Movies based on video games (here’s looking at you, “Warcraft”) have developed a pretty sorry critical pedigree. “Assassin’s Creed,” based on the bestselling series of historical-themed action games and boasting a star-studded cast, showed more promise: might this be the one to break the downward spiral?
Sadly, “Assassin’s Creed” is no bulls-eye.
Our granite-jawed hero is convicted murderer Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), who finds himself spared from execution through the intervention of enigmatic scientist Sophia Ryken (Marion Cotillard). Sophia’s organization, Abstergo Corporation, is actually a front for the evil Templar organization, an ancient Masonic-style cabal with the goal of eradicating human free will. To do this, Abstergo plans to use a machine called the Animus to tap into the memories of Lynch’s ancestors via his genetic code. One of those ancestors—Aguilar, a resident of Spain during the Inquisition era—happened to be an “Assassin,” a member of an undercover organization dedicated to resisting the Templars.
According to Abstergo’s scientists, Aguilar and the Assassins once helped hide an ancient mystical artifact called the Apple of Eden, which contains the “genetic basis for free will.” If Abstergo and the Templars can get their hands on the Apple, they can control the world. Accordingly, the Templars figure that by plugging Lynch into the Animus, they can make him relive the memories of his Assassin ancestor Aguilar and locate the Apple.
This Film Needs A Strong Protagonist (And Better Writing)
Keeping up with all that? It doesn’t really matter, because this movie doesn’t really have a firm grasp on its plot points either.
I write this review as someone who’s already quite familiar with the franchise: I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit running around in digital versions of Jerusalem, Rome, Paris, Florence, and heaven knows where else. The “Assassin’s Creed” games are fun precisely because of their interactive, sandbox nature: it’s fun to scurry up walls, hide in secret passages, and suddenly burst from cover with assassin blades extended. “Free running,” the game’s signature aesthetic innovation, involves a parkour-style leaping from structure to structure across ancient rooftops and battlements.
On an Xbox or PlayStation, action video games can often avoid the need for protagonist development: the player automatically identifies with the character onscreen, so for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t matter whether or not they’re a “blank slate.” This simply doesn’t transfer well onscreen. Although Fassbender gives the material all he’s got, Lynch (and every character) are badly underwritten, lacking the intimate moments required to give them discrete identities. For that matter, the script is pretty terrible—as in “Star Wars” prequels-terrible—across the board. (“Why such aggression?” Sophia muses during an early freakout by Lynch. “I’m an aggressive person,” Lynch retorts bluntly.)
The Film Offers Us Contradictory Messages
But what’s really fatal to “Assassins’ Creed” is not its video game origin or half-baked screenwriting, but its near-total thematic implosion.
The film sets up its Assassins as courageous defenders of free will and dissent, guardians of a nonconformist future. And of course Lynch eventually revolts against Abstergo and the Templars, grabs some blades, and starts some real-world mayhem. Audiences would demand nothing less. But by succumbing to his ancestral (read: genetic) Assassin tendencies, Lynch undercuts the very heart of the Assassins’ philosophy: whether consciously or not, he is ultimately a slave to his genetic code, and never really had free will to begin with. This film could’ve been made much simpler, and better, with an easy plot tweak: center the whole story on the morally controversial questions of “inherited memory” and “inherited proclivity for violence.” End the film with Lynch deciding to reject a life of violence, thus demonstrating a triumph of free will over genetic determinism. That’s how you make this story compelling.
Similarly, the Assassins’ endlessly repeated battle mantra—“No morality, no law. Everything is permitted. We work in darkness to serve the light”—despite containing a gratifying reference to Dostoevsky’s parable of the inquisitor, is itself a philosophical plot hole. If “everything is permitted,” then the very concept of a “Creed” that compels adherence—and contains principles that the Assassins urge one another to uphold— becomes incoherent. By definition, creeds prescribe the bounds of orthodox group identity. For all their talk about human freedom, the Assassins are way more concerned with group cohesion and control than the Templars.
(It bears mention that this movie also contains a lot of garbled chatter suggesting that the Catholic Church is obsessed with imposing slavery upon humanity, but it’s about as theologically threatening as a YouTube comments-section argument about religion run through a blender and regurgitated by the Huffington Post.)
If Only ‘Assassin’s Creed’ Could Break The Curse
All that being said, “Assassin’s Creed” can actually be quite enjoyable, if for reasons altogether different than those envisioned by its producers: this movie is destined for a long life amid the ranks of the self-parodic. For example, the video games frequently require moves nicknamed “Leaps of Faith,” flying jumps from a high precipice into a haystack or body of water below.
When Lynch does this onscreen, Sophia literally breathes admiringly “wow, a leap of faith”—a moment of cloying, and unintentionally hilarious, fanservice. Similarly, there’s a heavily overproduced parkour sequence about halfway through the movie that contains so very many callbacks to highly distinctive game tactics—jumping onto flagpoles, clambering up narrow alleyways in a series of zigzagging leaps—that one can almost imagine the producers running down their checklist of “things to include in an Assassin’s Creed movie.” It’s so gratuitous and overwrought that it becomes legitimately funny.
There are a few technical highlights as well—a strong musical score, nice cinematography and costume design, grimly evocative Inquisition scenery—that testify to what a $125 million budget buys. If nothing else, “Assassin’s Creed” is a very nice movie to look at.
So is it worth seeing?
I have no doubt that this film, accompanied by a generous amount of appropriate libations, could be made highly entertaining, in a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” sort of way. As a contemporary action movie, it fails almost completely; as a so-bad-it’s-good diversion for fans of the games, one could do quite a lot worse.
But alas, the longstanding curse of video game-based movies remains unbroken.