As I sat in an empty theater over the holiday watching Assassin’s Creed, a big-budget adaptation of Ubisoft’s popular video game franchise about a shadowy group of historical killers, two questions looped inside my mind, like video game missions I couldn’t quite beat. First: What in the hell is going on? And second: Why can’t Hollywood get video game movies right?
I gave up trying to figure out the answer to the first question. I’m still working on the second.
2016 could have been the year that movies based on video games finally leveled up. Instead it was the year that Hollywood proved over and over again that it can’t make a video game movie that’s any good.
Assassin’s Creed is the fourth 2016 movie based on a popular video game series, following Ratchet & Clank, The Angry Birds Movie, and Warcraft, some of which made money at the box office, but all of which were critical failures. Angry Birds, the most praised of the bunch, scored a 43 on Rotten Tomatoes, with supposedly positive reviews like the one from Megan Garber in The Atlantic lauding it as “really not bad” and “actually very actively okay.” (Try quoting that in a TV commercial.)
For a video game movie, though, that’s high praise — which should tell you something about the quality level that’s typical and expected of a video game adaptation at this point. Banal mediocrity is the state to which these movies aspire — and few even manage that.
There’s really no good reason it should be this hard to successfully adapt a video game
There’s certainly no lack of resources or talent to blame. Take Assassin’s Creed, a movie that used its $125 million budget to put together a top-notch cast, featuring Michael Fassbender, Jeremy Irons, Marion Cotillard, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, and Michael K. Williams. But it has no idea what to do with any of them. Gleeson and Williams are barely in the movie, and Cotillard, Irons, and Rampling are forced to recite dialogue that most 8-year-olds would be embarrassed to give to their action figures. (It’s almost worth it, though, to hear Irons cut short a scene by earnestly announcing, “I’m late. I have to report to the elders.”)
Fassbender, meanwhile, is a stern performer whose brooding skills are practically unmatched in Hollywood—one imagines the sun dims slightly when he steps outside—and he attempts to inject some actorly seriousness into the proceedings. But he ends up spending large chunks of the movie wandering around a mysterious facility wearing an angled grey hospital robe that looks like a pair of Romulan pajamas. Mostly he just looks lost. The only moment in which he connects is when he slams a cafeteria table and shouts, “What the fuck is going on here?” His confused desperation, like my own, was all too real.
Director Justin Kurzel, who previously helmed a widely praised and wildly stylized adaptation of Macbeth, is a real talent too, but he’s in way over his head. Assassin’s Creed is ostensibly an action movie, with rooftop parkour chases and balletic multi-person fights that mimic those in the games, but the rhythmless, herky-jerky editing makes it impossible to follow. The whole movie looks like someone found a pile of Kurzel’s raw footage and then turned it into a smoothie.
Assassin's Creed, in other words, is a movie with just about every resource at its disposal. And yet it fails to rise to the level of “really not bad.” It is very actively not okay.
You can say the same about Warcraft, this year’s other big-budget video game action movie adaptation. It was directed by Duncan Jones and starred Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, and more. The 2010 screen version of Prince of Persia was directed by Mike Newell, who made Donnie Brasco and Four Weddings and a Funeral, and it starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Ben Kingsley. Tomb Raider and Resident Evil, two of the better video game movies (both came a controller’s throw from being actively okay), starred Angelina Jolie and Milla Jovovich. The Super Mario Brothers movie made all the way back in 1993 starred Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper. These aren’t C-list productions. But they tend to come out like they are.
The problem isn’t the material, either. Or at least it shouldn’t be. The Assassin’s Creed video game franchise is hit and miss—and more miss since Ubisoft started releasing new installments annually—but there’s plenty to work with. Sure, the writing in the games can be kind of stupid, given that it’s built around convoluted lore involving a centuries-old war between a group of assassins and the Knights Templar; but stealthy gameplay and crowded urban environments that make the franchise work.
It’s a lot of fun to sneak through a gorgeously rendered historical city, climb into a heavily guarded structure, track a target, and then leap down from above to make a kill before frantically escaping the scene by skipping from rooftop to rooftop. There’s tension. There’s ambiance. There’s a sense of history and place and intrigue. The Assassin’s Creed movie has none of that. What should have been structured as a series of linked assassination missions of escalating intricacy was instead rendered as an interminable exercise in muddled action and badly explained lore.
Untangling convoluted pulp storytelling isn’t always easy. But it’s hardly impossible. If Hollywood creatives can render decades’ worth of comic book contrivance accessible and enjoyable to the masses, surely some screenwriter and director can do the same for a video game movie.
It hasn’t happened yet, though.
Hollywood seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what differentiates movies and video games
In part, that’s because the producers of these movies, like just about everyone in Hollywood, have fallen plague to franchise fever. Both Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed are built to set up sequels, in hopes of creating a line of surefire hits. But it’s not enough to tease audiences with unfinished subplots and unanswered questions. The best way to stoke demand for a sequel is by making the first installment work on its own.
The biggest mistake that video game movies make, however, is that they are targeted almost entirely at serious fans of the games. That’s understandable; committed fan enthusiasm is what made these properties successful in the first place. But that approach tends to result in movies that simply aren’t accessible to the broader moviegoing audience.
Both Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed are far too indebted to the complicated mythologies of the games. Both go to great expository lengths to explain minute details of video game lore, none of which is very interesting on screen.
Too many video game movies seem intent on quoting their source material and winking at fans in ways that don’t serve the story. Assassin’s Creed the movie briefly replicates a number of signature visual moments from the games—the graceful high dives off of tall towers known as “leaps of faith”, the death-from-above drop kills, the effortless bounding over conveniently placed ropes. But there’s never any reason for these bits to be there except that they are also in the games. (The Angry Birds Movie managed to avoid this problem mostly by not having much mythology to drag it down — and it more than doubled what Warcraft made at the U.S. box office.)
All of this stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the two different media work. Games are about worlds and systems, relayed through player-driven choices and exploration. Movies are about characters and stories, with the viewer experience entirely guided by the filmmakers. When video game movies don’t work, it’s often because they are overly invested in the worlds and systems that fans already love, at the expense of the characters and stories.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the fans or the games themselves should be ignored entirely. Far from it. Again, superhero movies, which figured out how to effectively cater to both hardcore fans and casual viewers, provide a useful guide. Video game movies, in contrast, have typically done a poor job of synthesizing their source material for a mass audience. They’re niche products, produced at mass scale.
Given all the effort and resources that have been put toward bringing games to the screen, it’s actually surprising that there’s never been a truly good one. Maybe the divide between the two media is just too hard to bridge.
But even though 2016's crop of video game movies were dismal, there's still hope that someone may buck this dispiriting trend in the coming years: Currently there are more than two dozen video game adaptations in various stages of development—including, naturally, a sequel to Assassin’s Creed.