All it takes is a glimpse back on the annals of cinema history to realize that nothing particularly memorable has come from bringing a hit video game over to the big screen. Sure, the long-running Resident Evil franchise has proved it can rein in box office loot, and a lucky few like Mortal Kombat and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (both of which are set for reboots, natch) have developed cult followings despite their considerable flaws. However, more often than not, video game films wind up in the “how the hell did this get made?” file of film lore. Think cinematic disasters like Super Mario Bros., Wing Commander, Alone in the Dark and many others that have categorically cemented the near-impossibility of making a beloved video game property work as a narrative feature film.
This year could have changed all that. With Warcraft angling to be the next Lord of the Rings, hopes were high that maybe 2016 would be the year in which Hollywood finally cracked the code, in which video games were recognized for their cinematic potential and that glass ceiling would shatter once and for all. After Warcraft failed to win over North American audiences, the pressure began mounting on that other shining beacon of video game movie redemption: Assassin’s Creed. With acclaimed stars like Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard reuniting with their Macbeth director Justin Kurzel, there was real reason to think the film might be the one gamers have been waiting decades for.
Alas, audiences should move along to other now-playing blockbusters because Assassin’s Creed is not the movie you’re looking for. While Kurzel’s adaptation may please hardcore fans giddy at the mere thought of their cherished game series making the leap to the silver screen, the end result actually offers little reward for those looking for a compelling sci-fi action thrill ride, settling for a half-baked mythology and an ill-conceived creative choice to remain grounded in a bureaucratic scheme rather than the period action set pieces that dominate the marketing.
Although Assassin’s Creed is, of course, based on the popular game series, its original story supposedly builds upon the established mythology. Fassbender stars as Callum Lynch, an inmate whose execution is pre-empted by Abstergo Industries so that he may help the organization get its hands on a valuable relic. Using a machine known as the Animus, Callum relives the memories of ancestor Aguilar de Nerha, the eponymous Assassin who last laid claim to the item during the Spanish Inquisition.
With Callum’s help, Abstergo’s lead scientist Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) aims to locate its current whereabouts for their own ends, and therein lies the film’s central problem. Without delving into spoilers, the very nature of Abstergo’s mission is ludicrous at best and narratively incoherent at worst. Sure, suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite for any science fiction tale, but the crux of the story in Assassin’s Creed never lays a sturdy enough foundation to evade viewers’ incredulity for long.
For his part, Fassbender does what he can with his role. The actor has proven time and again that he possesses more than enough charisma and range to wring the maximum dramatic juice out of even the most prosaic project. In Assassin’s Creed, he plays a man who is uninvested in his own mission and spends nearly the entire runtime having to be convinced to even take part in it. It’s the cinematic equivalent of begging your best friend to join you in a round of your favorite video game, only to then be stuck watching him earn the high score while you sulk in the background.
From a dramatic standpoint, the Animus sequences – of which there are really only three – lack stakes, since Callum cannot affect anything he experiences there anyway. The weight of the premise indeed weighs heavily on Fassbender, and the sluggish, generic script, choppy action scenes and standard-issue supporting turns by Cotillard and Jeremy Irons do him no favors, either.
Thankfully, Assassin’s Creed isn’t entirely a wash. The score makes for a solid listen throughout, accenting the period setting when appropriate, and the visual style employed during Callum’s Animus-induced fight scenes makes for some cool moments, even though they are too few and far between. Rather than devoting large chunks of the film to Aguilar’s memories a la the balance between bleak reality and insane stunt work in Sucker Punch, Assassin’s Creed seamlessly intercuts between Aguilar’s Inquisition-era mission and Callum acting the fight out within the Animus. Essentially, the interplay between these two realities opens up a world of exciting possibilities that the film never seems too concerned with exploring, too preoccupied it is with all the mediocrity at hand.
As this year’s final hope for video game movies, Assassin’s Creed is a resounding failure, a bland missed opportunity that could have been something very special. Kurzel and his team clearly hoped to infuse the sci-fi elements with some meaningful subtext, given the reality behind Abstergo’s plans and the proclaimed motivation driving Sophia’s research. Yet, the poor execution of these – and the absent finesse in illustrating the core premise – betrays Fassbender’s committed performance amid a film that never rises to the occasion, content instead to demonstrate why Assassin’s Creed should never have taken that leap of faith into the movie business to begin with.
Any fans hoping that Assassin's Creed would break the long streak of poor video game adaptations are bound to be disappointed by this nearly incomprehensible mess.
Assassin's Creed Review