For more than 90 minutes, The Creator takes its time. Writer-director Gareth Edwards builds a breathtaking world, drips out plot information, and develops characters we care about. Until that point, it's one of the best movies of the year. But it rushes through its last act, bouncing from location to location, running out of time but stopping to set up a tripwire for the audience's emotional damage. It doesn't help matters that the finale is a rip-off of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and shamelessly restages scenes from Gladiator and The Wrath of Khan. The film has already built up goodwill, so putting its thumb on the scale like this feels more annoying than endearing.
But before then, it's a tremendous achievement. John David Washington - seeming more like his dad every day - plays Joshua, a former undercover operative who lost a lot more than some of his memory in an extraction gone wrong. But he's recruited back into service by Howell (Allison Janney), who promises the mission - if successful - would end the decades-long war between humans and A.I. It would also give him a chance to reunite with his missing wife (Gemma Chan), who leads a band of rebels.
The mission should be a simple infiltration and bombing. But overrun by enemy fire, Joshua becomes one of the few survivors and learns the massive weapon they're supposed to destroy is actually an android child (newcomer Madeline Yuna Voyles). Their survival - and inevitable bonding - becomes the emotional lynchpin of the film. Thanks to the terrific performances, the movie has added weight. It's already visually dazzling, but its strong acting across the board makes it that much more impressive.
There's also a spiritual undercurrent running through the film that, while not fully explored, enriches the overall experience. This aspect, as well as some of the battles on beaches, will remind you this is the guy who made Rogue One. But in a less generous reading, the film could feel mostly like a collection of visual and thematic references. Vietnam War movies like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, dystopian sci-fi films like Blade Runner and Akira, Steven Spielberg pictures like E.T. and A.I.—their influence is readily apparent. But like a great chef, all these familiar ingredients are turned into something special.
Which is why the third act is so disappointing. On a plot level, the actions taken make sense. But the execution as a film leads to confusion and frustration. The action isn't always clear, nor is the sense of scale. Both are handled with aplomb throughout the first two acts. What happened here is a mystery, though the switch from real locations to green screens might have something to do with it. The rest of the film is gripping, on both a storytelling and emotional level, even when it feels familiar.
The Creator is original sci-fi that's not that original. But for most of its runtime, it's awe-inspiring.