“Assassin’s Creed” is the best videogame-to-film adaptation yet. But that’s not saying much.
These kind of adaptations have become a common talking point in relation to the worst films of all time. Studios want to adapt video games because they’re quickly becoming the most marketable and highest grossing entertainment industry. But films haven’t been able to capture the fun or the weight of video games, despite trying for the past 30 years. Try to watch “Doom,” “Hitman: Agent 47” or the absolutely dreadful “Super Mario Bros.” without thinking “I would rather be playing the game.” It’s impossible.
Despite this curse on video game adaptations, “Assassin’s Creed” was supposed to be the film to change those sentiments. The film managed to get an up-and-coming director in Justin Kurzel — coming off the Cannes-premiering “Macbeth” — who brought over much of his crew from that film, including the principle leads: the Oscar-nominated Michael Fassbender and the Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard. Throw in the esteemed Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling and Brendan Gleeson, and it appeared to be the perfect storm to finally bring some class to the genre.
Yet, despite the promise, the story is a total mess. Replicating the game’s Assassins-versus-Knights-Templar basis, the film never fully establishes either groups’ goal, other than that the Templars are looking for the “Apple of Eden” — a metallic apple that represents man’s first disobedience. If this apple can be captured, the Templars can control mankind’s free will and, thus, the world. Throw in some Catholic imagery, and the Templars represent the very worst that religion has to offer.
So here is where the Assassins come in: They are a “brotherhood” formed to prevent the Templars by any means necessary — typically assassinations (makes sense) — from retrieving the Apple, in order to keep free will a possibility for all humans.
For the most part, this setup makes sense and admirably condenses the convoluted lore that the video games were able to build off of for 14 installments now. But then the film gets bogged down with over-plotting, adding the modern timeline (one of the least successful transfers from the games) of Callum Lynch (Fassbender), a murderer on death row, being taken by a leading scientist Sofia Rikkin (Cotillard) of Abstergo Industries to take part in the company’s “Animus Project.” In this game-referencing project, Sofia intends on sending Callum back to the Spanish Inquisition through his ancestor Aguilar de Nerha, to assassinate the Templars close to gaining control of the Apple. How this Animus works is never given an explanation, and how each detail of the past and present connects is supposed to be taken for granted. But really, the story seems only half-finished.
The way the story plays out seems like it would be better suited for an eight-hour miniseries on HBO or Netflix, or some other company willing to pay the necessary budget, in a longform setting that can give the complexity of the story its due.
Worst of all, though, the characters are thinly written. While Fassbender and Cotillard are fully committed to their roles — the former is physically ripped, bringing his trademark intensity — the characters are hard to care for. They are devoid of personality and their motivations to take part in this project are poorly explained. On top of that, the dialogue is laughably bad at times. There is an important sequence that uses the line “I’m hungry” three times just to show off another set piece. It’s not certain whether it’s intended for laughs or just a lazy excuse for exposition.
Despite the fundamental issues with the story, there are some excellently shot crowd-pleasing sequences for gamers and cinephiles alike. Shot by lenser Adam Arkapaw — who also worked on Kurzel’s “Macbeth” and the other Fassbender-starring “The Light Between Oceans” — the film replicates the lighting of the original game. The scenes taking place in ancient Spain are gorgeously filled with yellow tints and hues.
Even more importantly, Arkapaw’s cinematography and Christopher Tellefsen’s work as editor perfectly capture the kinetic energy of the game’s action. When Fassbender’s Aguilar is shown in beautifully staged and furiously paced chase sequences on top of buildings, relying on extremely physical parkour and brutal knife-to-sword combat, it’s hard not to see the increasingly bright future in store for video game adaptations.
While it’s not a winning accomplishment — and it’s nowhere close to one by standards outside of those applied to video-game-to-movie attempts — “Assassin’s Creed” is a step in the right direction. Maybe next time, like the main characters in the film and the games, the studios will take a greater “leap of faith” and acquire better scripts for the lauded talent in front of and behind the screen.