The main question about "The Creator" is: How has a movie this good and this big arrived in theaters with so little fanfare?
The actors' strike has something to do with it, since the fairly high-profile cast (John David Washington, Allison Janney, Ken Watanabe, Gemma Chan) can't promote the film, which could be loosely grouped with "Arrival" and "Gravity" as solemn sci-fi adventures that are emotionally and even spiritually satisfying.
It's an original in an industry that produces too few of those. I'll stop comparing it to other movies, I promise, right after I mention that it also will be likened to "Blade Runner," in that it's spectacular looking (closer to Brutalism architecture than the art deco of "Blade Runner") and most of its characters are nonhumans, trained to function better than us.
Washington plays Joshua, who is separated from his wife (Chan) in the opening scenes and joins a war against artificial intelligence robots who have flourished in what, in 2070, is called New Asia. It's fun to see Janney in the role of a hard-nosed colonel — not unlike Gen. George Patton — and to see Washington kowtow to her, all the while secretly scheming to find out what happened to his wife. In that mission, he has help from a robot girl he calls Alphie, a key role in "Creator" that is played by an astonishingly expressive first-time actor named Madeleine Yuna Voyles.
Directed and co-written by "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" director Gareth Edwards, "Creator" dives into the paranoia many of us feel about AI: Can it take our jobs? Will we be able to tell the difference between robots and humans? It adds to those fears by reminding us that it's also unwise to trust our fellow humans. Early in "Creator," a news broadcast indicates that AI killed a million Los Angelenos with a nuclear weapon but, later, we're told the lives were lost because of human error. Who can we believe, if anyone?
"The Creator" is an exciting movie, with one race-against-time set piece after another, but the reason it's also poignant is because it's clear we can believe in at least two characters: Joshua and Alphie. Washington has sometimes seemed remote (or maybe he has just chosen a lot of stoic roles like the one he played in "Tenet") but his performance here is heartfelt and achy. We believe he has been through a lot and that nobody but the golden child played by Voyles could get through to him.
Both characters are crucial to the satisfying ending and it may be because we like them so much that the three or four scenes before the finale don't work. There's a herky-jerky quality to the denouement, with a couple of false endings that Edwards unleashes right at the moment when we need him to be thinking about our two leads.
Because it's set almost 50 years in the future, a lot has happened with artificial intelligence in "Creator." A certainty, rather than a concern, AI has forced its imprint on everyone and everything we see in the movie, but it slyly suggests that the same basic need applies whether we're human or something else: Only connect.
***½ out of 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for nonstop violence.
Where: In theaters.