Death row prisoner Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is kidnapped after a faked execution and wakes up in a secret facility in Madrid. There he is plugged into “the Animus” – a cutting edge technology that allows people to experience the lives of their ancestors – and forced to help an ancient conspiracy of Templars in locating a magical artefact in 15th century Spain.
Films based on videogames are a notorious genre, packed with the wreckage of relentless Hollywood attempts to mine popular gaming IP for parts – only to come up deeply wanting. Whether based on Double Dragon, Street Fighter, Warcraft, Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider, Super Mario Bros, or Pokemon, there have been many more bad films than good, and nothing yet in terms of genuinely great. A few have done remarkably well – the better Resident Evil sequels, for example, or this year’s Detective Pikachu – but generally speaking it’s a weirdly awful kind of movie where a producer picks up brand and production design, but little in terms of story or character, and hopes the recognition of a popular game entices enough gamers to hit first place at the box office on the weekend.
Assassin’s Creed, a franchise of 10 or so action-adventure games set in various historical periods, seemed a better bet for a film translation than most. Firstly it had a strong set-up for intense medieval fight sequences, but secondly it had a format that could be easily adapted into any historical setting a producer or director desired. In this case director Justin Kurzel (Macbeth) and a team of seven producers including both Frank Marshall (Indiana Jones, The Sixth Sense) and Arnon Milchan (L.A. Confidential, Fight Club) settled on the Granada Wars of late 15th century Spain: a period not extensively mined by Hollywood, nor by the videogames on which their film draws inspiration. Sadly that is about the extent to which Assassin’s Creed works.
Here is an example, and bear with me while I try to clearly lay out the problem: French-Canadian game designer Patrice Désilets, one of the key creative talents behind the original 2007 videogame of Assassin’s Creed, developed a truly amazing in-game mechanic for it. While the game was set in the Middle Ages, a framing narrative saw the creation of a technology called “the Animus” in the present day that enabled individuals to travel back through their own family history using dna and other science fictional nonsense. While the framing sequence transformed a fantasy game into a science fiction one, it also provided an in-universe explanation for things like health bars, strategic maps, ammunition counts and all of the other visual display materials that fringe the screens of most adventure-style videogames. It also explained constant character death: the present-day character made a mistake, and must instead succeed as their ancestor did in the first place. It was unnecessary, but stylish – and echoed a very similar mechanic introduced by Désilets in his early game Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (also loosely adapted into a feature film).
The majority of Kurzel’s film is set in present-day Madrid, focusing on Lynch, his handler Dr Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cottilard), and her powerful father Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons). It follows the Templar Order struggling to find the ancient artefact “the Apple of Eden” using the Animus to simulate the life of 15th century Assassin Aguilar (also Fassbender). The core of the film’s visual and action appeal is in that 15th century setting, yet the film never fully embraces it – jumping back in periodically to allow for semi-regular action scenes, but never spending time to properly know or comprehend Aguilar himself. The film has made a critical mistake in largely dismissing the core of the Assassin’s Creed experience while focusing on a framing technique that is by its very nature entirely redundant. It is represented in a much prettier and more dynamic fashion than in the games, but of course in the games it had no need to look attractive.
The extended use of the Animus technology, and the modern corporation that owns it, makes the film feel unnecessarily complicated and narratively busy. A lot of characters are introduced but barely fleshed out. A lot of elements that seem straight-forward get laboured upon, while quite intricate back stories and set-ups are hand-waved as if they are self-evident. I came to Assassin’s Creed having played a half-dozen iterations of the game; I sincerely worry for the ability of someone to enter the film from a blank slate. There are some great visual moments, although the acrobatic stunt work of Assassins-versus-Templars could do with a bit more clarity and elegance. Justin Kurzel continues his odd obsession with moody brown aesthetics, which has a tendency to make much of the film look self-similar. Worst of all, the plot meanders all over the place. It introduces threads that do not satisfactorily resolve, characters that are never suffificiently explored, and a third act that wobbies and drags all over the place. There is arrogant certainly hanging over the entire film that it is the first of an inevitable franchise of films – yet no proper effort is made to create a self-contained, comprehensible movie. The cast primarily communicate in the hushed tones of contractual obligation.
Assassin’s Creed frustrates because it is a disappointing film. It infuriates because it was probably the videogaming property best suited to becoming a film franchise – a genuine no-brainer – and yet when provided with a slam dunk the production shoots the ball wildly out of place. To watch it is to watch a cavalcade of wrong choices and missed opportunities. It’s a film that doesn’t even have the self-respect to bore, but seems intent on making its audience angry with it instead.