Directed by: Justin Kurzel Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson Running Time: 116 mins
Video game to film adaptations don’t have a great track record. With a solid cast, an exciting premise, and a promising director on board Assassin’s Creed aimed to change all that. Those involved claimed they would be giving us the world’s first truly great video game movie. Like Warcraft earlier in 2016 however, which promised to pull off a similar feat, Assassin’s Creed completely fails to hit the mark. The best that can be said is that it’s not an absolute train-wreck – the film does have a certain amount going for it, and manages to entertain in fits and starts – but mostly Assassin’s Creed is just kind of boring.
The main problem is that the story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. For those unfamiliar with the games the film introduces us to two warring sides, the Assassins and The Templars, both fighting over the textbook definition of a McGuffin – The Apple of Eden. What’s insanely frustrating is that it’s never clear why the Templars want this “apple” or what exactly it can even do [after sitting through the entire film I still have no idea]. As a result we never get a clear idea of what’s at stake, which in turn makes it impossible to invest in the events unfolding on screen.
In any case, in order to find the Apple, the present day Templars, now known as Abstergo Industries, enlist the help of a death row inmate named Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender). Callum it seems is a direct descendant of one of the infamous Assassins who helped hide the Apple from the Templars back during the Spanish Inquisition. Abstergo manage to fake Callum’s execution and whisk him away to their high tech experimental facility in Europe where they’ve been “helping” (i.e. experimenting on) violent individuals who are themselves the descendants of various other assassins. Despite not knowing the location of the all important Apple these other inmates are inexplicably being kept alive by their mortal enemies for no apparent reason (other than the script’s need for an inevitable third act revolt). Got it? Ok, so by hooking Callum up to a device known as the Animus and forcing him to relieve his ancestor’s memories – which are of course contained in pristine quality within the “genetic memory” of his DNA – this ancient organization hope to finally uncover the location of the coveted Apple Of Eden, so they can do… something? Again this REALLY isn’t clear. At all.
What’s also unclear is why so many great actors agreed to take part in this convoluted endeavor. Presumably Fassbender – who also served as producer, and showed great enthusiasm in interviews for the potential of this budding film franchise, managed to twist their arms. Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams – the list goes on. Criminally, despite the best efforts of this highly impressive cast, the film never gives them anything interesting to do.
Everything in Assassin’s Creed just kind of happens. The characters simply exist, with little to no back-story or development. Similar to the “apple” situation, the fact that we are given no means of connecting with, or understanding the characters makes it extremely difficult to care about anything that’s happening around them. Beyond one odd but fun scene involving some impromptu rebellious singing, Fassbender’s character Callum is bland, angry and uninteresting – an empty cipher with no motivation or agency within the plot. Even the details of his initial death sentence go unexplained. Are we supposed to be rooting for a cold blooded murderer?
Even more frustrating are the film’s action sequences. What should be Assassin’s Creeds greatest strength – you know, that cool assassin stuff – becomes its biggest weakness. Time spent in the Animus is minimal, and the stakes feel almost nonexistent. Mostly because there are none. Callum Lynch is simply re-enacting the memories of his ancestor; he has no control over them, or the supply of important information they contain.
The films insistence on cutting back and forth between Spanish-Inquisition-Fassbender and Present-Day-Fassbender strapped in to the world’s largest VR games machine means we are never given a chance to truly lose ourselves in the events of the past. The fact this cross-cutting happens repeatedly during fight scenes is even worse. What was obviously supposed to be a neat visual trick completely robs the action of any impact or urgency, only serving to remind us of its irrelevance.
Visually Assassin’s Creed looks great – the aesthetics are a cut above your standard blockbuster fare. The directing as a whole however is a bit of a mixed bag. Director Justin Kurzel, who previously teamed up with Fassbender to give us last year’s impressive and haunting Macbeth, doesn’t really seem suited to blockbuster film-making. The action on display is frantic, muddled and horribly over edited. Instead of following the assassins potentially impressive signature feats of parkour with long unbroken takes, the camera cuts quickly from one shot to the next. There’s an inexplicable lack of flow to any of these scenes. One frame the characters are jumping rooftops, the next they’re throwing random punches in a fist-fight, then back to jumping. It’s disorienting and leaves the action feeling like little more than a series of “cool” images that flash by far too quickly for the audience to ever take them in.
On paper Assassin’s Creed seemed to have all the right ingredients to deliver a great film – at times you can even see why Fassbender and Kurtzel thought it might work – but none of what they’re attempting ever comes together to form a compelling whole. Their high-brow approach is at odds with the more ridiculous aspects of the material. By playing it so straight faced they fail to capture the sense of thrilling escapism that made the games so entertaining.
It’s a shame to see so many great actors go to waste. The only upside is that they all somehow manage to make it through without embarrassing themselves. For now, the title of “Worlds First Great Videogame Adaptation” remains unclaimed.(1.5 / 5)