Directed by: Justin Kurzel
Written by: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, and Michael K. Williams
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Video game film adaptations: one of those things that Hollywood tries over and over again despite never really getting it right. Seriously, outside of the first Silent Hill, has this type of movie ever worked out well? This hasn’t stopped the film industry from trying, as 6 months after the Warcraft film came, went, and disappointed a lot of people, we now have the second major video game film of the year up to bat: Assassin’s Creed, an adaptation of Ubisoft’s current flagship action/adventure franchise. It’s a series that receives equally as much praise as it does criticism, being lauded for the historical fiction aspects and criticized for the often repetitive nature of its gameplay/narrative and occasionally sub-par graphics (just google “Assassin’s Creed weird NPC face” to see what I mean). Personally, I played about 4 games in this series: the entire AC 2 trilogy and AC 3 to be precise, so I know a bit about the games but also dropped off way before where it is now. I went in with an open mind thinking it could be something decently entertaining. So how did it turn out? Let’s take a look.
It’s important to note that while Assassin’s Creed is technically an original story, the plot is basically a walkthrough of any given title in the series. To wit: criminal Callum Lynch finds himself on death row about to be executed for murder, but in a surprise turn of events, he’s rescued by a corporation called Abstergo Industries, who harbor a large amount of fellow prisoners like him who are the descendants of an ancient order known as the Assassins. One of the employees, Sophia, claims that she and Abstergo need his help with their goal of ending all conflict and hatred among the whole of mankind by obtaining the Apple of Eden, an artifact which holds the key to human free will. To achieve this goal, they use a device called the Animus to access the genetic memories of Aguilar de Nerha, Callum’s oldest ancestor and a member of the titular Assassins who lived during the time of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Unbeknownst to him, Abstergo is actually a front for the Templar Order, the longstanding rivals of the Assassins, who are looking to obtain the Apple of Eden to control all of mankind.
The movie hits pretty much all the plot points that have become the formula for any AC entry, so it certainly can’t be called an unfaithful representation of the series, but this creates some problems that become apparent as soon as the story gets underway, starting with the series’ signature piece of technology: the Animus. I’ll admit that here in the film, the Animus’ design is rather visually interesting and distinct from its interactive counterpart. Instead of being a head-worn apparatus that you sit in a chair to use, it’s a mechanical crane that helps the user recreate every single movement captured in their genetic memory. However, the Animus works in the games chiefly because it’s a clever way of hanging a lampshade on the fact that there’s no permanent consequence for death and you can just start a mission over again if you fail. In a passive movie context, the Animus unintentionally removes any real sense of tension out of the plot, reducing whatever the stakes theoretically were meant to be.
While the Animus does look cool in its design, it also creates a major film making hiccup which is easily the film’s most notable flaw: the action scenes. Combat has usually been the weakest aspect of any Assassin’s Creed game for me, with most fights just boiling down to “mash the attack button for 20 seconds,” so I was hoping the movie might bring some visual flair and great choreography to combat. However, the editing of fight scenes is extremely lacking, with an awkward amount of cuts that, combined with lousy cinematography, make it difficult to comprehend what exactly is happening in terms of who attacked who and where characters are in relation to one another. This is immediately apparent in the first historical action sequence, where the Assassins chase after a Templar servant on horse-drawn carriage to rescue the Prince of Granada, whose father holds the Apple in his possession. This kind of chase scene should be immediately engaging, but the frantic editing makes it incoherent beyond belief. This repeats as well during the second action sequence, which is an attempt to capture the series’ signature rooftop parkour/free running, but the bad editing makes it uninteresting and difficult to follow.
What does this have to do with the Animus? Well, the distinguishing stamp incorporated into the action editing is that fights cut frequently between Aguilar in the past and Callum in the present, trying to give a visual on what the two are doing relative to each other’s surroundings. Unfortunately, this need to show Callum in action just makes the editing even more jarring, as you can never successfully piece together how the two’s actions sync up. Out of all the action scenes in the movie, there’s only two bits that are coherently edited: the final battle where the captive Assassins break free and kill the Abstergo guards, and one bit during the third and final battle in 1492 Spain where Maria, Aguilar’s sidekick, gets in a pretty badass series of strikes against a group of enemies, with this bit being a single unbroken shot.
And yes, I said “third and final” earlier. The movie only has three major set pieces set in Spain, with the majority of the film taking place around the Abstergo facility, to its detriment. The most appealing aspect of the games to me was always the attention to detail in regards to the historical periods explored within the Animus, with fantastic architecture and appealing world design, and that holds true here. I’m in love with the way they recreated 1492 Spain with great costuming and production design. The best example of this is during the second sequence when Aguilar and Maria are about to be executed by the Templars. There’s a lot of great set design work and gloriously bizarre costuming that’s just a feast for the eyes, but these moments feel like an afterthought that are only in place because they have to be there for this to be an Assassin’s Creed story. The film fails to make any kind of creative use of the time period and its significant real-world figures in any way.
I assume the lack of focus on historical fiction was done to elaborate on the framing narrative to make it more accessible to those who aren’t immediately familiar with the source material, but the movie goes too far and ends up over-explaining the backstory. There are no less than 3 major expository scenes where Sophia explains the details of the story to Callum, and this isn’t including the opening text crawl which gives a pretty concise summation of the conflict between the Templars and Assassins. These exposition scenes are not only overbearing, but they demonstrate some really stiff acting on the part of the cast, with Marion Cotillard giving easily the weakest performance as Sophia.
On top of that, the film makes mediocre use of a fairly talented main cast. Michael Fassbender as Callum comes across as an unengaging version of his performance as Magneto in the recent X-Men films, and the only time he shows any personality at all is an unintentionally hilarious scene where he dementedly sings Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”, a song which he has a morbid fascination with since it was playing on a radio when his father killed his mother as a child (not a major spoiler, by the way. This happens in literally the first 10 minutes). Jeremy Irons plays Alan Rikkin, the CEO of Abstergo (and the only character drawn directly from the games), and his attempts to come across as intimidating are really just stiff beyond belief. Even Michael K. Williams as a fellow Assassin named Baptiste, who technically has the best performance in the cast, feels too restrained. The actors in 1492 Spain fare a lot better, with the Templar antagonists acting fairly intimidating and looking like they’re having a blast hamming it up for the camera.
Overall, Assassin’s Creed isn’t an offensively terrible film by any means, but it’s boring and feels like a waste of time and energy on behalf of pretty much everyone, except the prop department and set designers. I guess this puts it above par in relation to most other video game films, but it’s not really anything to write home about. Even the movie seems aware that it’s wasting its own time, as it just kind of awkwardly stops at the end, not even really having a definitive third act, like it expects a sequel to be produced in the future. In all honesty, I highly doubt that’s even going to be a possibility.
Final verdict: Skip it. You know you’re just going to end up watching Rogue One again, right?