“Assassin’s Creed” Review: What Was That?

Coming out of the theater, I honestly didn’t know what to make of the Assassin’s Creed movie.

I couldn’t make any kind of blanket approval/disapprove statement about it, at least initially. There were individual parts of this movie that seemed to work, or were at least held together in an interesting fashion. But, as a whole, it was all over the place and left me confused and bewildered. I guess what the Assassin’s Creed movie offers is an alternative explanation for why video-game movies are generally “bad.” Sometimes, it’s the source material’s fault.

The movie is a nearly one-to-one interpretation of the Assassin’s Creed video games’ story. There are two warring factions of secret societies, the Assassins and the Templars, who are vying for the fate of mankind. The Assassins want some vaguely-defined notion of freedom and the Templars want control. (Remember: this is a video-game plot.) There’s an ancient MacGuffin called the Apple of Eden which might be some ancient alien device (or something) that will help them achieve their goal, but it’s been lost to history.

Their solution? Strap Michael Fassbender, as Callum Lynch, into a machine called the Animus that lets him relieve the memories of his ancestors so they can find out where one of his Assassin ancestors hid the Apple. Also cure for violence, Michael K. Williams, Spanish Inquisition, wrist blades, hallucinations, Abstergo and parkour.

You got all that?

The biggest problem facing Assassin’s Creed is similar to the problem faced by the recent Warcraft movie. While Warcraft suffered from its own unique problems (sub-par acting from non-Orcs and really cheap props and sets), both it and Assassin’s Creed are a little too in-love with their source materials. This sounds like madness given how much gamers keep saying that movie adaptations should stick close to their video game origins in reaction to the nonsense like Super Mario Bros., Alone in the Dark and Street Fighter: The Movie. But as it turns out, sometimes the structure or narrative of a video game can’t successfully transition to film without sacrificing something in the process.

For example, Michael Fassbender’s character and his role in the movie. While Fassbender does his absolute best to work with the material given to him (the man is genetically incapable of delivering a bad performance), his character is basically a big nothing. Like the games, this particular character is more or less just a plot device to put into the Animus machine so we can get to meat of the story: the action-thriller taking place in some historical location, in this case Spain in 1492 during the Spanish Inquisition.

But the games forgot that we didn’t care about the present/future day plot and started making Desmond Miles (the original Animus patient) into a bland and boring main character, and the movie takes after that. Fassbender basically has no goal and very little agency for the first half of the movie, as he shuffled along and strapped into the machine. Then, when in the machine, it’s basically a hard transition to a pointless, if somewhat exciting, action set piece that barely moves the story forward. What the movie should have done was to take the lessons of only the first game, and just used Abstergo and the Animus as a framing device and spent most of it’s runtime with the Assassins and Templars in the historical setting.

So the movie meanders about for its first half, which I do not doubt is both boring and confusing to most people not familiar with the Assassin’s Creed mythos, which seems simple initially but is made far more convoluted by the dual-time/dual-plot set up of the series. It’s just exposition of what the Apple of Eden is, what it supposedly does, why the Assassins or Templars want it and that Fassbender needs to “synchronize” with the Animus in order to get the answer to where the Apple is hidden. This about the closest thing we get to a goal for Fassbender, a goal which is also about him needing him to accept or revenge the past or something? It all feels very obligatory and is just an excuse to have him exit the Animus whenever a set piece is done.

(Special mention should go to one scene where Fassbender is allowed to speak some natural dialog after being exposited to by no less three people in a row, and it’s probably the best line in the movie because he speaks for the audience by exasperatedly saying “What the fuck is going on?”)

But then the second half/last third of the movie kicks in and the movie becomes frenetic and fascinating, even though it doesn’t get any better. Without spoiling much, after the movie feels like it ends, it doesn’t, it just hurtles towards a conclusion with very little exposition that left me asking, “What?” I can’t say that I didn’t know what was going on in the broad sense, but the individual pieces were weird and curious. It was as if the movie was saying, “If you haven’t bought into this premise at this point, buckle up because we’re about to dive head-first into this nonsense whether you like it or not.”

And then the movie ends! There’s obviously some sequel hooks and such, but the movie more or less ends with a “What was that?” Again, like Warcraft, Assassin’s Creed is steeped so heavily in its source material that it forgets to be a good movie first, and not a “video game movie adaptation” first. Hell, it almost borrows the same structure of the video game itself by having a lot of repetitive nothing in the middle and a big gigantic nonsense blowout at the end.

I think the worst thing that can be said about Assassin’s Creed is that, despite its earnest and genuine efforts to the contrary, it still feeds the notion that there will never be a “good” video game movie. I don’t know what will ever qualify as a “good” video game movie though because this seems to be the best treatment it could get.

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