2016 has been an odd year for videogame adaptations. Back in June, Duncan Jones, a critically acclaimed and heavily awarded force in modern Sci-Fi, directed the big-screen take on the Warcraft series. It was a surprising choice of work for the nuanced filmmaker and, continuing a tradition in videogame adaptations, was a resounding critical failure. Then, in another bizarre turn for gaming/cinematic relations, acclaimed Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth), signed on to bring the popular historical-stealth series, Assassin’s Creed, to the big screen. Given Kurzel’s highly respectable track record, many thought the director could finally be the one to destroy the old stereotype and actually deliver a decent videogame adaptation. Unfortunately, despite some visual flair and a strong cast, Assassin’s Creed is an unbalanced, convoluted and ultimately lifeless action-adventure. Just because a story works well in a gaming context, it won’t necessarily translate to the big screen – Assassin’s Creed demonstrates that thoroughly.
We’re first introduced to Aguillar de Nerha, played by Michael Fassbender, an Assassin in the time of the Spanish Inquisition. After some mysterious oath-swearing, Assassin’s Creed jumps forward a few centuries, where we meet Callum Lynch – also played by Fassbender – a career criminal on Death Row. After his execution, Callum wakes up in a lab, seemingly saved from death by Dr. Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), a scientist working on something called the Animus project, which lets people “relive the lives of those who made us who we are” through something called “genetic memory.” The machine allows Callum to inhabit the memories of Aguillar – his ancestor – and will hopefully lead its owners, Abstergo Industries, to a mysterious artefact called the “Apple of Eden.” Unfortunately, Abstergo is the modern-day incarnation of the Templar Order – a horrible bunch of baddies – and may not have Callum’s best interests in mind, or those of the human race, for that matter.
Assassin’s Creed’s weak points echo those of the games on which it’s based. Ubisoft’s series was consistently brought down in the eyes of gamers by its intermittent modern-day segments, which broke up the period action. However, these faults are more forgivable in a videogame context; here they serve only to undermine the narrative flow and complicate an already overly convoluted plot. Furthermore, it takes Assassin’s Creed a full hour to give us anything resembling the free-running rooftop action set-pieces of the source material and rarely revisits it – a damn shame, considering these intense, wonderfully choreographed scenes are the film’s stand out segments.
We spend our time watching Assassin’s Creed split between two very different characters, during two vastly distant expanses of time. Accordingly, amongst its many glaring flaws, the film is incredibly unbalanced. The modern-day segments provide all of Callum’s background and motivation; yet they yield little or no action or solid tension until Assassin’s Creed’s final act. Consequently, we spend the film’s most exciting segments – those set in the past – having to root for a character we know next to nothing about. It’s a tall order on Kurzel’s part, then, to expect us to give a damn what happens to Aguilar during the film’s big action sequences. Split between these two protagonists, its not until the film’s final act that we get anything resembling a compelling narrative drive. Equipped with such a wonderful cast – which also includes Michael Kenneth Williams and Jeremy Irons – you’d think the acting might be Assassin’s Creed’s saving grace. Unfortunately, the dialogue is so densely packed with tiresome riddles and vague abstractions like “the cure for violence” that the cast is given next to nothing to work with. The usually fantastic Fassbender has little more to do than stand around on rooftops, brooding. Still, the scenes with him and Cotillard are charged with enough of the actors’ raw talent to hold our attention.
Assassin’s Creed brings to mind the cool-but-lifeless tone and pallid slickness of late 90s sci-fi – The Matrix and its many imitators. Accordingly, it feels extremely dated. Admittedly, much of Kurzel’s film is visually stunning, particularly the period-set segments where most of the action takes place – it’s nearly worth a watch for these alone. Otherwise, Assassin’s Creed is a huge disappointment given the talent behind it, fraught with ill-conceived narrative abstractions, villainous overkill and a plot that suddenly just sort of ends. The conclusion screams for a sequel – one I doubt we’ll ever get.