Take a look at the list of video game movies over on Wikipedia, and then sort it via critic ranking. The results are an exercise in depression. Top of the pile via RT is Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within on 44%, which was more of an “inspired by” rather than “based on” affair really, and after that it’s the relatively blank canvas of The Angry Birds Movie on 43% followed by Jake Gyllenhaal’s whitewashing exercise The Prince Of Persia on a measly 36%. Beyond that, you’re in the realm of Milla Jovovich’s increasingly outlandish Resident Evil films, Angelina Jolie’s one dimensional Tomb Raider franchise and, horror of horrors, the works of Uwe Boll. If one sub-genre has proven time and time again that it can’t be pulled off, it is the video game adaptation, and the reasons are not hard to see. The difference between the two mediums, in terms of viewer/user participation and engagement, is gigantic and what works with a controller in hand cannot be accurately replicated in a cinema seat.
But here we go again. This time, though not for the first time, we have a good director and a very good-looking cast, with Justin Kurzel, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard who wowed me and many others with 2015’s Macbeth. The project doesn’t seem all that far from cinematic either, Ubisoft’s story-driven historical/sci-fi adventure series being the kind of “AAA” game that has successfully meshed differing genres to produce something really breath-taking at times. But it’s still a video game. So, did Assassin’s Creed finally buck the trend for this sub-genre, or was it just another brick in the wall of suck?
After being executed for murder, Callum Lynch (Fassebender) wakes up in Abstergo, the modern day face of the ancient Knights Templar Order. There, under the supervision of scientist Sophia (Cotillard) and her father (Jeremy Irons), Callum is forced to relive the memories of his ancestors, namely Aguilar, a member of the Assassin’s Order in 1492 Spain. Through him, the Templers seek the “Apple Of Eden”, a device that will finally give them the power to destroy mankind’s free will.
It has been a while since I have seen a real disaster of a film. You know what I mean: a film you have expectations for, that has the budget, the director and the cast that it should be able to cobble something together, but then it just doesn’t. Assassin’s Creed is one of those films, a failure on nearly every level, a film I have no qualms, a week in, declaring likely to be the worst films I will see in 2017. My girlfriend, a bigger fan of the video game series than I am, had it right upon credits rolling: “What did I just watch?”
Where to start? It’s hard to decide on just one thing, but how about how utterly dull it all is? From the moment we move from Aguilar’s oath-taking as an assassin, Kurzel’s film is spinning its wheels, from an overwrought prologue featuring a young Callum witnessing his mother’s murder through to the interminable sections set inside Abstergo’s drab colourless facility, part laboratory, part One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest crazyhouse. There are game attempts to inject some life into proceedings as Callum goes back and forth with Sophia, manically sings Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” or interacts with the other inmates, but they all fall miserably flat: these are exposition dumps where the same exposition, the same message and the same theme is repeated ad nauseam: the dichotomy between free will and violence, liberty and security, Templars and assassins.
You could make something out of that I suppose, but Assassin’s Creed just doesn’t. It tries to make horror-style stuff with the Animus itself and the way Callum is thrust unwillingly into the past, but it’s confusing visually and just a delay to the promise of the premise. It tries to be chillingly jaunty with Callum’s erratic behaviour, but it seems more like Fassbender is auditioning for the Joker than giving it his absolute all. It tries to build tension with a cabal of Assassins crafting an uprising within Abstergo, but it’s all so inevitable in its narrative direction that it is only so much tedium. Even the geographically limited present-day sections of the original Assassin’s Creed game had more omph to them. We should feel like Callum is in greater and greater danger every time he goes into the Animus, we should want him to uncover the truth about what Abstergo is after gradually, building to a proper climax. But we don’t get that.
Shockingly, the film only springs to life when we enter the Animus with Callum and start zipping around rooftops in 1492. The kernel of decent characters in Aguilar and Maria is there, as is the kernel of a decent story, watching the Assassins race to stop the Templars from using the son of a Muslim ruler as blackmail to obtain the Apple of Eden. Even if it is wrapped up in non-stop parkour and frenetic fight sequences, and looked awful (more on that in a moment) it was more engaging, more entertaining, more fun than any wispy conversations on the nature of aggression from a succession of terribly boring present-day characters. Cameos from famous historical personalities, over the top villains, a setting unique to modern day film: Why couldn’t Assassin’s Creed just be that? I’m not saying it would flip from terrible to brilliant with that change, but it would have been at least passable.
The film’s pacing is fundamentally off. The bones of the premise are repeated thrice in the opening 20 minutes (starting with an opening crawl, made completely irrelevant since we have to follow Callum learning it all anyway), and it takes a very long time for us to take our first proper trip back to the 15th century. Kurzel lets his camera follow an eagle around cityscapes for a frustratingly long time repeatedly and the balance between the events in Abstergo and the encounters with the Spanish Inquisition is tilted way too much in the wrong direction. In the games, the present sections were the interregnum between the meat and bones of past adventures, acceptable in an entertainment experience meant to last far beyond the two hours Kurzel has to work with. Here the past exists mostly so some action scenes can be inserted into the plodding narrative of Callum’s aggressive feelings being sorted out.
Assassin’s Creed winds its way down to a finale where the past and the present sort of merge in a clumsy way, only slightly redeemed by the quality of the fight choreography, which is pretty much the films only saving grace. The ending is a real “Um, how do we close this off?” affair, where the production team seem more concerned with setting up a sequel than crafting an engaging climax. The credits are a relief when they come, providing a chuckle with some of the lyrics to “He Says He Needs Me” that plays over them: “That ain’t right”.
The chemistry between Fassbender and Cotillard, so vital to this kind of film, so important in making Macbeth such an engrossing experience, is lacking here, to put it mildly. Fassbender is somewhat committed to his role and gives it a bit of effort, but Cotillard looks lost, like she’s just here for the director and the leading man. This was apparently a bit of a passion project for Fassbender, a fan of the games, which might explain why he is more into it, especially in terms of the physical aspects of the part, but Cotillard doesn’t seem interested in what’s going on around her all that much, like one of the mindless zombies who have been in the Animus a bit too long.
And the rest of the cast, perhaps taking their lead from the leads, is barely trying too. Jeremy Irons looks like he wants to fall asleep in every scene he is in, Michael K. Williams needed a bit more of that Omar strut, Denis Menochet glowers for a while and Brendan Gleeson may have just done this film, with his son as his younger self, as a favour to a fellow Irishman. Only Ariane Labed as Aguilar’s fellow Assassin/lover impresses from the supporting cast, and she barely talks.
The script is a real humdrum thing, that needed the cast to be giving it a bit more. “Why the aggression?” coos Marion Cotillard. “I’m an aggressive person” Fassbender blandly replies. One of the villains explains that the Templers are happy to use consumerism to convince people to forget about civil liberties, in a character and lines that read like they were written by a first-year college student. Michael K. Williams’ character has that sort of “Magical Negro” quality in every utterance, referring to Callum as “pioneer” for no reason at all. Callum’s backstory, namely why he was on Death Row, is waved away with a casual “A pimp” when Sophia points out he killed someone. It’s only in the past sections, done entirely in Spanish, that the script in any way comes alive.
It might help if the film made an effort to look good, but Assassin’s Creed looks truly horrible, with Kurzel taking the sections of Macbeth that were wreathed in smoke as a guideline for how he wants most of this film to look. Where in Macbeth the spared use of the technique created atmosphere and ambiance, here the overuse creates a distracting muddle on-screen, as scene after scene ,especially in the all-important past sections, is covered in smoke and dust. The present too is dark to the point of irritation, light contrasted sharply with shadow in every other scene, not so much gothic as glaringly obvious. This is beyond Burton, beyond Snyder: it’s just sheer tedium in terms of the colour palette, when Assassin’s Creed should be embracing some brightness. I would have expected a bit more from Kurzel, whose direction otherwise is fine, but crucially hindered at every turn by how he is choosing to present his scenes.
Assassin’s Creed keeps it in the family with composer Jed Kurzel and let’s only give a few brief words to his score, a booming, thudding, reverberating bore, that starts off somewhat promising with the electric guitars of the opening before nestling into a bland, overdone mess, in line with everything else I suppose. The game’s soundtrack was great: what happened in the move from one medium to another?
I am more convinced than ever that video games cannot translate into film, at least not without so many changes that they cease to be an adaptation. The mediums are simply too different for the same level of quality to be moved from console to screen. Assassin’s Creed was as set-up as you can arguably get for a film (I would argue only Naughty Dog’s Uncharted and The Last Of Us franchises are better prospects), and the end result is a dreadful movie, as dull as dishwater and as colourful too. The cast can’t be bothered, the script can’t be bothered, the composer can’t be bothered and I can’t be bothered. Ubisoft would be better off limiting their efforts to the video game realm from now on, just like Fassbender and Kurzel should stay away from the same. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).