Assassin’s Creed – A (mostly) spoiler-free review

It has become more than a cliche — almost a tautology — that movies based on video games are never good. The latest attempt, Assassin’s Creed, makes a strong effort to disprove that claim… but ultimately fails. Judged against others of its ilk, Assassin’s Creed is among the better video game movies, an eminently watchable two hours of simple fun. Unfortunately, it misses the mark on two of it’s most crucial audiences: die-hard fans of the game will complain about all the things wrong with the story, and (in a year that gave us Captain America: Civil War and Star Wars: Rogue One and Deadpool), the science fiction movie fan will probably find it falling to the bottom of their list.

Overall, I would give this movie a fairly mediocre 5/10 (its better than it’s RT score would indicate, but not much), and probably recommend you wait for RedBox. I saw the movie in 3-D in the theater, and there wasn’t much in it to justify the added cost. (If anything, seeing it in a theater may ruin the fun, as we’ll see later).

Here is a mostly spoiler-free review of the movie; though, fair warning: if you have never played an Assassin’s Creed game, those will be spoiled heavily here. To see where this movie did well, and where it floundered, read on…

For those of you unaware, Assassin’s Creed is a wildly successful series of video games based in what is essentially a parallel Earth where all of our familiar history still happened, but with some extra bits thrown in. Fortuantely, you don’t need to know any of this alternate history to understand the movie; we are given a quick synopsis on the history between Assassins and Templars in the prologue. We, the viewers, learn pretty quickly that the Templars are after the Apple of Eden, that the Assassins want to stop them, and that they’ve been waging a war of peace and security vs. free will and choice for centuries. The movie then throws us right into the midst of this fight (on two fronts), and makes no attempts to hide who’s who. Abstergo is clearly a Templar organization, and they quite openly want to enslave all of humanity — because they genuinely believe it’s for the best. (Unfortunately, not all of the main characters are so cognizant of this fact, which ultimately ruins what could have been a really good character arc for our lead heroine.)

One of the problems many video game movies have is that they are based on inherently unfilmable games. Even if we put aside obvious gimmick movies like Battleship, how do you film a game like Postal or Doom that are use a thin layer of story solely as an excuse to put a virtual gun in your hands and have you shoot up virtual bad guys? But others, Assassin’s Creed being among them, do have enough plot and backstory to pull a good movie out of, if you just put some thought into it. And this movie, for all its faults, does a good job of that. If anything, the game lore too dense to film it all, so the movie picks out just the key bits, and leaves the rest alone. (For example, we get no mention of the Precursors, nor any explanation of what the Apple is or does. But in the end, we  don’t need it… it’s just a MacGuffin and it does its job fine.) The opening act suffers a bit from trying to catch us up to where we need to be, packing a lot of exposition into a short time, but once the movie proper gets going, everything mostly flows at a good pace, logically moving from cause to effect in a way that’s never really hard to follow.

The all-star cast does a good job of handling the material; video game movies (especially ones as science-fiction-heavy as this) always run the risk of being campy or corny, but the actors handle their parts with just the right level of seriousness. This isn’t surprising, given the cast, most of whom have serious science fiction credentials: Michael Fassbender (also from the X-Men series) plays an original character — well, two of them, both the modern-day protagonist Callum and his distant Assassin ancestor Aguilar, and seems to have no problem jumping between roles; Marion Cotillard (also from The Dark Knight Rises) plays Sophia, a scientist dedicated to unlocking genetic memory; and Jeremy Irons (also from damn near everything, including the DCEU) plays Abstergo CEO and Sophia’s father.

The all-star cast does a good job of handling the material

The supporting cast also plays a big part of making this work, particularly Brendan Gleeson (aka Mad-Eye Moody) as Callum’s father; not all of the characters were a slam-dunk, but I never felt like the actors gave up on their role even so.

Of all the cast, though, the stunt workers probably deserve as much credit as anyone else. Assassin’s Creed is a game based almost entirely around hand-to-hand combat and parkour, and the action scenes really bring out the flavor of the game. The rooftop runs, the scaling buildings and structures, and the variety of ways to kill someone from close-in all work out remarkably well. I knew going in that the fight scenes and chase scenes were going to have to be a big part of this movie, and it didn’t disappoint.

The other thing I (mostly) liked about the movie was how it handled the modern-day scenes in the Animus. Those of you who have played the games will know that you never really see Desmond in the Animus; as soon as he goes in, the scene switches to his memories. There’s two major game mechanics that happen here, though, that the movie was able to weave into the plot: the sync effect, and the Animus bleed effect. When Desmond is reliving his ancestor’s memories, he has to make the “right” choices, in order to keep the memories synchronized, or the Animus session crashes; and while he’s reliving those memories, some of the skills of his ancestor are imprinted on his brain and he retains them when he wakes up. In the movie, they chose to show Callum actively reliving the memories (a re-design of the Animus made this possible); when his ancestor leaps or punches or stabs, Callum mimes along with him, learning those skills; and not to spoil too much, but it’s made very clear that falling out of sync with the Animus is very bad for the subject.

Unfortunately, for all the good things this movie has going for it, it doesn’t manage to live up to it’s potential. A very wise person once told me that all halfway-decent video game movies fall into two categories: those with a good director but a cast that can’t handle the material, and those with an amazing cast but a director that can’t handle the material. This movie clearly falls into the latter category, as nearly everything wrong with the movie comes down to a terrible choice by the director.

That director, in this case, was Justic Kurzel; I’ll be honest, I checked his IMDB page and did not recognize any of his previous works (there aren’t many), though two of them were listed as being very well received at Cannes. I can believe that, because this movie felt exactly like an art-film director trying to make the worlds first art-film summer blockbuster. He directed the hell out of this movie; he was directing it so hard you could practically feel it. And it ruined the movie.

For starters, Kurzel was a huge fan of the aerial wide shots, the kind that made movies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy so breathtaking. But while these aerial shots were visually impressive, they were everywhere. At least three times, the director cut away in the middle of an action scene to run a gratuitous aerial shot… not of the action, or the actors, or anything, but just of random mountains or buildings or whatever. It was completely unnecessary, and killed the momentum every time it happened. And the music in these scenes was so overpowering, there were people in the theater (I counted about a dozen others with me) holding their ears until it stopped. As soon as an action scene would get  in gear, the music would crescendo… and crescendo again… and keep going, until I was convinced the theater was going to need new speakers.

There was also the recurring eagle motif. That f#$@ eagle. The symbolism of the eagle was obvious, it represented the free spirit of the Assassins, figuratively (and occasionally literally) flying through the air, unfettered by the Templars attempts to subjugate us. But again, the soaring eagle shot, with appropriately grating screech, was everywhere in this movie. There is a phrase I sometimes hear, “sledgehammer of plot”, for when a writer or director drives a plot point home so obviously and repeatedly, you feel like they’re beat your in the head with a sledgehammer. 

if I had to pick one word to describe what was wrong with this movie, it was “overdone”

This was the sledgehammer of symbolism; it wasn’t even a tiny bit subtle or nuanced, it just meant “attention, something Assassin-y is about to happen”, and this director used it the way other directors might use a fade out or screen wipes.

In fact, if I had to pick one word to describe what was wrong with this movie, it was “overdone”. So many things were done to such excess that they not only lost their impact, but became actively detrimental to the experience. Besides the artistic afore-mentioned directorial decisions, the most blatant example of this was the Animus itself. I know I’ve already said how much I liked what they did with the Animus experience, but the physical design of the Animus was sooooooooooooooooo overblown it wasn’t even funny. As soon as I saw it on-screen I swore out loud at it’s stupidity. The Animus in this movie was like a cross between the big bad guy at the end of Matrix: Revolutions and GLADOS from Portal. It took up an airplane-hanger sized room, and needed every bit of it, not to mention a whole team of people to operate. As Callum relived his ancestor’s memories, he was being held in a robotic grip at the end of a really long arm, and he moved in three dimensions despite that frequently being physically impossible (such as when he climbed a building dozens much taller than the Animus and jumped off, somehow landing perfectly on the ground). And, in possibly the most confusing part of the movie: the people (but not, apparently, the scenery) from Callum’s memories are projected into the room in real-time, showing up as ghostly figures in a room-filling fog. At first, it seems to imply that this is all in Callum’s head, but no… everyone can see these ghost-memories, meaning the Animus is projecting them into the room that way on purpose.

There were other, much smaller problems with the plot of the movie itself, though mostly of the nitpicky kind that I think a decent movie could have papered over easily enough. Perhaps the biggest logic-gap in the movie was the character of Sophia, the female lead, who plays a well-meaning pseudo-protagonist. For the entire movie, it’s clear we’re supposed to like her, or at least sympathize with her, but by the end of the movie, her choices and decisions left her feeling both stupid and vindictive (somewhat justifiable, but still…), basically ruining her entire character. Though, full disclosure: the fact that it wasn’t Kristen Bell playing Lucy may have pissed me off a bit. The big (if somewhat obvious) reveal about the identity of all the other prisoners in the Abstergo facility also made little no sense, though it was crucial for the entire climax of the movie.

Lastly, the writers and director made a conscious choice not to simply repeat the plot of the first video game exactly; they changed enough of the story that, even if you’ve played them all, this will still be new to you. But, as is usual with video-game movies, there’s a cost here. The video game has plenty of time to dole out exposition over the dozens and dozens of hours you spend playing it, while the movie has no such luxury. Instead, it has to squeeze as much as it can into a dozen or so minutes in the first act. Sometimes, if the backstory is simple enough (e.g., Resident Evilthis can work. For this movie, it couldn’t. They were forced to explain the history of the Templars and Assassins for anyone who was new to the story, but they were also forced to show a completely new (and more complex) backstory for Callum than the simple one we got for Desmond, all to set up some relatively minor plot twists later on. In my opinion, the Assassin’s Creed story is linear enough, while also having enough depth, that they could have stuck closer to home. Instead, fans of the game will be annoyed at all the minor, seemingly-pointless changes, while those unfamiliar with it may find the story too complex to really understand at the pace they receive it.

Ultimately, I saw this movie because I’m a huge fan of the game, and there were some things I really wanted to see happen. And yes, as the trailer strongly alludes to, there is in fact a leap of faith (it plays a key role, in fact… perhaps too key a role) and someone does end up in a cart full of hay. But even I can’t legitimately claim that seeing those things was worth the price of admission, especially the higher 3-D price. If you’ve got some time and money to spare, maybe a nice gift card you got for Christmas, and like Michael Fassbender, this isn’t the worst movie you could go see, but if you’re looking for something fun and memorable to see at the theater, maybe skip this and see Rogue One again.

Review

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