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Assassin's Creed: 3 winners, 3 losers, and a lot of head-scratching

It’s not the worst movie based on a video game that was released this year.

Michael Fassbender and Ariane Labed in Assassin’s Creed
Michael Fassbender and Ariane Labed in Assassin’s Creed
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

As a movie based on a video game — or in this case, a series of them — Assassin’s Creed has an advantage: The games it’s based on have an interesting, rich, mysterious story for a screenwriter to draw from. The Assassins Creed games span a number of eras, allowing players to explore ancient and medieval worlds as a character whose story is based in something like time travel, but more complicated. And it has truly mind-bending twists.

It’s possible the games’ cinematic nature is what tripped up Assassin’s Creed’s transition to the actual cinema. Perhaps all the possibilities inherent in the material sent the screenwriters into a tailspin. It’s as good an explanation as any for the resulting film’s muddled nature. Because while Assassin’s Creed is by no means the worst movie based on a video game — it’s not even the worst released this year — it’s not a very good movie, either.



Assassin’s Creed is a medley of incoherence

The idea of the movie (as in the game) is that the Knights Templar are actually a shadowy organization that has been pulling strings for thousands of years in an attempt to gain control over the world. Only an equally shadowy group called the Assassins have stood in their way. The Knights Templar wish to find and control the Apple of Eden, an artifact containing the DNA that gives man free will, and use it to strip man of said free will. In so doing, they reason, they will rid the world of violence, and also bend it to their bidding.

Michael Fassbender and Ariane Labed in Assassin’s Creed
Michael Fassbender and Ariane Labed in Assassin’s Creed.

The Assassins “work in the dark to serve the light,” which in this case means they use any means necessary to keep the Apple of Eden from falling into the wrong hands. Michael Fassbender plays Cal Lynch, a criminal who is executed, then revived, and finds himself in a giant facility run by Abstergo Industries, where Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), daughter of the facility’s director, is trying to eradicate violence from the world.

Part of that involves plugging Lynch — who, it turns out, has DNA belonging to the line of Assassins — into a contraption called the Animus, which is like something from the Matrix on a giant hydraulic arm. Lynch’s consciousness is then swapped onto his ancestor’s, and he finds himself in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition, trying to find the apple and stay alive.

Does this sound weird and confusing? It is. Unlike a video game, which actually requires the player to engage and pay attention in order to make sense of what’s happening, Assassin’s Creed works best if you just let the medley of incoherence wash over you. There are some great action scenes and a couple of intriguing set pieces. But on the whole, it’s just silly and big and loud, and only occasionally entertaining.

A movie this kooky is bound to score a big win for some of its participants, while registering losses for others. Here are three such losers who suffer from their involvement in Assassin’s Creed, and three winners who manage to benefit from its wackadoo existence.

The big losers

Director Justin Kurzel: Kurzel’s first film is the small, devastating Snowtown Murders, about a famous Australian serial killer. Last year Kurzel made a terrific and searing adaptation of Macbeth, which, like this film, starred Fassbender and Cotillard as the murderous central couple.

What was great about Macbeth in particular was Kurzel’s ability to apply heightened stylistic effects borrowed from video games — slow motion, bright colors, savage battles — to presumably musty historical material. Assassin’s Creed was a natural fit.

Michael Fassbender in Assassin’s Creed
Michael Fassbender in Assassin’s Creed.

I don’t know what happened. The screenplay is obviously to blame here: It’s designed expressly to set itself up for sequels, which raises the question of whether movie franchises really ought to be considered big-screen slow-burn TV, so weak is Assassin’s Creed’s attempt to tell an interesting story. And some of the things that made Kurzel’s Macbeth so interesting, like the brutal fight scenes and over-the-top imagery, here just come off as derivative of video games themselves.

Will this movie hurt his career, though? Doubtful. This movie is just interesting enough to draw in the crowds, and Kurzel’s signature style is well suited to certain kinds of stories. The loss is simply him not having applied his talents to something good.

The ridiculously talented cast: Assassin’s Creed boasts an almost absurdly overqualified cast: Besides Fassbender and Cotillard, there’s Jeremy Irons, Michael Kenneth Williams, Brendan Gleeson, and Charlotte Rampling(!). All are fine, talented, award-winning performers. But they’re only given clunky lines — “The history of the world is the history of violence”; “I assured the elders we’d have the apple for London”; “The apple, it’s in your grasp!” — and no characterization whatsoever.

Jeremy Irons in Assassin’s Creed
Jeremy Irons in Assassin’s Creed.

It’s hard to really say that the cast lost, though; presumably they are the recipients of a blockbuster-size paycheck. But they sure don’t look like they’re having much fun.

Debates over the merits of free will versus guaranteed peace: This is the issue du jour in pop culture from Captain America: Civil War to Westworld these days, mirroring the Western world’s anxieties about the growing popularity of authoritarian regimes and snooping surveillance states. If you knew that many of the world’s evils, brought on by people’s ability to make choices freely, could be eradicated by taking away their right to make those choices (through programming, manipulation, or rule by a small group of rulers), would you do it?

It’s a great and interesting question, but Assassin’s Creed just throws it around without progressing beyond the statement that this is a capital-C Conundrum. One wonders, in a movie based on a franchise that supposes history is spattered with the blood of people who got in the way of the powerful: Is this even the right question? And why does nobody suggest to Rikkin that maybe man’s insatiable greed for power, not violence, is the problem here?

The big winners

Ubisoft: The screenplay for Assassin’s Creed is thin and barely motivated — it feels more like the pilot for a TV show than an actual film. But it contains just enough intrigue (What will happen with the Apple of Eden? How and why did the Knights Templar get this way? Why does a person’s DNA have anything to do with being an Assassin?) that I can imagine a healthy contingent of non-gaming audience members trotting on out and buying an Assassin’s Creed game.

That’s presumably the point of making a film based on a video game, after all: It’s a big-screen, feature-length advertisement. Assassin’s Creed is just intriguing enough to convert filmgoers to players, especially if they’re into historical conflicts and Dan Brown–style conspiracy theories, so it will probably work just as it’s meant to work.

Fans of Fassbender: I’m not going to pretend this is one of Fassbender’s best performances. He’s barely working at Magneto-level enthusiasm. What’s required of him is convincing glares and the ability to do a lot of fight choreography, and he does just that.

But he’s also the story’s viewer surrogate — we discover it all through his eyes — and so the movie’s solitary moment of sheer bliss comes right in the middle, when Lynch is still new to the facility and has just encountered a number of its strange inhabitants. At a loss, he mutters to himself, “What the f**k is going on?”

Michael Fassbender in Assassin’s Creed
Michael Fassbender, Michael Fassbender’s chest, in Assassin’s Creed.

At my screening, the room erupted into laughter, and at once we knew that Fassbender had our back, that this was all a bit silly, and that we could watch him perform knowing that we didn’t have to take it all too seriously. It’s the moment when sense peeks through the senselessness, and the look on his face is priceless.

Also, he spends the last half-hour or so of the film fighting shirtless, which seems like a crowd-pleasing move on everyone’s part.

The Eagle of History: The film contains a baffling recurring visual motif, in which an eagle (which appears to be CGI) soars over the landscape. It keeps reappearing throughout the film, suggesting it’s an integral part of the game in some way. But in the film, since it isn’t explained, we are free to apply our interpretation.

So all I can guess is that the eagle is the spirit of history, an undying being (or else one that is reincarnated) that watches over the assassins and directs their steps. Wait: Maybe that means the eagle is pulling the strings. Has the eagle gained control over history? Has it maybe figured out how to control the humans and is keeping the apple out of their grasp so they’ll exterminate one another? Are the eagles the real shadowy conspiracy?

That doesn’t make a lick of sense. But neither, really, does Assassin’s Creed. If you find yourself suddenly in the theater watching it, best to just strap in and enjoy the ride however you can.

Assassin’s Creed opens in theaters on December 21.

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