The video game adaptation seems to be one of those genres that cinema just can’t get right. There have been so many attempts since video games properly broke through to popular culture, but even the mildly successful films like ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ (2001) don’t quite cut it. It also doesn’t help that video games have become infinitely more complex and imaginative, often leaving cinema behind. This explains why there was some significant hope placed on ‘Assassin’s Creed’. The idea is inherently cinematic, and the talent behind it was arguably the highest a video game film had attracted so far, pretty much reuniting the team behind the recent adaptation of ‘Macbeth’. Having director Justin Kurzel direct a blockbuster like this was a tantalising idea, but is ‘Assassin’s Creed’ the long-awaited turning point this flailing genre needed?
Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is a convicted murder sentenced to be executed - but to his surprise, he wakes up alive and well, and under the care of Dr Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), a gifted scientist determined to find the cure for human violence. She places Cal in a machine called the Animus, which uses his family history hidden in his DNA to connect him with the past life of his ancestor Aguilar de Nerha living in 15th century Spain, a member of the Assassins, a secret society at war with the Templars. Using his memories through Cal, she hopes to find the Apple of Eden, which may give her the answer she needs.
It’s hard to really know where to start with ‘Asassin’s Creed’ because it’s a hard film to get your head around. One thing is clear very quickly though – this isn’t the film that will shift the genre or give it legitimacy. The screenplay from Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage is convoluted and confusing, playing with far too many subplots and complicating the main narrative to the point of incoherence. It’s clearly setting itself up for a series, but then in its finale, tries to half tie up its loose ends. Justin Kurzel’s previous films revelled in the spaces between moments and a manipulation of time and rhythm, but neither the screenplay nor circumstance offer him the chance to play with those ideas, and the dialogue is often so clunky that the moments it chooses to capture fall flat on their face. It’s hard to care about anyone in this film, mostly because you’re never given a chance to find out much about them. The film wastes very little time getting us into the Animus, but the Spanish sequences (which are the better parts of the film) are rushed over to accommodate for the convoluted, ridiculous modern storyline which involves a lot of serious actors trying to make the most preposterous speeches sound as legitimate as possible (and often failing).
There are things to admire though. While it isn’t a successful film, ‘Assassin’s Creed’ is certainly distinct from most blockbusters of the past twelve months. It’s visually exciting, contrasting the stark and sterile 2016 setting with the rich, textured medieval sequences that borrow from the gritty theatricality of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’. We see armies clashing through dust and smoke, and while extraordinary cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s step into blockbuster territory isn’t as much a slam dunk as you’d hope, his work is still really striking and often quite beautiful. The sequences where the Animas is in use are particularly noteworthy, even if you’re never quite sure who is seeing what. Kurzel struggles to get his head around the scale of the film, but his confidence comes in the medieval sequences, which are also entirely in Spanish (with subtitles). The modern stuff though is where he falters though, where scenes rely more on dialogue rather than visuals and action. Jed Kurzel also delivers a score surprisingly forgettable, especially after his magnificent work on ‘Macbeth’.
It’s hard to really know where to start with ‘Asassin’s Creed’ because it’s a hard film to get your head around. One thing is clear very quickly though – this isn’t the film that will shift the genre or give it legitimacy.
There’s also not much to say for the cast. It’s an impressive line-up, also including Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Essie Davis, Michael Keith Williams and (of all people) Charlotte Rampling. The problem is, they really don’t have anything to work with. Fassbender growls and broods his way through the film, but Cotillard is determined to have fun, both she and Rampling hitting a kind of campness that could have made for a far more enjoyable film if everyone else played along. Again, we aren’t given any reason to love these characters or often even know who they are, what they want or what they’re even doing there, so having such great talent just seems a waste.
And this is the feeling you’re left with in the end. ‘Assassin’s Creed’ is not a slouch in terms of talent involved by any means, and there are flashes of possibility in there with the Spanish sequences, but mostly it’s just a wasted opportunity. It tries to pack too much in and be too faithful to its source material, forgetting that they’re different genres and don’t have to stick to the same rules. It would probably have been a better film just focusing on the Assassins themselves in Medieval Spain, and not a rubbish, modern sci-fi-esque religious conspiracy. I didn’t not like the film for the banal escapism that it was, but I’ve also not thought about it once since I saw it. There’s some suggestion hidden within the mess that it was started with the best intentions, but what you get in the end is yet more evidence to support the argument that a successful translation from video games to cinema just isn’t possible.