It’s been a tough year for artificial intelligence. First, industry leaders warn that A.I. poses an extinction-level threat to humanity. Then, screenwriters and actors warn roughly the same thing about artists losing their livelihoods (and art losing its soul). And let’s not forget predictions of vast unemployment and upheaval. What’s a superintelligent, terrifyingly autonomous technology got to do to get back on people’s good sides?
One answer comes in the whirlwind form of “The Creator,” the latest film directed by Gareth Edwards (“Rogue One,” “Godzilla”). We’ve grown accustomed to A.I. playing the role of helper-turned-villain in movies, and here a rapid newsreel-style prologue sets a familiar stage: Robots were invented, did increasingly complex tasks, and then went nuclear (devastating, in this case, Los Angeles). Now the United States is bent on eliminating their threat, while in East Asian countries (dubbed “New Asia”), bots live at peace with humans. Humanlike robots with Roomba-like heads are police officers, workers, even (somewhat jarringly) saffron-robed monks.
One thing stays the same in the future: The movies need a hero. John David Washington plays the reluctant man for the job, Joshua, an ex-undercover soldier who dropped out of sight after a messy raid separated him from his pregnant wife, Maya (Gemma Chan). He is recruited for a U.S. military mission, led by Allison Janney as a no-nonsense colonel, to neutralize a top-secret weapon in New Asia. After a macho fly-in that lightly evokes Vietnam War movies (but with a Radiohead soundtrack), he infiltrates an underground lab only to find a mysterious weapon: an A.I. with the human form of a fairly unflappable 6-year-old girl. Joshua decides to take her on the lam, naming her Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles).
Unlike countless A.I. doomsday scenarios, Alphie is too cute and innocent for Joshua to treat as a military target. He’s drawn to protecting her, though unnerved by her near-telekinetic powers of jamming technology all around her. Her personhood is the sort of conundrum posed with daunting depth in, for example, Spielberg’s millennium masterpiece “A.I.” or more outré films like “Demon Seed.” But here Alphie’s significance functions like a warm-and-fuzzy halo above all the gunfire and explosions: What if A.I. isn’t out to get us? What if it just wants to live and let live?
Posing these questions requires doing a little heavy lifting on behalf of the film, which is busy spurring on the hectic pursuit of Alphie and Joshua (by, among others, Ken Watanabe as a dogged A.I. “simulant”). Edwards (who wrote the screenplay with Chris Weitz) fluently integrates images and ideas from our established cinematic vocabulary for thinking about A.I. But despite the impressively sweeping C.G.I. running battles in Thai fields or seaside settlements, or the gritty “Blade Runner”-lite interludes in crowded metropolises, the story’s engine produces the straightforward momentum of your average action blockbuster — one thing happens, then the next thing, complete with punchy (sometimes tin-eared) one-liners.
Still, tech eye candy can go a long way in science fiction. Humanlike robots like Alphie have elegant circular portals where their ears would be. Nomad, the massive spaceship that the United States uses to hunt down artificial intelligence, scans Earth with blue light, like a colossal photocopier. But Washington feels curiously disconnected from the visual set pieces that Edwards builds out, and his character’s increasingly fraught back story with Maya feels scattered across flashbacks. Above all, the film’s tone is uneven: Edwards pushes the relatable ordinariness of the androids and hybrid “simulants,” but the potential menace of A.I. inescapably looms.
The film’s matter-of-fact acceptance of A.I. as an innocuous (or indifferent) force in the world is reminiscent of Edwards’s 2014 take on “Godzilla.” The monsters in that movie weren’t bad per se; they were just creatures independent of humans. This is more or less the case made for A.I. in “The Creator”: autonomy without tears (or bloodshed). It’s a provocative idea — all A.I. wants from humans is a little love — but that utopia doesn’t compute.
Rated PG-13 for violent havoc. Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes. In theaters.