robots have been depicted in movies for more than a century, but the anxieties about artificial intelligence that they used to convey are no longer theoretical. There’s a bill in US Congress right now to stop AI from gaining control of nuclear weapons, and roughly a dozen militaries around the world are investigating the possibilities of autonomous weaponry. That’s why watching The Creator, a movie set roughly 40 years from now, feels surreal, jarring, and oddly welcome. From Metropolis to Terminator, sci-fi has taught us to fear the AI revolt. This one opts to wonder what would happen if AI got so empathetic to humanity it wanted to save people from themselves.
In writer-director Gareth Edwards’ latest, war has laid waste to both humans and robots. In an attempt to eradicate AI, both sides see and feel the toll of war. Enter Alphie, an android savior and weapon that looks like a little girl. Human reactions to Alphie’s appearance (early on, she comes under the care of pseudo-father-figure Joshua, played by John David Washington) evoke author and futurist David Brin’s warning of a “robot empathy crisis,” which predicts that as droids become more humanlike in appearance and mannerism, people will begin to defend their rights.
Beyond being deserving of rights, The Creator seeks to ask if AI might be worthy of worship. Alphie is more than just an adorable android. She is a messiah figure, one that can control electronics with praying hands and was designed to end conflict. Rather than dwelling on killer robots with red, glowing eyes, Edwards’ movie goes against the grain by depicting robots as compassionate. Not cute-sweet, like Wall-E, but genuinely sympathetic—a compelling choice at a time with movie writers and actors have been striking to avoid being replaced by AI.
The Creator’s strongest moments come when you hear the inspiration behind building Alphie. Her creator “could have made her to hate mankind,” says a robot named Harun (Ken Watanabe). Alphie instead is designed to end war, not bring about robot domination. It’s a perspective that feels almost utopian, if not outright Pollyannaish amid the deployments of AI today, which oscillate between empowering and extractive. Whether any particular type of machine learning is good or evil is ultimately a reflection of decisions made by people, not technology.
Sci-fi, as a genre, can be about giving warnings or demonstrating possibilities. When virtually nobody feared AI, there was Terminator. Now that fear of AI seems rampant, here’s a movie that offers the possibility that self-aware machines can increase human empathy.
On multiple occasions throughout The Creator, contrast is drawn between robots designed to destroy and robots designed to save human lives. The rebellion that affirms the value of human life wins the day. Despite its dystopian vibes and pervasive death, Edwards’ film is one of hope.
As with all science fiction, though, The Creator requires you to suspend disbelief in some important ways. For one, it asks the audience to believe that any group can mount a resistance like the one Alphie leads when surveillance is ubiquitous. AI-powered monitoring that is powerful enough to trample human rights is not a future problem. It exists today, and unless there’s a serious intervention, tech like Pegasus spyware, face recognition, and autonomous drones that track people could make resistance like the kind depicted in The Creator virtually impossible. If the modern-day AI supply chain is any indication, powering that many robots could carry a heavy human toll that isn’t depicted in the movie, such as grueling work for the data workers whose labor powers large language models, or people who mine cobalt to make batteries.