as Joshua, a hardened ex-special forces agent who is recruited on a mission that might reunite him with his missing wife, Maya (Gemma Chan). The target is an AI-developed super-weapon, a six-year-old AI girl named Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). The film also stars Allison Janney as Colonel Jean Howell, the mission commander, and Ken Watanabe, as an AI simulant named Harun.
Edwards co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Chris Weitz based on an idea formed in pre-pandemic, pre-AI America, while driving through the country’s Midwest on a road trip with his girlfriend after he had finished work on Star Wars: Rogue One.
John David Washington as Joshua in The Creator.Credit: 20th Century Studios
“It was a three- or four-day drive through amazing landscapes, we were going through all the farmlands and I just looked out the window, there was music playing, probably Hans Zimmer or something, and then, in all this tall grass, there was a factory. And I thought, ‘I wonder what they’re doing in there?’ And my brain went, ‘Probably robots, right? Japan’.”
From there, Edwards found himself imagining a robot produced in the factory ending up outside for the first time. “You would see the grass and the sky, and you’d be like, oh my God, what is this? And I thought, that’s a nice little moment in film, probably never a movie I’m going to make.”
And then he did. The 48-year-old British filmmaker cites a complex bibliography of influences on the film’s world-building: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, Akira and even E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
But there are some filmmaking influences that might not seem so immediately obvious, such as Paper Moon, the 1973 comedic road movie based on the 1971 novel Addie Pray. Set in Kansas and Missouri during the Great Depression, it follows a conman Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) who teams up with an orphaned girl, Addie (O’Neal’s real-life daughter Tatum).
AI soldiers in a scene from The Creator.Credit: 20th Century Studios
“I watched Paper Moon and tried to study it because there are story beats that go on in there that are really interesting, that are useful for me in this movie,” Edwards says. “The same with Rain Man, and A Perfect World with Kevin Costner.”
Edwards also cites “a movie that never gets talked about enough in my opinion because it’s a work of genius”, Baraka, as an inspiration because of the way it frames South-East Asia. (Directed by Ron Fricke, Baraka is a documentary with no narrative or voice-over which captures events in 24 countries on six continents over a 14-month period.)
Baraka, Edwards says, is also an “epic, as-if-God-made-a-film kind of objective view of the whole world. I used to always watch that when I was at film school and just go, ‘Oh my god, if this somehow had sex with Star Wars, [the offspring] would be the greatest movie of all time.’ So that always haunted me when I was trying to figure out this film.”
Edwards was as good as his word. In a Baraka-inspired journey, the crew of The Creator travelled more than 16,000 kilometres to 80 locations in eight countries, including Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, Japan and Indonesia. They also filmed on a handful of sets in a Los Angeles sound stage and in London’s Pinewood Studios. (Some sequences, shot using ILM StageCraft, were overseen by Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser, who also co-produced the film.)
Gareth Edwards directing the Star Wars film Rogue One.Credit: Lucasfilm
A slightly unconventional approach for a science fiction film, the purpose of so much location filming was to avoid having to create the film’s environments artificially, via special effects.
“It’s way easier than doing it all against green screen because when you do it against green screen and blue screen, you’re just putting off the problem,” Edwards says. “At some point in post-production you’ve got to create that whole world, and it’s a nightmare. So, we were like, let’s go do the whole world, film it and then design it on top, so it was actually way easier.”
In tone and texture, the film is bleak. It gives us a glimpse into a future where the ideology of artificial intelligence has left the world broken and in conflict. It is hardly a scientific or sociological document, but it does come at a time when, culturally, we are trying to make sense of the idea of AI, haunted by a generation of deus ex machina film stories with fairly grim outcomes.
The Creator adheres to Edwards’ take-no-prisoners style of storytelling. (This is, after all, the guy who bumped off almost everyone in Rogue One.) When I watched the film, it left me genuinely uncertain anyone would make it. And it’s a challenge, particularly for a generation of filmgoers raised on the Hollywood convention that in most action or adventure films the heroes are somewhat sure of surviving to see the end credits.
But it is, Edwards says, a more honest way of telling a story. “Let’s go back to World War II and find someone and get them to tell their story. I bet you a lot of people didn’t make it to the end,” Edwards says. “I want people to feel like you felt. That’s great that they’re like, I’m not sure how this is going to play out.”
A preferable tool for a storyteller, Edwards says, is the bittersweet marriage of joy and sadness. “That feels more painfully real and correct. Don’t get me wrong, I think films need to be hopeful and feel like they can show you how to succeed, that they’re not all doom and gloom and pessimism.
“I’ve watched films like that, [but] you never really revisit them, you know what I mean? And I think the reality is in a real war situation, not everyone is going to make it out. I like the idea people think they know how the film will end or where it’s going based on the trailer, and then at a certain point in the movie they go, hang on a minute, what’s going on?”
Growing up in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, a small town in England’s West Midlands, Edwards might have been as far from Hollywood as a kid could be. The influence on his childhood, and his career, of Star Wars is self-evident. But it’s important to recognise Edwards grew up in a rich culture of British science fiction, from the television programs Doctor Who, Blake’s 7 and Space: 1999, and the literary works of Arthur C. Clarke, Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss and Douglas Adams.
But one writer stood out among the others, Edwards says, reflecting on the impact of John Wyndham’s books on his impressionable young mind. Wyndham penned some of the genre’s greatest works, including The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoos (adapted several times as Village of the Damned) and The Kraken Wakes.
“What was great about his books is he wasn’t interested in the day the aliens landed, he was interested in 20 years later and how life was going on and [how people] got used to this crazy thing in the world, and you’d have to play catch up,” Edwards says. “You’d be thrown into this situation and go, wait a minute, there aliens in the ocean? What’s going on?”
What it taught him is the power of fast and immediate immersion in a story. “I love films that begin after they’re supposed to and throw you right in, and you’re in this world scrambling to figure it out,” Edwards says. “It’s my favourite type of storytelling. Starting at the beginning is always quite a boring place to start.”
In 2008, Edwards won the Sci-Fi-London 48 Hour Film Challenge, where a movie had to be created start-to-finish in just two days, with a short film titled Factory Farmed. That win put him on the map, and was followed by Edwards’ first feature film, Monsters, which had a cast of two and a crew of just five. The Guardian hailed it as “the bedroom blockbuster that’s the anti-Avatar” and Edwards’ an “enterprising young director”.
Madeleine Yuna Voyles plays AI weapon Alphie.Credit: 20th Century Studios
It is unsurprising then that something close to his heart is the democratisation of filmmaking: the idea that for the longest time commercial filmmaking has been the preserve of those able to negotiate multimillion-dollar deals with studios because the industry has always had, in effect, a very high price point for entry.
The effects of newer technologies – and, in an emerging sense, controversial notions like AI – has been to open that up. Once upon a time, it took film cameras and a cinema to get a film released. Now it can be shot (and edited, with VFX) on an iPhone and released via an online platform such as YouTube. Suddenly, “the bedroom blockbuster” has an international audience.
But it’s still a challenge, particularly as the industry grapples with changes to its business models and distribution infrastructure, and we have two unions on strike, admittedly over a raft of issues, but one of those – and the one getting most of the media attention – is the idea that AI is the enemy.
“I don’t think AI is the enemy,” Edwards says. “I think that [for] the last 100 years there’s been these major technological breakthroughs that have had seismic shifts in different industries, like the discovery of electricity, computers, the internet. And it feels like AI is going to be another one of those. Probably up there with the others.”
Edwards is also optimistic AI might one day be just another tool to help democratise filmmaking. “So you won’t need $200 million to make a movie any more,” he says. “If you look back at the past, the invention of the electric guitar suddenly meant all these kids in their garages could form bands, and there was an explosion of this thing called rock ’n’ roll, and we had this period of time with the greatest music, I think ever.
“If people in their garages or in their bedrooms can suddenly make films somehow using tools of some kind, and they don’t need to go and talk someone into it and ask for $10 million, you might get this sudden magical, insane period of creativity in film like we had back in the 1970s,” Edwards says. “I’m trying to be optimistic about it.”
The Creator is released in cinemas on September 28.
Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Get The Watchlist delivered every Thursday.
Most Viewed in Culture
Source: Read Full Article