“What the f%$k is going on?” asks Michael Fassbender about halfway through the film.
It is not the first time that Cal Lynch has asked this question. Earlier on, the character wondered out loud “what’s happening?” after waking up following his state-sanctioned execution and being hooked up to a gigantic robotic claw that yanking him into the air mid-sentence. The audience is probably asking the same questions as Assassin’s Creed bounces across time and space with mountains of exposition (occasionally helpfully subtitled) about rival societies conspiring to find an artefact that can harness (and eliminate) mankind’s free will.
To be fair, incoherence is not the real problem with this disjointed video game adaptation. In fact, there is a certain weird charm to watching the amazing cast and the game director react to the crazed concepts that they have been dealt. For the first hour or so, the sheer weirdness of the film proves compelling, drawing in audience members willing to resist the tonal whiplash and laboured exposition as the film rockets along. What ultimately kills Assassin’s Creed is not its lack of sense, but the stubborn insistence that it must make sense.
Assassin’s Creed would be a stronger film were it willing to revel in its incoherence instead of trying to impose order upon it. The gonzo plotting and zany high concepts give the film a strange texture, but the problems do not really kick in until Assassin’s Creed starts awkwardly and painfully trying to construct a rational framework around this bizarre cavalcade. The result is to wed a visually hyper-kinetic and tonally unruly film to an incredibly tired generic plot that winds transforming the film into a plodding mess.
Assassin’s Creed holds together better as a collection of themes and images more than a story populated with characters. Trying to summarise the plot of the film is an exercise in ridiculousness, an absurdity only deepened with the solemnity that the movie affords this stock storyline. The Assassins and the Knights Templar have been at war for centuries over “the Apple.” The apple is named for the apple in the Garden of Eden, although there is some ambiguity as to what exactly it is. Is it divine? Is it a repository of human knowledge?
It is suggested that the Apple will grant the holder control over mankind’s free will. The Knights Templar seek to control the Apple so that they might eliminate free will and violence. The Assassins are aligned in opposition to this plan, seeking to protect and hide the strange device where nobody can find it. The Knights Templar are a stock secret society, claiming to have manipulated human history through the guise of religion and commerce. One of the movie’s more heavy-handed moments suggests the twenty-first century is working out well for them.
There are some weird and interesting little ideas buried in this mythology, although Assassin’s Creed is not particularly interested in them. Assassin’s Creed is much more interested in a very conventional and straightforward narrative. This plot is laid out in an introductory scroll followed by an entire scene of subtitled exposition. Watching the opening scenes of Assassin’s Creed feels a little bit like reading the manual from a video game. Which might be a conscious choice, but is far from satisfying.
The Assassins are an interesting concept blunted by the demands of a fairly linear plot. They are introduced as the champions of free will in a mode that evokes nihilism by the way of satanism. “Remember,” Aguilar is urged, “everything is permitted.” Early in the film, Cal returns home to discover that his father has brutally murdered his mother and seems to contemplating a complete familicide. The Assassins are an organisation willing to murder their own families in pursuit of their objectives, but the film never questions this. They are unambiguously heroes.
Indeed, the plot of Assassin’s Creed hits just about every expected beat for a mythology like this. Cal Lynch discovers that he is the sole surviving Assassin, their order seemingly ravaged by the twin catastrophes of time and family annihilation. However, like Luke Skywalker discovers that he is the last Jedi, Cal Lynch finds himself facing the prospect of resurrecting an entire lost way of life to stand again a totalitarian foe. This is all Saturday morning pulp stuff, albeit with a more bloodthirsty bent. However, Assassin’s Creed treats it very much as serious business.
The weight afforded to a simple macguffin-driven plot suffocates Assassin’s Creed. It sucks a lot of the fun out the movie’s weirder and more bizarre creative choices. Assassin’s Creed is a movie that rarely makes an sense on a scene-to-scene basis, and there is a certain vicarious thrill in watching star Michael Fassbender try to figure out how he is supposed to create emotional continuity with all of this going on and in observing director Justin Kurzel steer into the crazy. However, the constant belaboured exposition and the gravity afforded a generic plot undercut that.
Watching Assassin’s Creed, it is easy to imagine an alternate universe where the movie might become a late-night gonzo classic in the style of David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, an over-stylised adaptation of fairly straightforward source material. However, having the characters constantly reiterate the threadbare plot kills any of that weird joy dead. Assassin’s Creed would be a much stronger film if it cut that dead weight and was willing to stop making sense long enough to indulge its more surreal tendencies.
It looks like director Justin Kurzel had a great deal of fun making Assassin’s Creed. The movie does not not work in terms of plot or characters, because there is little compelling about either. However, there are a number of interesting elements and choices that make the film more intriguing than it might otherwise be. Most obviously, Justin Kurzel is clearly loving the idea of making a movie about a video game. He does not seem particularly interested in which video game, but is more interested in playing with the conventions and expectations.
Kurzel’s form is very much influenced by conventions of video gaming. The opening scroll and the heavy exposition scene feel like they might have been lifted from the source material directly. Lynch “dies” and is resurrected, like a video game character. The movie is structured as a collection of action scenes interspaced with belaboured exposition. The actual plot points and objectives are remarkably straightforward in the context of individual scene, even if the big picture operates according to somewhat looser logic.
Even the construction of the film itself is modelled upon the conventions of modern video gaming. The camera repeatedly swoops and pans through the landscape in a manner familiar to anybody who has ever had trouble trying to get a third-person adventure game camera to remain in place. There are even a couple of quick first-person shots involving the use of weapons like knives and bows. At the end of the film, actors even walk like early three-dimensional video game sprites.
After all, the basic plot device of Assassin’s Creed is itself a video game. Cal Lynch has been drafted by the Knight Templar to locate the Apple by being hooked into a giant machine and forced to vicariously live through three of Aguilar’s adventures. Lynch is warned that he cannot change anything and that he can merely play through the scenario as presented. It is clear that Assassin’s Creed is not an open sandbox game. Lynch finds himself “synchronising” with his fifteenth century avatar, experiencing Aguilar’s world virtually.
Of course, none of this makes any sense. It is never explained how Cal Lynch can carry around the memories of his distant ancestor. It is never explained how the Knights Templar hone in on that specific ancestor and those specific memories. It is never explained why Aguilar looks identical to Cal Lynch, but Lynch’s father is played by a combination of Brian and Brendan Gleeson. It is never explained whether Cal Lynch is actually the puppet or the puppeteer as the game plays through.
There is something almost endearing about how little sense Assassin’s Creed is willing to make when it comes to that central premise. Certainly, just going along with it adds a sense of absurdity and weirdness to the movie that fits a lot better than all the repetitive nonsense about ancient societies and sacred relics. If more of Assassin’s Creed were willing to embrace the ridiculousness of Michael Fassbender being thrown around a green screen room in a rig, the movie would have cult classic written all over it.
In these sequences, Assassin’s Creed very clearly aspires to be a movie about the experience of gaming. It is a film where style trumps substance so completely that it is dizzying. These adventures are very much structured like video game levels. Aguilar has a chase sequence that includes some perfectly-timed jumps. Aguilar has to repetitively smash his bonds against a nail to the point that the audience practically sees a “press X” prompt. Aguilar runs through a city that is three-dimensional labyrinth. Aguilar runs through sewers were enemies continuously spawn.
There is something interesting in these elements of the film. Kurzel is a fantastic director, with a strong sense of style and colour. As Aguilar and Lynch play through whatever level they have been assigned, there is a frantic and kinetic quality to the film. There is an endearing momentum as Aguilar bounces across clotheslines or tries to protect various ineffective non-player characters. Fassbender seems particularly game in these moments, relishing the stunt work and the ridiculousness of it all.
There are even a few thematic suggestions that Assassin’s Creed wants to be a video game movie about video games. Jeremy Irons provides a suitably menacing mystery antagonist as Alan Rikkin. The first time that the audience hears Rikkin speak, he is delivering an address about how society is so violent today because people do not have an “acceptable outlet” for their violent impulses. It is no coincidence that he operates essentially the world’s most immersive video game platform.
Similarly, there are a few small nods towards the question of destiny and control, asking are the characters in control of their own lives or do they operate at the behest of some unseen force. Early in the film, Cal finds himself confronted with the suggestion that he has never been in control of his own life. “You are living proof of the connection between heredity and crime,” states Sofia, his mysterious doctor and video game consultant. These small philosophical nods allow the movie an impression of depth beneath the stylish camera work.
Assassin’s Creed never succeeds as a movie about video games, because it is so invested in being a video game movie. There have been a number of successful films and series about the experience of video gaming in recent memory; The Edge of Tomorrow and Westworld come immediately to mind. Those stories worked because they were allowed to step back from the expectations of an individual game to talk about gaming as a philosophical construct. Because they were not about one game, they could be about every game.
There is a sense that Assassin’s Creed is trying to have its cake and eat it. Kurzel seems to want to make a movie about video gaming, relishing in the absurdity and joy of that loose collection of conventions. However, Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage’s screenplay is very much dedicated to being a specific adaptation of Assassin’s Creed. The result is a movie that wants to have fun with the mechanics of video games in general, but finds itself forced to venerate the plotting of a particular video game.
There is a sense that Hollywood has yet to properly figure out how to adapt video games into film. After all, adaptation is more than simple transference of story or dialogue from one medium to another. Fidelity is not the only measure of an adaptation’s success. Certain stories and plot elements work in video games that do not work in film. This is true of all mediums. Were faithfulness a measure of worth, then Zack Snyder’s Watchmen would be an unequivocal classic rather than a fascinating curiosity.
As such, it is only ever a matter of minutes before the dull and stumbling plot of Assassin’s Creed reasserts itself over the gloriously weird mess that is the rest of the film. This is particularly true at the climax of the film, when a bunch of stuff seems to happen for no real reason other than to potentially set up the sequel or because this is how a plot working with these parametres is expected to resolve itself. None of this action is rooted in character, and none of this action is particularly interesting or satisfying. On the contrary, it is dull and generic.
The result is a film that somehow manages to be bizarre and boring, gonzo and generic. Any of the charm that seeps in from the wacky high-energy absurdity is quickly brushed aside by the earnestness afforded to a stock plot. Assassin’s Creed is a film that would be much stronger if it were will to be embrace its ridiculousness rather than getting stuck on its familiar framework.