Sci-Fi Speculation: Moral Warfare

What if…? More than any other genre, science fiction has been built on this question. What if time travel were possible? What if aliens came to earth? What if machines became sentient?

This last question has been explored in countless films, and based on the majority of these works of fiction we seem to know the answer: war. Gareth Edwards’s film The Creator exists in a world where such a war has already started. The machines detonated a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles and America has been fighting them ever since. Unlike many other movies in this genre, however, the humans are winning and coming very close to wiping out this artificial life forever.

This is when this movie presents us with its second “what if”: What if artificial life were just as real and valuable as human life? This speculation leads the film’s story in an unexpected direction, exploring the dangers of dehumanization.

Secular Speculation
For some people, this particular “what if” might challenge their ability to suspend disbelief, particularly if they hold a Christian worldview. After all, Scripture draws a clear line between humans and everything else in creation by stating that humans are made in the image of God and have God-given dominion over the rest of the created order (Genesis 1:26). This dominion even includes permission to slay other living creatures for food, with the exception of other humans (Genesis 9:3-6). Another problem is that we currently do not know if humans will ever be able to create any form of artificial life as complex as animals, let alone humans, and the idea that people could transcend humanity to become something else flies in the face of Scripture (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

The underlying assumptions of this speculation, then, seem to contradict teachings in the Bible, and skews more closely to a worldview like Secularism—which assumes that human life is no more special than anything else in the universe. However, it turns out that even stories with wrong assumptions can still convey truth. J.R.R. Tolkien explained this once to C.S. Lewis stating, “We have come from God…and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God… Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor…”1 In the same way that we can see truth reflected in stories with dolls come to life or humanoid raccoons, we see truth here through these human-like machines and how others treat them.

What truth does this film shakily steer towards? The Creator shows how human life is uniquely precious, no matter the form it takes. An early example of this in the story is when we see Joshua, the movie’s protagonist, lose his pregnant wife in the war between man and machines. “I lost my wife that day,” he later says, “my wife and my child.” Joshua’s acknowledgement of his unborn child’s humanity is juxtaposed with how he coldly dispatches the humanoid machines. After slaying a robot trying to kill him he explains to a horrified onlooker: “It’s okay. It’s not a real person. I just turned it off, like turning off a TV.”

The onlooker in this case is Alphie, a child-like machine with a human face that is believed to be some kind of super weapon for the machines. Over the course of this story, we see Alphie slowly challenge Joshua’s assumptions about machine life, as she causes him to observe the lives these beings are trying to live. We watch as they mourn their dead, pray, and express a wide range of emotions, including sacrificial love for both humans and machines. Clearly, in this fictional world, these beings are just as alive and sentient as the humans who created them, yet most of the humans in this film deny this fact. Worse still, this denial leads to the robots losing rights they should have as sentient beings, and this abuse is perpetrated based not on logical arguments but on venomous hatred.

Rage against the Machines
The primary antagonist of this film is a character named Colonel Howell. We learn early on that she lost her children the day the machines attacked L.A., and years later she is still raw with grief. Her pain and emotion combine with the general human sentiment that machines have no rights, leading her to do things to the robots which would be considered war crimes against people. One of the most visceral examples of this is when Howell deploys humanoid robots of her military’s own creation to literally run into their own kind and self-destruct.

This example also highlights an intentional choice made with the film’s violence. In many scenes explicit parallels can be drawn between the violence perpetrated against these machines and the worst of wartime horrors we’ve watched or read about in conflicts like Vietnam, Afghanistan, or even the current war in the Gaza Strip. Robots are blown in half and crawl around before expiring in a manner reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan. They are ripped to shreds by bullets because they actively choose not to take shelter where innocent children are hiding. These humanoid machines are even crushed by the hundreds in a massive press while still alive—and yet, because they are not made of flesh and blood, all these scenes can be shown under a PG-13 rating.

As mentioned earlier, Scripture views violence towards humans differently than any other violence humans can perpetrate. Exodus 21:12-36 lays out this distinction through a series of laws where the slaying of another person’s animal is punished with fines, but murder of any human, including slaves and the unborn, is punished by death. It seems clear that through The Creator, director Gareth Edwards hopes to show us stark (if allegorical) examples of what it looks like if such a distinction is erased, and a cybernetically sanitized version of the horrors of modern warfare.

Speaking to an interviewer about the film, Edwards highlighted the ability of science fiction to show us our own reality from a different perspective. “The genre takes in aspects of the world and twists them slightly, and so it certainly makes you question all your beliefs and previous assumptions.”2 The movie’s transhumanist twists on reality do conflict with a biblical worldview in some ways, but they also allow the film to explore the violent consequences of dehumanization without buckets of blood and gore. This results in a story that (despite some shaky assumptions) champions compassion and empathy over retribution and vengeance, and that is a true harbor worth steering toward.

*Please note this movie includes violence and some language.

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Keegan Brittain

Keegan Brittain is a full-time employee at Summit Ministries who loves engaging in the pop culture space through the lens of apologetics. He holds a B.A. in Organizational Leadership from Northern Kentucky University & is currently working on a M.A. in Applied Apologetics with an emphasis in Cultural Engagement at Colorado Christian University. Keegan lives in Colorado Springs, CO & enjoys discussing ideas, media, & how they interact on his Twitter & Letterboxd which are both under @ks_brittain.