Walt Disney unveiled his first audio-animatronic robot at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. The robot was a life-size, lifelike depiction of Abraham Lincoln that stood from its chair and delivered a five-minute speech. When attendees saw the robot, many refused to believe it wasn’t a human and threw coins at it to try to make it jump.
More than half a century later, we still struggle to comprehend technology that looks like us, sounds like us, and supposedly thinks like us. The recent emergence of generative AI like ChatGPT has given the conversation more urgency. What ultimately distinguishes humanity from robots? The question has been explored countless times in popular culture, from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. to, most recently, The Creator, written and directed by British filmmaker Gareth Edwards (Rogue One).
Like many other sci-fi films, The Creator asks provocative questions about humanity and existence, even as it struggles to offer answers. Ultimately, Edwards’s film provides a potent example of the spiritual lostness of modern man in a culture that can’t find any fixed point of meaning.
New Spin on Man vs. Machine Saga
The Creator opens with a vintage newsreel-style introduction that sets the context for a war between the Western world and all forms of advanced AI. The robots, which range from Roomba-like androids to human-like “simulants,” coexist with humans in a Far Eastern continent called “New Asia.”
Set in the 2060s, the story follows Joshua (John David Washington), a U.S. special forces operator in New Asia who’s part of military efforts to discover advanced AI’s creator—“Nirmata”—and find an AI superweapon that has the potential to exterminate mankind. The superweapon turns out to be a simulant child nicknamed Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), whom Joshua captures and forms a bond with as they’re pursued by both AI robots and the American military.
The Creator provides a potent example of the spiritual lostness of modern man in a culture that can’t find any fixed point of meaning.
Though the humans vs. robots movie narrative has been told many times, The Creator adds some unique twists to the genre, especially in its depiction of a lovable 6-year-old girl as an AI superweapon. Voyles’s performance as Alphie is superb—one of the best I’ve seen from a child actor. The way she captures the heart of Joshua—who becomes something of a father and protector of her as the film progresses—is a proxy for how she makes the audience feel.
Edwards clearly wants to confront the audience with a sympathetic, human-like AI character who leads the audience to contemplate, What does it mean that the hero I’m most rooting for in this film isn’t human?
‘How Were You Made?’
As humans, do we have ethical responsibilities toward nonhuman AI? That’s the kind of question The Creator poses. At multiple points in the movie when a simulant is destroyed or a robot begs for mercy, a human says, “They’re not real . . . it’s just programming.” But Joshua (and the viewer) is led to question this logic.
It may technically be “just programming,” but what happens when the robots look, talk, think, and act just like us? What happens when they start asking the same existential questions as humans? The Creator raises these questions, which cannot be answered by a worldview that excludes God—the Creator—as the source and standard of final reality.
Edwards seems to recognize this, as much of the film revolves around Joshua and Alphie’s joint quest to find Nirmata (which is the Hindi word for “creator”). In one scene, Alphie asks Joshua, “If you’re not a robot, how were you made?” All Joshua can muster in response is that his parents made him. Neither Joshua nor Alphie knows their true maker, and they bond over this loss.
Bonding over Shared Questions
The gradually stronger bond between Joshua and Alphie blurs the line between human and robot. Joshua has advanced prosthetics for one arm and one leg. He later learns Alphie was designed using a human embryo, so she can grow and mature—despite being a robot. Joshua is part machine, and she is part human. Both of them experience longings for Nirmata, as well as an instinctual desire for “heaven”—which they talk about a few times in the film.
Perhaps as a subversion of the standard narrative that pits humans against AI, Edwards wants us to see Joshua and Alphie in the same existential category. They both feel “programmed”—made for some purpose, with some logic in mind—yet the identity of the programmer and the details of the programming purpose are frustratingly elusive.
By the end of the film, Edwards doesn’t want the viewer to evaluate the story from the perspective of Joshua but of Alphie—the lost child. She’s a being with the power to do both great good and terrible harm in the world, yet without moral guidance on how to use that power and why. Further, she was programmed with a desire to know her creator and be united in a “heaven” she cannot reach.
Modern Man Is the Lost Child
The Creator reflects the dilemma of modern man, who views himself as little more than a machine (albeit made of flesh, not filaments) yet still desires the satisfaction of knowing his Maker. The film captures the malaise of secular people pulled between the competing forces of a materialistic culture and their hearts’ “programming” for a heaven and a transcendent purpose they’re unable to find. Modern man, without a final authority in God, experiences anxiety in the awareness of his great potential, yet he lacks guidance on how to use it and why it matters.
Contemporary secular culture is a lost child disconnected from its Maker. Christians have the opportunity to speak into this culture with the better story of the gospel. Our life isn’t a quest of searching for a hidden, elusive Creator; instead, our Creator initiated the quest to reach us. He made himself known in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, set aside his great power to atone for our sin on the cross, thereby bridging the great gulf between us and our Maker.
Contemporary secular culture is a lost child disconnected from its Maker.
Gareth Edwards’s The Creator is a compelling example of our culture’s nagging hunger for God—even as we’ve officially “moved beyond” religion and replaced God with science and technological progress. No matter how awe-inspiring our technologies get, the fundamental questions that haunt The Creator will still haunt humans in our world: What are we created for? Who did the creating, and why do I long to know him? Why do we self-consciously reflect on these questions if we’re merely wires, silicon chips, and meat?
Perhaps Augustine was onto something when he wrote, in Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
Christians can courageously engage these questions, pointing people to a better story than secularism can muster.