To an outsider, the Assassin’s Creed series of video games is all about subterfuge and climbing buildings and stabbing the unaware and diving from impossible heights into hay bales receiving no injuries whatsoever to facilitate more stabbing. This is what the commercials focus on, and indeed, what the vast majority of the gameplay focuses on as well. When you actually sit down and plan an Assassin’s Creed game, though, the story is far, far different, involving a secretive pharmaceutical company (Abstergo) that abducts people and makes them live out the experiences of their assassin ancestors via a mysterious device (The Animus) and recording the results for...some...reason. It is video game storytelling par excellence, unnecessarily complex and mysterious in all the wrong ways to give shape to a game that really is about stabbing people throughout history.
And we wonder why video game movie adaptations so often fail.
I mention Assassin’s Creed, of course, because it’s the next in line to take a crack and making one of these things an actually palatable cinematic experience. Naturally, the first place to look would be the director and stars of 2015’s moody (and pretty much entirely ignored) MacBeth, director Justin Kurzel and stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. In Assassin’s Creed, Fassbender stars as Cal, a troubled criminal sentenced to death for slaying a pimp (which makes it okay, they seem to intimate) who is saved from the lethal injection table by Sophia (Cotillard), a doctor employed by the shadowy Abstergo organization who brings Cal to their facility due to his blood link with 15th century Spanish assassin Aguilar. Aguilar and his cabal of killers was tasked with the protection of The Apple of Eden, a macguffin of the highest order that can apparently rob mankind of its free will somehow (or so we are told in an opening crawl that reads like it was added at the last minute when an executive realized nothing in this movie makes any sense). The Templars, underwriters of Abstergo and pitched in an eternal struggle against the assassins that spans centuries, look to exploit Cal’s memories to discover where Aguilar hid the Apple so they can rid the world of violence somehow.
It’s all incredibly serious and it’s all incredibly silly. Watching the film double down on what is widely considered the weakest aspect of the games (something the developers seem to agree with; each successive game spends less and less time on the modern world frame story) is fascinating in a train wreck sort of way, with a staggeringly small amount of screen time devoted to the actual assassin-ing that made up the bulk of its marketing materials. And even during these moments, the film constantly cross cuts back to the H.R. Giger inspired Animus machine that throws Cal around an empty room to signify that he really is experiencing each moment right alongside Aguilar. The film attempts to hint at other characters of consequence; there’s a cadre of other previous life assassin prisoners in the complex played by the likes of Michael K. Williams and Callum Turner, as well as a female assassin (Ariane Labed) who is supposed to be a love interest of sorts (maybe?), but beyond Jeremy Irons’ vague approximation of a big bad, nothing remotely resonates (here’s hoping Charlotte Rampling and Brendan Gleeson are cashing fat paychecks for their combined two minutes of screen time). There’s barely a hint of levity pretty much anywhere in the film’s two hours, and the hint of emotion (centered around Cal’s mother, played by Essie Davis) falls flat, making for a pretty dire combination.
So nothing makes sense in Assassin’s Creed, and what does make sense is treated with so much seriousness and reverence that it borders on parody. Yet Fassbender continues to be a magnetic presence on screen, even as he is forced to recite interminable exposition in English and Spanish. His energy and commitment does lend to a baseline watchability even as the film’s narrative never comes close to lurching out of first gear. And even as the story lies stalled on the side of the road, its transmission irreparably damaged by trying to force the issue, Kurzel’s visual flair often impresses. Budgetary restraints and CGI corner-cutting have forced Kurzel to overload on fog effects, especially in the Spain sequences (this, humorously, is one of the most popular devices video games use to hide blemishes caused by limited technology), but he proved with MacBeth that he knows his way around making the fog of war work within his aesthetic, and that remains the case here, even as the sheer volume of it is often laughable. The action often reverts to the standard Paul Greengrass-inspired handicam a bit too often for my tastes, but it does manage to always be easy to follow, and editor Christopher Tellefson manages to make the constant (and I mean constant) need to shift back to the Animus chamber mid-stabbing as unobtrusive as possible. The fight choreography is smooth and satisfying, and as a pure work of visuals, there’s honestly quite a bit to like. It’s a shame about that script then.
Films like Assassin’s Creed are tasked with serving multiple masters, pleasing their franchise’s baked-in fanbase with references and action that evokes the experience of playing the game while leaving the door open for general audiences to have a shot at getting in on the fun as well. This is often a fool’s errand, as video game storytelling is so fundamentally different than other mediums, with the added aspect of direct control over the story and its characters profoundly changing the way you emotionally connect to them in a way that cannot be replicated by film or television or the written word. Take that away, make the active passive, and it severs that innate association control provides. It’s so much easier to see where the narrative goes wrong from outside of the immediacy of the experience. The best video game adaptations, such as they are, are less concerned with recreating specific gameplay or moments, instead using the characters, genre, archetypes and lore to go somewhere new. The story of Assassin’s Creed is such insane, nonsensical gobbledygook that Kurzel and his cast and crew have the most daunting of uphill battles to wage, and while they do succeed in making the film visually exciting where they can, aided by swooping crane shots and alluring production design, the story is simply too much to overcome. It is too convoluted, too stifling, too mystifying, too self-serious. Assassin’s Creed fails as a film, but it does so with at least an air of nobility. It embraces the madness that is the backstory of the games (too much, really) and does what it can to beat it into a shape that vaguely resembles a crowd pleasing blockbuster.
It doesn’t work, and it’s destined to be ignored, and it probably should be, but it finds at least a little solace in its laudable commitment to the bit. It hints at a sequel, because these movies always must, but it is likely it won’t have the success to spawn future films. This is likely not a bad thing, all told. Best to let it fade into obscurity and so, so much fog.