Video game adaptations have a troubled history to say the least. The worst of them are considered some of the worst films ever made. The best are, at best, guilty pleasures that few openly admit to liking.
Assassin’s Creed is the latest film hoping to break video game adaptations’ horrible track record. With an impressive cast including Michael Fassbender and an accomplished director in Justin Kurzel, this appeared to be the answer to fans’ prayers. So how is it?
Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed is a pretty bad. Visually beautiful at times with some impressive action set pieces, the film badly stumbles over its needlessly over-complicated plot and ridiculously overly serious characters. It attempts to tackle some heady material but essentially falls flat.
Everything Is Permitted…Except An Understandable Plot
Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is a death row inmate who is secretly whisked away by an organization known as Abstergo, a cover for the legendary Templars of old. He is told by daughter-father scientists Sofia (Marion Cotillard) and Rikken (Jeremy Irons) that he is the descendant of a long dead assassin Aguilar who knows the location of an artifact called the Apple of Eden, which can control free will itself. Callum finds himself in a centuries old conflict between Assassins and Templars and he must relive the memories of his ancestor to find this artifact even if it kills him.
In one of the funnier parts of the film (Which are virtually absent), Lynch scoffs and says to himself, “What the fuck is going on?” The audience in my theater laughed audibly probably because they were right there with him. To say Assassin’s Creed’s plot is confusing is an understatement. Secret ancient wars, technology that can make you relive past lives and artifacts that somehow control free will…it is a lot to take in and the film does a bad job of acclimating the audience to these ideas.
The film is actually pretty faithful to the confusing storylines of the video game series and that is to its detriment. The film gives us an opening crawl outlining what is going on, but it never elaborates much further than that. Characters will frustratingly repeat what the crawl said in different ways, leaving many who aren’t familiar with the games out in the cold.
We also get the themes of inborn tendencies to violence, and fanaticism in the name of a greater good, but they only add pretentiousness to an already convoluted plot. The dialogue is painfully bad most of the time, but cliche and overly expository in others. Many conversations turn into debates where characters speak in circles.
Michael Fassbender does his best in the lead role, bringing an impressive physicality to the role. Unfortunately for him, Lynch is a badly written shell of a protagonist and though he does his best, Fassbender can’t make the material rise above its mediocrity. In one scene, he over acts to hilarious effect, but it’s very much welcome. At that moment, he injects some well needed emotion into the film.
As Aguilar, Fassbender is purely physical, relying more on action rather than words. In many ways, he is the stronger protagonist. Ariane Labed portrays Aguilar’s fellow assassin and love interest Maria. She has a striking appearance and her expressive face can speak volumes, but she doesn’t have much screen time.
Marion Cotillard is utterly wasted in her role as scientist Sofia. The character is flat throughout, serving only as exposition. Any attempts at emotional connections with either a seemingly very bored Jeremy Irons or Fassbender fail because the plot awkwardly tries to insert these intimate moments.
Every character is deadly serious to the point where you almost feel like laughing at how monotonous they are. More often than not, characters will say something, then stare off into the distance to let their supposedly heavy words sink in, but these takes often last way too long.
Motivations shift at the drop of a hat. Take the fanaticism theme. Characters decry it one moment but then are completely accepting of it the next for no real reason. These leaps in logic and character are so huge, it makes it seem like whole sequences are missing.
Assassin’s Creed does an excellent job of balancing the past world with the modern one. That said, I would have rather stayed in the past world, because at least the plot line there makes sense. Aguilar and Maria are assassin trying to keep the Apple of Eden out of Templar hands.
Speaking of that apple, the film’s MacGuffin is handled in a confusing way. It can supposedly control free will, but it is never shown how it does so. Kurzel treats the Apple like more of a symbol for science gone amuck, but the characters within the film treat it like a real, tangible device that can control people. The film loses much of its motivation because it can never decide exactly what it is.
While the plot is an over-complicated mess, Kurzel fills the screen with some great imagery. He introduces 15th Century Spain as an eagle, the symbol of the assassins, flies over a war torn city. This world has a beautiful dirtiness to it, bathed in a dusty, red light.
The modern world is sterile and dark, with muted grays and blacks. It’s not as striking as the locales in Spain, but it fits the mood the film goes for in its contemporary setting. Near the end, there is one scene that uses light beautifully as Irons’ Rikken enters a room full of Templars. As the doors open, Rikken is bathed in white light, setting up the finale perfectly.
In a welcome departure from the video game series, the Animus is changed from a simple chair with a VR device to a full blown, motion capture device right out of a Hollywood production. Lynch is hooked into it and can literally move along with his ancestor. Some of it comes off as hokey, but it’s really cinematic and fun.
The action itself is fast, kinetic and fun. It’s not ground breaking, but it gives Assassin’s Creed much needed life. Kurzel wisely lets the action play out, rarely cutting away during the fun parkour chases or the huge fight scenes. The Assassins are fluid fighters, relying on speed and the film showcases that perfectly. The action is a highlight of the film and really the only reason to watch it.
But some of these beautifully composed scenes are there simply to be there. Fassbender cuts a dashing figure in those poses as an assassin, but after you’ve seen it for the twenty-eighth time, it just becomes silly.
Assassin’s Creed wants to bring some big and world changing ideas to the video game adaptation, but the narrative’s ping-ponging logic destroys any chance at that. At times, Kurzel wants to subvert the idea of fanaticism and violence for a cause, but it never quite hits because nothing makes sense in his labyrinthine plot. With all the talent involved, this film is truly a disappointment.
SCORE: 4 OUT OF 10