Director: Justin Kurzel
Screenplay: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams
Runtime: 115 Minutes
The seed of an interesting idea in the longstanding Assassin’s Creed video game franchise is that we are playing through history as seen through a virtual reality presentation via the fictitious ‘genetic memory’ of the ancestors of our modern-day hero. In many ways a meta-commentary on the nature of gameplay as you yourself play through the prearranged narrative of events that have already unfolded and cannot be changed. The interactive counterpart of gameplay is an alienation device that allows this to be so much more compelling, and as such is completely absent in the cinematic medium that cancels out said incorporation and player identification.
Video game adaptations are tricky business, not only because of the general lack of interest on filmmaking front (for the most part), but because it’s simply impossible to translate the experience of an interactively enhanced medium into one that is solely visual and sensory. Not to mention that many of these titles derive from narratives inspired by the visual experience of cinema, and as such any adaptation of a source material back into said medium will result in something less than the sum of its parts.
Assassin’s Creed is a film so empty and devoid of meaningful content and purpose that it’s staggering even by the standards of video game adaptations that the film is as unreservedly terrible as it is. Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong here has gone wrong. But what makes this even worse, and knocks it down to the bowels of the worst of these adaptations ever put to screen, is that this is brought to us by much of the same cast and crew as last year’s tremendous Macbeth adaptation – far greater should have been expected of them than this.
On a technical level, the film is a visual mess in presentation. While it generally appears to have been shot well by Adam Askapaw, the aesthetic is cold and empty in the present-day setting and cluttered with smoke, dust and a murky colour scheme in the past. The film has clearly been cut to ribbons by the editing department and moves at a pace that is both too slow and tiring and too fast to follow it’s bizarrely overcomplicated structure.
There are no real characters of any kind to be found in the movie, and any that are fulfil only the basic parameters of definition or appeal. We know nothing of our lead Callum (Michael Fassbender) beyond what we are shown in an early flashback sequence, and besides Fassbender’s desperate attempts to emote there’s very little to take away from his apparent struggle. Cotillard has daddy issues with Jeremy Irons fairly obvious villain, and the likes of Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleeson and Michael K. Williams are completely wasted in their positions as figures in the plot.
The much-touted Animus sequences, which take place during the Spanish Inquisition, are few and far between and exist solely for the purpose of generating action sequences. If there is a narrative through-line to be found then it is utterly lost beneath a barrage of devastatingly uninvolving and visually replant action fodder that restricts dialogue to single statements of exposition. Although encouragingly heavy on wire and practical stunt work, and an authentic use of language, none of it is able to register properly as the sequences are cut so frenetically and wildly that it leaves everything as an incoherent mess. Protagonist Aguilar de Nerha (also played by Fassbender) is the blandest character the series has ever produced, effectively working without a single identifiable character trait beyond his apparent relationship with a young and equally underused female assassin, Maria (Ariane Labed).
There’s an overreliance on cutting between the past and present events that leave these scenes as tenuous bores anyway, but the screenplay is so scattershot and weightless in function that it’s hardly all down to the fault of director Justin Kurzel who’s at least trying to make it interesting. The rules of the world are set up and routinely broken, characters appear to behave without sufficient motivation beyond ‘it runs in the family’. Even the McGuffin of the ‘Apple of Eden’ – a preposterous but otherwise acceptably silly artefact in the video games – is in dire need of an actual explanation. Lip service is paid to concepts of free will, New World Orders and how violence begets violence, but none of it leaves enough impact on the overall story for us to care about whatever is happening.
But by the third act, all inherent logic is thrown out the window as the film sprints for the finish line. Everything develops with such odd contrivance and mind-numbing stupidity that you’ll start asking questions like “Does Williams’ beard colour keep changing?”, or “Why does a modern-day conglomerate like Abstergo still rely on the use of crossbows to defend themselves?” and still be unable to feel any stake in the extraordinarily dull climax.
It all doesn’t really matter anyway, as the film doesn’t seem to care very much about whether or not it's been about anything at all. Assassin’s Creed is nothing more than an empty brand exercise, conceived and created simply because it was expected to exist at some point, and nothing more.