To say that movies based on video games have a mixed track record would be putting it mildly. To put it less mildly, most of them suck. In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit to having a weakness for the Resident Evil and Tomb Raider movies. They are good popcorn movies. They are mindless fun. I enjoy them. But are they, strictly speaking, good movies? No. No, they are not.
Assassin’s Creed was the movie that was going to change all that. The movie adaptation of the long-running video game franchise stars Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Freaking Irons. These have to be the three most critically-acclaimed actors to ever star in a game-based movie. The latter two are Oscar winners, and Fassbender is an Oscar nominee. The movie was directed by Justin Kurzel, a talented up-and-comer whose previous film was a well-received adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which also starred Fassbender and Cotillard. Parts of the movie take place during the Spanish Inquisition, a time period the games have not explored and that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on film before. This was a movie with ambition, damn it.
And yet, it has a dismal 17% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating that it was soundly thrashed by the critics.
So what happened?
Before I get into that, I need to explain how the games work, or none of this will make any sense. In the marketing for the games whenever a new one comes out, the trailers and TV commercials only show off the cool stuff: hooded badasses using hidden wrist blades and other pointy implements to singlehandedly take out legions of hapless suckers in cool historical backdrops. Sounds great, right? But what these ads don’t tell you is that the cool historical stuff is only part of the story.
The story revolves around the conflict between two ancient and secretive groups: the Assassins and the Templars. In most of the games, the player controls an Assassin, and the Templars are the primary antagonists. The games begin in the modern age, where a mega-corporation called Abstergo Industries (secretly run by the Templars) has developed a technology called the Animus, which allows people to relive their ancestors’ memories through a kind of super-advanced virtual reality.
The historical parts of the games are the main focus, but they’re all just flashbacks, a sort of game-within-a-game. The series’ timeline and mythology are incredibly convoluted, and even though I’ve played five or six of the games, I spend most of them not having any idea what is going on, and I couldn’t give less of a hoot about the Assassin/Templar conflict that has been raging throughout the centuries. Can you see how this might be problematic for a movie adaptation?
As much as I enjoy the historical parts of the games, the modern-day parts are an absolute snoozefest. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, for example, you spend most of the game doing awesome pirate stuff like sinking people’s ships and taking their stuff, but every once in a while the game kicks you back into the present day and makes you wander around an office building and hack into security systems with an iPad. If that sounds boring, I can assure you that it is. I love Black Flag, it’s a fantastic game, but the present-day sections are as boring as hell, and I would always complete them as fast as possible so I could get back to the fun pirate stuff.
Well, in this sense the movie is a good interpretation of the games, since the historical sections are great but the modern-day stuff, well, isn’t. The film opens in 1492, with a man named Aguilar being inducted into the Assassins Brotherhood. Fast forward to 1986, and a young boy named Callum Lynch. He walks into his house one day to find his mother dead, apparently killed by his father. Men with guns converge on the house, and Callum’s father tells him to run. As he flees, Callum’s father is taken into custody by the armed men, under the command of Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons). Fast forward again to Callum as an adult, now played by Michael Fassbender, who is on death row, and is soon executed by lethal injection.
Except he isn’t, or the movie would have ended a lot sooner. He wakes up at the Abstergo facility in Madrid, and is told by Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), Alan’s daughter, that Abstergo has secreted him away because they want to use him in the Animus. Abstergo is looking for the Apple of Eden, which contains the genetic code for free will, and Abstergo wants to use the Apple to subjugate humanity and end violence and corruption. Abstergo wants Callum to relive the memories of his ancestor Aguilar (also played by Fassbender), as they believe that Aguilar’s memories will lead them to the Apple.
Did you get all that? Well strap in, because we’re just getting started. This does present an intriguing ideological conflict, since it could be argued that Abstergo’s motives are pure. Ending violence and corruption in the world sounds good, but taking away humanity’s free will in the process would be less good. The Assassins want humanity to be free, even if that means being free to destroy itself. Abstergo and the Templars are like the League of Shadows in Batman Begins, as their motives are okay but their methods leave a lot to be desired.
But the movie’s plot is ridiculously hard to follow. I haven’t played every game in the series, but I’ve played quite a few of them, and I still had very little idea of what was going on for most of the movie. I can only imagine how confusing the movie would be for someone who hadn’t played any of the games. And I have to say that the movie has the most baffling ending of just about any movie I’ve seen in the last couple years. It should end with a bang, but it ends with a whimper. And the end credits are fifteen minutes long, which is ludicrous. The movie’s running time is 115 minutes, but fifteen of those minutes are taken up by the end credits.
The film’s best parts are the flashback sequences that take place during the Spanish Inquisition. These are the scenes that follow Callum’s ancestor Aguilar, as he fights to keep the Apple of Eden from falling into Templar hands. These scenes also comprise most of the action sequences, which is great because you know that whenever Aguilar and his sidekick Maria show up, shit is about to go down. And the action sequences are great. They do a fantastic job of emulating the free-running style of combat in the games, and the athleticism of the stunt performers is impressive.
They also look great. The locations look very good and the sets, special effects, and particularly the costumes are all great. I give special consideration to the costumes because the outfit Aguilar wears is so cool, and looks exactly like something that would be seen in the games. There’s a real thrill in seeing an actual person looking like he could have walked off the screen from a video game.
But as much as I like the Aguilar sequences, they have two crucial flaws. The first flaw stems from the decisions the filmmakers made in adapting the Animus for the screen. In the games, the Animus is basically a chair a person lies down on and is hooked up to a bunch of machines, like in The Matrix. The filmmakers apparently decided this would be boring for an audience to watch (or perhaps too similar to The Matrix), and turned the Animus into a giant harness that descends from the ceiling in the middle of a large room, allowing for the person plugged in to the Animus to move around as he literally re-enacts his ancestor’s actions. It’s a cool idea, but the problem is that in the middle of the Aguilar-based action scenes, the movie cuts back to Callum hooked up to the Animus mimicking Aguilar’s actions. It severely disrupts the pacing of the fast-paced action sequences.
The other problem with the action sequences is that they are almost entirely bloodless. People are slashed and stabbed with barely a drop of blood spilled. The movie is rated PG-13, which is weird when you consider that all the games are Mature-rated, which is the video game equivalent to an R-rating. I hate it when people are killed in movies with swords or knives and there’s no blood. This isn’t because I want every movie to be as bloody as possible (I don’t). It’s because it takes me out of the moment. It kills the immersion because it makes me think, “I am watching a movie that was edited in order to get a PG-13 rating.” This is something you don’t want to think while watching a movie, because it means you’re not fully in to the experience.
For me personally, Assassin’s Creed the movie may very well be one of the most accurate game-to-movie adaptations ever made, since it mirrors my experience of playing the games almost perfectly. I love the historical sections despite their flaws, but the modern-day stuff is slow and boring and I just want it to be over. Just like in the games, the film’s modern-day sections are dull, taking viewers away from the vibrancy of the historical settings and depositing them in drab-looking rooms and hallways. The plot is nearly incomprehensible, and the characters are hard to care about. Justin Kurzel is a talented director, but adapting such a dense and convoluted video-game mythology to the big screen was always going to be a tall order.
Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth is well worth checking out, however. Fassbender makes Macbeth a sympathetic character, a man who doesn’t realize he is a monster until it is far too late. And he has great chemistry with Marion Cotillard, who plays Lady Macbeth. It’s also a great-looking movie, and the ending sequence where Macbeth fights Macduff is stunning. Macbeth and Macduff do battle against the backdrop of a burning village, and the entire sequence is engulfed in an orange haze that gives it an eerie, dreamlike quality. The music in both Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed is awesome. Both films were scored by Kurzel’s brother Jed, and his moody, ominous music greatly improves each film. Both of Justin Kurzel’s films are rich in atmosphere, and Jed Kurzel’s music is a key part of that.
Is this, from a purely technical standpoint, the best video game movie ever made? Quite possibly, yes. It’s reasonably well-made and the acting is solid. But it is undone by several crippling flaws. In spite of its flaws, I have to give it some credit for at least trying to rise above its video-game-based-movie brethren. Can you think of any other movie based on a game that has actual ambition? This is the only one I know of. It’s hard to fault it for being too big for its britches because of this, even though the end result is a film that can generously be described as a mixed bag. Unsurprisingly, sequels are in the works, so maybe some of the narrative flaws will be worked out. I hope so, because there’s a lot of promise here. We’ll just have to wait and see.