You can learn a great deal about a director based on how they imagine the future. French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, responsible for Blade Runner 2049 and Dune, sees the future as imposing and austere. Villenueve works with scale in such a way as to humble his audience – his is a future of systems, a future of corporations and kingdoms, a future that leaves us behind. Gareth Edwards, director of Godzilla (2014) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, works in scale as well, whether it comes in the form of enormous kaiju or the shadow of the Death Star cast over a dying planet. Edwards humbles us as well, but he doesn’t leave us behind. With his new sci-fi film The Creator, Edwards wants us to be awed by the majesty and terror of the future. Edwards wants us to look up and tremble in the face of our own creation.

The Creator begins with a world cleft in two by artificial intelligence. America wars against robots, whom they blame for a nuclear catastrophe that devastated Los Angeles 15 years before the events of the film. Robots, lacking a nation of their own, are integrated into the nations of New Asia. “We are not at war with the peoples of New Asia,” an American general announces.

It’s a shame, then, that their missiles can’t discriminate.

Edwards traces the lineage of the central conflict of the film back in time to the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq. He juxtaposes the purported efficiency and professionalism of the American military with its brutality and mechanized violence. In an early sequence, protagonist Joshua Taylor (John David Washington), an undercover operative, watches in horror as a botched night raid on Korean soil by American forces leaves his wife and unborn child vaporized in a fiery explosion caused by NOMAD, an American superweapon. Five years later, Taylor leads another raid, this time on a facility his superiors claim holds both a robot superweapon designed to counteract NOMAD as well as his wife Maya (Gemma Chan), seemingly back from the dead. This sequence, too, evokes the imagery of places like My Lai and Haditha, places where America’s military might was brought to bear against unarmed innocents. One memorable line, barked by an American commando to a group of terrified villagers held at gunpoint: “Where are your robot friends?”

Where are your Viet Cong friends?

Where are your al-Qaeda friends?

Edwards synthesizes the future of the American empire in other ways. In the tradition of James Cameron’s Avatar and Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, The Creator’s prop design, housed in its weaponry and vehicles, links the bloody past of the military-industrial complex with its seemingly inevitable future. Guns fire lasers now, but rather than the sanitized scorch marks left behind by Star Wars’ blasters, the weapons of the world of The Creator leave their victims bloody and brutalized. In one late-film scene, massive American vehicles –  kaiju-sized tanks – crush trees, buildings and people under their treads. Sleek jets descend on civilians like hungry locusts, dropping off cadres of bloodthirsty soldiers. Rather than exoticize these weapons, however, Edwards grounds them in the design principles of today, evoking familiar shapes with deadly motifs. The Creator’s guns are mass-produced dealers of death, just as they are now. The Creator’s tanks and planes are the mechanized arms of American tyranny, just as they are now. Even NOMAD, the crucifix-shaped symbol of American vengeance in the film, is just a glorified Predator drone.

Edwards painstakingly shows us the machinery of war, but he also ensures we see its cost as well. When Taylor discovers the robot superweapon to be a child he names Alfie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), he goes AWOL with her in tow, taking him across the countryside of New Asia in search of his wife and the elusive Nirmata – the AI’s god. We see robots and humans living side-by-side, as equals. Edwards shows us robots praying, playing, sleeping and watching porn. Domestic scenes like these are beautifully shot to capture the breadth of the robotic experience, but also in a way that highlights intimacy. This is the casualty of a war of hate, Edwards tells us: life in terms of the individual but also in the abstract. War is the anathema to existence, Edwards says, not just biology.

The Creator is a film more about spirit than character. Washington fails to inject the found-father compassion of Pedro Pascal’s Joel Miller or David Harbour’s Jim Hopper into Taylor’s relationship with Alfie, instead coming across more like an American G.I. trying to befriend a child whose village he just helped burn down – a fine dynamic at the start of a film, but not so much in the third act. Maya is a Christopher Nolan wife: a wispy, ethereal being who appears mostly as a smiling, pregnant memory. Resistance leader Harun (Ken Watanabe) is similarly thin. Allison Janney (I, Tonya) and Ralph Ineson (Final Fantasy XVI) play American military officials, but their characters serve more as bodies animated by the specter of American imperialism than anything else. It’s the background characters that make The Creator’s world believable, its struggle believable. Against all odds, Edwards manages to convince us that robots can pray, love and grieve without pretense, even if he is forced to leverage the horror of an unjust war to prove it.

The film initially posits that the robot god is a person, but by The Creator’s explosive, righteous conclusion, we come to understand Nirmata more as an idea: the shared dream of liberation for robots, free from the yoke of militarized hegemony. The Creator’s spiritual impetus is not confined to an imaginary class of future beings, however. Humanity can dream of a free world, too. Edwards shows us a future struggle to bring to light one that has driven humanity for all of time, the struggle against forces of self-extermination, those we, not anything else, are the creators of.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Disney UK