Madeleine Yuna Voyles in The Creator


For a movie plastered wall-to-wall with visual effects, writer/director Gareth Edwards' The Creator pulls off a feat only a few futuristic science-fiction films have managed over the decades: It makes you completely forget about the visual effects.

That's an overstatement, to be sure, given how frequently my mind was blown during the course of this action thriller's fleet 133 minutes. Yet while I have issues with a number of the film's particulars, and am not entirely convinced that its dialogue wasn't generated by the sentient AI largely championed here, I'll readily admit to being thunderstruck, on a purely visceral level, by Edwards' first feature since Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Like that 2015 saga, this new one suggests that its own creator has a ways to go in eliminating genre clichés and fashioning characters as interesting as his ideas. But sweet Jesus does this thing look like a zillion bucks, even though it only cost a reported $80 million. If studio heads aren't immediately taking note, they're only hurting themselves, to say nothing of audiences who are starting to appear either bored with or uninterested in franchise outings requiring budgets two to three times The Creator's.

Depending on your take, Edwards' release is either incredibly timely or intensely tone-deaf, given that the undisputed tragic heroes of the piece are artificially intelligent beings who prove just as capable as humans, and perhaps less troublesome. (I'm not sure how the movie will play with members of America's Writers and Screen Actors Guilds, who, in part, were/are picketing AI's threat to their professions.) The film's world-building scenario finds AI incorporated into all facets of Earth life beginning in the 1950s, and technological advances proving mostly welcome until the sentient creatures are deemed responsible for a 2055 nuclear explosion that decimated Los Angeles and resulted in more than a million deaths. With the government proclaiming the event an official uprising, AI is subsequently banned and routinely destroyed in the United States. In the amalgamated country of New Asia, however, it's a different story, with AI still accepted and flourishing, and citizens paid to have human-looking robots fashioned in their likeness.

As The Creator's central narrative gets underway, it's 2070, and hostilities between the U.S. and New Asia over the AI issue are at their peak. That's when former Army sergeant Joshua Taylor (John David Washington) re-enters the picture, having previously been part of a 2065 undercover assignment gone wrong. While stationed in New Asia, his wife Maya (Gemma Chan) and their unborn child were seemingly killed in an explosion – a tragedy that led to the previously AI-sympathetic Joshua's loathing of the “soulless” machines. Five years later, Joshua is given a chance at payback when he's recruited to return to New Asia and find and destroy a weapon of world-annihilating potential and threat. Oh yes, and it turns out that Joshua's wife and child may still be alive. And that the “weapon” in question is an AI designed to resemble a six-year-old girl (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). And that the U.S. government just mi-i-i-ight be lying to people.

John David Washington in The Creator

Even in heavily synopsized form, that is a massive amount of exposition and plot to contend with, and it probably only gets us to The Creator's 45-minute mark. (My two-paragraph summary also leaves out a lot of pertinent information, such as Joshua's recruiter being played by Allison Janney, who's almost as hateful here as she was in her Oscar-winning turn as Tonya Harding's mother.) Amazingly, however, it's all lucidly presented without feeling remedial. You have to do some of the work yourself regarding specific years and motivations, but Edwards and co-screenwriter Chris Weitz lay out their sci-fi blueprint with admirably succinct clarity, and by the film's end, most of the puzzle pieces fit, if perhaps a tad too neatly. I do wish the conversation was less artificial and that the writers had jettisoned some of the dopey jokes theoretically meant to offset the gloom; a nihilistic Blade Runner 2049 vibe might've been the stronger way to go, even if it meant a less audience-friendly experience. Still, I applaud this original entertainment for living up to its adjective, and have nothing but praise for The Creator's lush design, some of which has the added benefit of helping define character. (Following Joshua's 2065 trauma in New Asia, we understand perfectly why he would choose, in his post-Army life, a no-doubt low-paying job cleaning debris at Los Angeles' Ground Zero, rendered here as horrifically as Manhattan's Ground Zero in the real-world 2001.)

From the first minutes of Edwards' latest, with the AI origin story told through a 1950s-style newsreel PSA that could just as easily have been about the Detroit auto industry, I relaxed and grinned at the director's easy blend of the fantastical and the mundane. Little did I know how frequently that sensation would repeat itself over the next two-plus hours. Scene after scene is awash in wonders that truly put the “special” back into “special effects”: robotic cops who turn and gesture with the natural fluidity of humans; a looming space station – the USS NOMAD – as seemingly tactile as the hovering monoliths in Arrival; the AI themselves, who boast a tubular hollow space from one nonexistent ear to the other. Yet these marvels are so effectively built into the film's visual, narrative, and emotional landscapes that, as with Alicia Vikander's humanoid in Ex Machina, you tend to take them for granted. Occasionally, you're reminded of the on-site miracles via some breathtaking set piece: the arrival of a U.S. tank roughly the size of a city block, say, or what looks like an ambulatory fire hydrant that doggedly jogs along until it stops and explodes. More often than not, though, The Creator is a subtly miraculous viewing experience.

Ken Watanabe in The Creator

It's also a deeply affecting one, and in ways that a lot of patrons – and not merely currently striking SAG members – aren't going to appreciate. Not to bury the lede this far into the review, but the Americans, Joshua excepted, are most aggressively the villains in Edwards' film. There's a strong, seemingly unmissable undercurrent of the Vietnam War, and movies about the Vietnam War, in Edwards' staging, with the Army's bullying tactics on peaceful New Asia farmers reminiscent of some of the more harrowing scenes in films ranging from Platoon to Full Metal Jacket to Casualties of War. The movie is transparently against U.S. imperialism in the name of “peace,” and it can't be a coincidence that all of The Creator's amoral assholes are either American military leaders or politicians. You even sense the critique in mere throwaway touches, such as Joshua's co-worker at Ground Zero explaining that she knows the AI were responsible for the nuclear demolition because “I saw it in a video” – a pretty withering comment on where “facts” begin and end in 21st-century America.

Yet those willing and/or able to ignore the political leanings can also enjoy a cathartic good time at Edwards' ingeniously imagined thriller. Although John David Washington can be a detrimentally empty lead, and doesn't possess half of his dad Denzel's charisma, he pushes himself impressively out of his comfort zone here; Washington almost makes Joshua a non-AI worth caring about. And although Edwards overdoes it with her anguished, teary suffering (as he does with all of the movie's kids), acting novice Voyles is a grade-A heartbreaker preternaturally gifted enough to completely own, and deserve, the film's very last shot. Flaws and all, The Creator is a first-rate addition to the dystopian-future canon. In Madeleine Yuna Voyles, it suggests a future far more promising.

Octavio Hinojosa in Saw X


If the surprise of the ninth Saw entry Spiral was how intentionally funny that 2021 release turned out to be (at least, thanks to Chris Rock, in its first half), the shock of director Kevin Greutert's Saw X lies in how intentionally sentimental the movie turns out to be – which, with this series, is its own kind of funny.

It's hardly news that chief torture-porn perpetrator John Kramer, a.k.a. Jigsaw, has been the beating heart of the Saws, even when dead, since the first one debuted in 2004. Never before, though, have Jigsaw and his 20-years-running portrayer Tobin Bell been granted a showcase this expansive – and, oh, the endearing things we learn about the guy! Upon receiving his cancer diagnosis, Kramer participated in group therapy, and made friends along the way! He became a grandfather figure to an angelic pre-teen after fixing the kid's bike! He's not allergic to hugs! Granted, Saw X also finds Kramer forcing a young woman to choose between amputating her own leg to extract its bone marrow or having her head sliced off, but nobody's perfect. Greutert's offering goes almost out of its way to make Jigsaw not just likable but deeply sympathetic, even heroic – and the attempt would be laughable had Bell not grounded the character in so much dignity and legitimate pathos. Jigsaw is clearly a psychopath with too much time (and an apparently bottomless bank account) on his hands. Here, however, he's also something approaching sweet, and definitely deserving of more empathy than the morally bankrupt scumbags he's planning to leave sliced and diced.

Because Kramer died way back in 2006's Saw III – which didn't prevent Bell from appearing in the next six installments – this latest endurance test is set between the events of the first and second Saws, and finds Bell's mellifluously voiced maniac exacting revenge on the scam artists who promised him a miraculous cancer cure in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars. While the contraptions have become increasingly baroque, the basic setup remains the same: Jigsaw's kidnapped victims awaken to find themselves strapped to some hideous device and goaded into either grotesquely mutilating themselves or killing themselves … though, as per usual, it's usually both. (Kramer repeats ad nauseum that he's not a serial killer given that the abducted are actually the ones doing the killing – a hair-splitting rationalization like no other.) Also as usual, there's nothing remotely scary about Saw X, mostly because the movie isn't aiming for scary. It's merely going for gross, and on that front, it succeeds rather admirably. The radioactive burns may have looked too overtly CGI, but I certainly winced at the sight of a guy performing self-administered brain surgery, and both gulped and giggled when the entrapped scammers needed a rope to free themselves and realized that the intestines from a nearby corpse would likely do the trick.

Shawnee Smith and Tobin Bell in Saw X

Devotees will note that this is all par for the course, and after the moderate novelty and accompanying box-office disaster of Spiral, it must have been determined that this series needed to get back to its grisly roots. So beyond the established Saw attributes/failings we expect – flashbacks to events that occurred mere minutes prior, music cues hilariously synced to body blows, plotting that requires Jigsaw to be omniscient – we also get the return of Shawnee Smith's acolyte Amanda, despite the ever-appreciated performer's lack of juicy material. We're treated to the reappearance of that tricycle-riding Albino Chuckie, even though the doll's presence makes less sense than usual. (That string-less marionette's finest performance in 2023, however, remains his work in the Saw X trailer satirizing Nicole Kidman's “We Make Movies Better” ad for the AMC chain. Sheer perfection.) If you stick around for the mid-credits stinger, you'll witness the resurrection of a famed turncoat from the franchise's past. And befitting a series entry that takes place circa 2005, we're given no fewer than three cassette recorders tagged with “Play Me” Post-its, each one boasting a creepy message from Kramer regarding his victims' potential fates. I'm not sure why they were needed considering that Kramer himself is in the room when the tapes are played, but who am I to argue with tradition?

Consequently, it's the same ol' same ol' here, albeit with loads more screen time for Tobin Bell … and, to quote Robert Frost, that has made all the difference. If I came close to actually, finally enjoying a Saw this time around – and I grudgingly admit that I'm inching closer with every new entry – that's due to the sensational wit of its venerable star, who seems to have put thought and imagination into every one of his line readings. Just as impressively, Bell is physically witty. His light shrug when someone deems Kramer a “life coach” is a miniature master class in delivering a silent punchline, and Bell even knocks on a door in a delightful manner I've never before seen. It's a little disheartening to think of where the 81-year-old's career might have led had he not been locked into Jigsaw duties all those years ago. By the same token, though, how many 81-year-olds are not only headlining a Hollywood franchise, but finding ways to keep theirs relatively fresh after two full decades? For better or worse, and I'd argue it's mostly for better, Tobin Bell came, he Saw, and he continues to conquer.

Support the River Cities' Reader

Get 12 Reader issues mailed monthly for $48/year.

Old School Subscription for Your Support

Get the printed Reader edition mailed to you (or anyone you want) first-class for 12 months for $48.
$24 goes to postage and handling, $24 goes to keeping the doors open!

Click this link to Old School Subscribe now.

Help Keep the Reader Alive and Free Since '93!


"We're the River Cities' Reader, and we've kept the Quad Cities' only independently owned newspaper alive and free since 1993.

So please help the Reader keep going with your one-time, monthly, or annual support. With your financial support the Reader can continue providing uncensored, non-scripted, and independent journalism alongside the Quad Cities' area's most comprehensive cultural coverage." - Todd McGreevy, Publisher