I think it might be time to accept that it’s going to be a very long time before a video game movie is going to be actually great. This isn’t the adaptation of one form of narrative art easily transposable to another like say…comic books. Games fundamentally orient themselves around choice and the ability to integrate and interact with the decision making process, any adaptation is going to lose that and the moral weights and thematic choices that come from that.
So, of course, Assassin’s Creed isn’t good. It doesn’t address that failing or attempt to get around it and it’s not exactly working off the best material to make a movie out of. Assassin’s Creed may often feel like insane improvisatory nonsense, but that’s because the story of the games themselves often feel like that.
But you know what? If we can’t reach good yet, then I’m willing to settle for this, a film that is at least interesting. A blockbuster whose failings are that it’s attempting too much to be its own thing, that feels more indebted to the mistakes and desires of the filmmaker and the creative team than the studio who funded it.
For those of you unfamiliar, the lore of this franchise goes thus. For hundreds of years, the Templars, an order dedicated to control of the world, and the Assassins, an order dedicated to its liberation (I’m pretty sure), have been at war in the shadows. The object of their feuding is the Apple of Eden, a magical device that “contains the genetic code to free will” and can eliminate all free thought in the wrong hands.
Look, I know you’ve paid for sillier, just bear with me here.
In 2016, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is executed by the state of Texas. He wakes up two days later in the facilities of Abstergo, a high-tech facility paid by the Templars to try out science as a way to control humanity. The facility is under the control of Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his daughter Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) who are under pressure from Templar Elders (Charlotte Rampling, I shit you not) to find the Apple of Eden sooner rather than later. They may have just found their key.
You see, Lynch is the descendant of Aguilar de Nerha, an Assassin who operated in 15th century Spain and may have been the last to know the location of the Apple of Eden. Abstergo has created a device called the Animus, which allows Lynch to hook into the genetic memory of his ancestor and relive his past, which was apparently a constant series of parkour action sequences. Through that, Abstergo hopes to uncover the location of the Apple before Lynch discovers what he’s helping them do.
So, that is a lot of plot and I’m not even getting into his relationship with his father (Brendan Gleeson) or the other Assassins who are captive at Abstergo (including Michael K. Williams). This is a dense fucker of a movie, so much stuff going on that no one would blame you for difficulty in following any one of the threads.
I also wouldn’t blame you because Assassin’s Creed seems to choose to be deliberately obfuscatory, choosing to lean full into the insane mythology its based on rather than simplify or turn it into its own thing. Which has to be admired. Look, it’s a tangled mess, but it’s never boring, there’s just a whole lot of crazy happening on screen. It knows that there’s a chance that you’re not going to really vibe with it, so why try so hard to please?
Director Justin Kurzel was last seen directing an adaptation of Macbeth (with the same leads as here) and he treats this film with the same deadly seriousness that he treated Shakespeare. Every moment has all the gravity in the world, every scene is covered in swirling smoke like a hazy look into a war, and every actor is really trying to make something out of these nothing characters.
If any part of that approach is a problem, it’s that everything is pitched with so much gravity. This is a grim, gray film where light seems to stream through almost reluctantly. When everything is dark, nothing is.
But you know, I think that was the intention of the movie. Assassin’s Creed absolutely feels like the movie Kurzel and his creative team (including Fassbender, who produces this movie) set out to make and there are times where that shines through. The action sequences in 15th century Spain are often kinetic and exciting, constant motion that keeps things dizzying in the best way. He’s even willing to get weird and hypnotic in the scenes at Abstergo, letting hallucinations and half-thoughts dominate.
This is also a major blockbuster that has half of its extremely rare dialogue take place in Spanish. Kurzel chose to use whispering for Macbeth and here he just seems to avoid using dialogue entirely in service of letting his images and his motion speaks. Kurzel would absolutely be at home making a silent film and I wish that at some point soon he would just do it. But even now it gives the actions a certain propulsive solemnity, that the silence keeps things moving and lets the camera speak.
Rather than being a 100 million dollar movie that lets everything run the same trodden paths, it does feel like its own thing. Now, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Assassin’s Creed is incoherent in its storytelling, has nothing to its characters, and goes on about 40 minutes too long. I don’t know if anyone can explain the chain of events that is the ending. It occasionally seems to treat moving from scene to scene as an afterthought, remembering at random that it must do it meaning that some scenes are too long and some are too short.
But why should I get hung up on that? This isn’t a good movie, but unlike so many other 2016 franchise stillbirths, this is one I was actually intrigued by and I’d be willing to pay for Assassin’s Creed 2. Like, I know there’s no way we’ll see a sequel and I don’t even think I feel comfortable recommending this one, but I just have to admire a movie this expensive that chooses to care this little about what people ultimately think of it.