Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendon Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage
Video games are unique in that filmmakers seem utterly incapable of making great movies based on them. The most successful recent adaptation that I can think of is Warcraft, a film that I personally enjoyed and felt was very faithful to its source material but which many justifiably criticised for being too cluttered and underwhelming. After decades of trying (and in many cases failing miserably) no one has yet been able to pull off an all-out successful marriage between the two mediums. Maybe its because some of the filmmakers don’t respect the source material and are simply looking to cash in on its popularity. Maybe it’s because video games are often so heavily action-driven and so light on story that they don’t easily lend themselves towards adaptation. Maybe it’s because some genres, like the FPS, tend to place such little emphasis on the characters that the films end up having little to work with. And yet Assassin’s Creed is a popular, acclaimed franchise that provides both a story and characters for the film to work, modify and expand on. So why is this film such an abject failure?
In 2016, Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is sentenced to death but is rescued from his execution by the Abstergo Foundation. The CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), also a leading Templar, is searching for the Apple, which holds the genetic code for free will, and believes that Cal is the key to his search. His daughter and head scientist Sofia (Marion Cotillard) reveals that Cal is the descendant of Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender), a 15th century assassin. By persuading him to use the animus, a machine that reads the genetic memory of its host, it is hoped that Cal’s ancestor will lead them to the Apple. Thus the film is taken to Spain in 1492 where the Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is caught up in the Grenada War. There Aguilar and his partner Maria (Ariane Labed) must combat the Templars and locate the Apple in order to keep its secrets safe from those who would misuse it.
Sometimes when a video game movie fails, it’s because the filmmakers just don’t get what it was about the game that attracted people in the first place. It may look the part and sound like it too, but without that vital ingredient it will inevitably disappoint and feel flat. Case in point: a considerable portion of the film’s story is focused on the events of the present, which was literally no one’s favourite part of the game. Yes, I get that the film wants to explore questions and ideas about free will, but the game itself was able to do that well enough without bogging itself down in exposition and presenting subplots about the death of the main character’s mother or the bureaucracy of the Templar’s organisation. Desmond Miles wasn’t the character that all the gamers loved, it was Altaïr and Ezio and all the other assassins in the franchise. In this film we barely get to know Aguilar or his compatriots because we don’t get to spend enough time with them. Maybe that would’ve been fine if the present’s story was more interesting than the past’s, but it wasn’t.
The film reunites Fassbender and Cotillard with Justin Kurzel and Michael Lesslie, with whom they worked on a stunning adaptation of Macbeth. This film holds itself with a similar level of seriousness but is often too dull or ridiculous for the tone to work. The characters are all too busy dispensing overblown, nonsensical exposition for them to display any semblance of a personality. The film trudges along so slowly with such a ceaseless array of conversations spouting vaguely important sounding dialogue that even Shyamalan would find it convoluted. Honestly, a time travelling movie about assassins does not need to be this solemn or serious (the games certainly weren’t). There are a few instances of what I suppose ought to be called fight scenes except that they’re so tediously choreographed, I’m not sure whether the term should apply. With its drab colour palette and tiresome action, there is nothing visually engaging about this film.
This film has made the same mistake that countless others have made whenever they’ve struggled to have something childish or ridiculous taken seriously. They overcompensated and made it pretentious, hollow and boring. There is no life in this film; no colour, no personality, no energy, no anything. The Assassin’s Creed games were often ridiculous, but they were also engaging, lively and fun. As a film lover I found this movie to be without merit; there was nothing compelling about its story or characters, there was nothing spectacular about its action or production, and after it was done I found nothing memorable or worthwhile to take away. As someone who has played and enjoyed the games, I was greatly disappointed that the same property could produce something so critically lacking in inspiration, imagination and animation. Whatever this X factor is that makes video game adaptations immune to great cinema is anybody’s guess, but it’s definitely had its effect on this attempt.