It’s a successful video game franchise turned into a movie, so it’s got to be good, right? Lee and Lawrence review.
As the Post-Avengers, Post-Force Awakens, Post-Minions world continues to spew money for the next freshest multifaceted franchise, the race to become the next Hunger Games has formed a studio-headed Hunger Games of its own. What bloodthirsty convoluted sci-fi concept will climb the decaying husks of Divergent and Maze Runner to challenge the limited worldview of your teenagers this time? Step forward, for it is your time, Assassin’s Creed.
This context isn’t entirely fair, but it’s also not entirely false. A gap in a lucrative market awaits plugging, and a video game series well known for being rated 15-and-up lowers its own standards to the 12A market to get your kids hooked on hoods and sleeve-knives before they stop being cool in three years’ time (or, for gamers, about five years ago). At the same time, to say the film is devoid of risk would be ludicrous, because if this is supposedly ‘playing it safe’ then they should really put up a warning sign about all the snakes in this ball-pit.
In summary: Michael Fassbender plays Callum Lynch, a convicted man with a genetic tie to an ancient order of assassins known as “The Assassins”, who is abducted and used by a rival ancient order of dogmatic fascists known as “The Templars” to locate a magical McGuffin which grants them power over humanity’s free will. To locate the McGuffin, Callum must use a complex sci-fi machine to experience, mentally and physically, the memories of a long-dead ancestor in the time of the Spanish Inquisition who the Templars know was the last person to see the McGuffin. Fassbender also plays his ancestor.
It gets more convoluted from there, introducing inner-organisation politics, initiation rituals, a ragtag group of descendants of Assassins, a “Bleeding Effect” where the thoughts and skills of the ancestor are learned by the subject due to exposure in the machine, essentially teaching modern day Callum parkour and kung-fu and fine; here’s the part where you get recommended to watch Assassin’s Creed.
It’s far from perfect; in fact it’s not particularly good at all. The story is packed full of unnecessary information, with a father-daughter power-play story that you will only pay attention to because heavy-hitters Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons are the ones doing the talking, but you will not walk away with a sense of understanding beyond knowing they’re both different shades of incompetent and evil.
The plot takes a long time to get going, the side characters are little more than schoolyard clichés, the magical McGuffin is barely explained or rationalised creating this unnecessary set of questions regarding the existence of magic in a film that clearly goes out of its way to establish technology as a huge necessity; coupled with that, the past segments are underutilised and underexplored, as are both of Fassbender’s characters who range from misunderstood sad face to generally understood frowny face. Both Assassins and Templars are ambiguous organisations, which might be interesting if the main character had any agency so we could side with him, but the narrative frames the Assassins as good so the audience either goes along with that or sits vicariously in cult limbo, unswayed by any one cause.
Yet there is the odd flare of passion in the filmmaking. Direction is more than competent, with some incredibly convincing action choreography and a solid fluidity between set-ups that evokes the wirework and style of some of the great martial arts movies. Various gadgets and weapons, surprise team-ups and subterfuge all lend themselves to a Bond/Bourne tone, the sci-fi concept is genuinely bizarre and visually engaging, the score ramps up at exactly the right time and there’s something compelling about a movie that just wants you to take in as much of its concepts as you possibly can before your time’s up. The world is packed full of tidbits of information and backstory, all fighting over each other for the chance to be name-checked by Cotillard in a prolonged expositional scene.
The sombre mood and general ineptitude won’t be for everyone, and you can be forgiven for even genuinely not enjoying the movie, but there’s something akin to charm in the experience of Assassin’s Creed that should be recommended to those adventurous enough to brave it. Little moments just fly-by, only to be registered by your brain days later: was that Brendan Gleeson? How did they survive that enormous leap of faith anyway? God, why am I still humming Crazy for Feeling? Missed opportunities still get points for proximity; at least in video games.
(This was also probably as close as we’ll ever get to more Frank from Fassbender, so I’ll take what I can get).
Assassin’s Creed as a franchise is a magnificent clusterfuck. The premise is simple enough: Two ideologically opposed secret societies that have been at war throughout human history; the Templars represent Control, Order and their idea of “Peace”, and the Assassins, who represent Liberty, Personal Freedoms, and anti-authoritarianism. Simple enough, right? The formula certainly works; for every new entry in the series just jump in at a particularly interesting moment of human history, and see how the eternal struggle is going. However, we are missing the framing device for all this: That the Templars of the modern day have devised a device called the Animus, that can analyse the “genetic memory” of an individual’s DNA to somehow divine the memories of their ancestors, and allow them to relive their ancestor’s experiences. It is through this machine that we (and the characters) are experiencing the history. Keeping up? Now take into consideration that there is a precursor race of superhumans that engineered the human race, created incredibly powerful artefacts that we now call “Pieces of Eden”, whose civilisation was destroyed in a mass extinction event, and it is these Pieces of Eden that act as the McGuffins of the series. Now imagine squeezing all of this into a feature-length film and you may now be getting an idea of the unenviable task this movie was saddled with.
Wisely, they inconspicuously brush the “Precursor Race” bit under the rug for this one, even if it leaves our mysterious “Apple of Eden” plot device with some rather flimsy context. The chronic struggle of the series is the juggling act between the modern day and historical storylines, with the former having become cumbersome and rather vestigial with recent titles. Sure, some of us may be invested in the modern narrative; but let’s not mince words here, we’re here for the elaborate historical stabbings, thank you. How unfortunate it is then that the solid majority of the film is spent in the modern day, though the nature of the story makes this unavoidable if they want to keep newcomers afloat through this convoluted nightmare.
Our protagonist is Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a convicted murderer slated for execution. Callum awakens from his “lethal” injection in a research foundation run by Abstergo Industries, the contemporary face of the Templar Order. Head scientist Dr Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) informs him of that he is the ancestor of Spanish assassin Aguilar de Nerha (Fassbender), and that Aguilar’s memories (through Callum’s genes) are the key to finding the Apple of Eden, a device she claims is capable of ending Mankind’s proclivities for violence. Following a life of hopping from foster home to foster home after his Assassin father killed his mother, Callum is all too ready to help; but as he sees the world through Aguilar’s eyes, he begins to question Abstergo’s true motives…
The appeal of Assassin’s Creed is immersing yourself in its historical environments, and the series is at its best when it has engaging characters through which to experience these environments. While the games have the home advantage of many hours of gameplay and interactivity to aid in the immersion, I have no doubt that if handled right the ol’ movie magic can capture that same feeling. Unfortunately, the film has the classic video game movie adaption problem in that it inherits all the weaknesses and none of the strengths of its source material. We are tantalised with the fertile setting of the Spanish Inquisition, established with a sweeping vista of the siege of Granada. While scoring points for every historical scene being spoken in the appropriate language, the movie otherwise fails entirely to take advantage of its setting, and the Aguilar story seems only to act as a means of developing Callum. Aguilar himself seems to takes after original series protagonist Altaïr character-wise, in that his personality is centred almost entirely around his adherence to the Assassins. Hell, at least Altaïr had a character arc of growing to become a mentor; something Aguilar lacks entirely, amounting to a boring wet-fish of a protagonist.
Meanwhile, Callum’s character arc could generously be described as “rocky” at best. He undergoes the “Initially unwilling participant to full-fledged Assassin” development but the transition is incredibly muddled, and it almost seem as though he is being accidentally and indirectly brainwashed through mental contamination with Aguilar rather than making a choice for himself, which I strongly suspect is not the intention of the filmmakers. His fellow imprisoned Assassins/Descendants of Assassins are certainly of no help in the usual lofty and pontificating way that is so typical of the organisation, whenever they are not being actively belligerent towards him. Callum does get a heart-to-heart with his Assassin father, played by Brendan Gleeson; however, it is with bitter disappointment that I inform you we do not get to see portly Brendan Gleeson perform any acrobatics and sick off-the-wall martial arts.
The franchise has typically been from the perspective of the Assassins, so they are often portrayed as the “Good” to the Templars’ “Bad” (though not without good reason); some titles however, have endeavoured to add a touch of ambiguity to the proceedings by insinuating that there are heroes and villains on both sides and there is no clear cut answer (this is despite the fact there is a clear cut answer in that both sides are extremes and some compromises would make everything easier for everybody but that’s an embuggerance for another time). Unfortunately, the film’s approach to ambiguity is to make both sides (the majority of the cast, mind) appear sinister, mysterious, and unlikeable, which goes a long way in preventing the audience from investing themselves in the characters and conflict. Abstergo CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) is visibly bursting at the seams suppressing villainous clichés, but every once in a while, he cannot help but slip out a line about controlling the masses this or eliminating freedom that. Oh, those Templars! Just can’t help themselves with their moustache twirling.
For a powerful organisation that has existed for so long, the Templars make such glaring blunders that it seems a miracle that they have managed the power and influence that they have. I mean really, what made you think it was a good idea to leave an abundance of functioning medieval weaponry lying around your headquarters in plainly visible displays? Why, after spending so much time procuring Callum’s cooperation, does the Abstergo security chief profess his begrudging respect for the Assassins in front of Callum, before taunting him for not being one of them? Why oh why in this wide world does Abstergo allow its prisoners to freely mingle and fraternise during meals and leisure times when they know they have ties to the Assassins? “Oh, but Lawrence” I hear you say: “They weren’t really Assassins, just civilian test subjects with Assassin ancestors, perfectly harmless”. Except gradually taking on the skills, opinions and even personality of the ancestor you are experiencing in the Animus is a well-documented phenomenon by this point, they have a name for it and everything: “The Bleeding Effect”. It has resulted in breakouts and incidents before, so why are they allowing this? And yes, this film is canon in the Assassin’s Creed continuity, and if you want to know just how problematic that is for the canon, stick around after the film rating for some quality nitpicking. In any case, the Templars should know better than to wear hoods of all things at their secret meetings; don’t they know that trendy era-specific hoods are the key to the Assassin’s power?
The fight sequences are acceptable, if a little forgettable; it’s mostly that hideous contemporary fast-cuts-to-obscure-the-action technique that facilitates mediocre fight choreography. The parkour segments are better executed, which they bloody well should be considering the source material. There are a few “Leaps of Faith” moments, and fans nudging each other in the audience and wondering how on earth they could possibly portray such a thing in a plausible way for the silver screen will no doubt be disappointed, for they invariably find a way to cop out each time. No hay bakes here, I’m afraid.
Despite my efforts to view this movie with a fresh perspective, independent of my experience with the games, I simply cannot imagine how this film would appear to a newcomer. Enthusiasts will get a kick out of it (I certainly did); it’s two hours of unapologetic fanservice, take it or leave it. At the very least, they’ve established the premise to movie audiences; they can now focus on actually making good on all that potential, assuming they ever make a sequel, a risky proposition indeed.
Ah, so you’ve stuck around for the continuity analysis, eh? Well I’m prepared to take that as admission that you are familiar with the games; I certainly hope so, because here I will be getting into some nit ‘n’ grit so buckle up.
The idea of a multimedia franchise where material across different media is considered canon is not new, but that doesn’t stop it from being a nifty concept whenever I see it. However, when compounded with the “video game film adaption problem”, this becomes a bit of a mess when filmmakers wanting to make an interesting movie do so to the detriment of the overarching continuity, and that is on firm display here. To demonstrate, look no further than the Animus. Up to this point, the Animus has been some kind of raised, high-tech chaise longue, more akin to a fancy dentist chair than anything else; later innovations have streamlined the design to a VR headset kind of affair. So what on Earth is this convoluted monstrosity depicted in the film? The Templars bemoan the billions spent on the project, but it provides no benefit over the previous models so what is the point? In fact, ignoring the pain it must be to maintain (just look at the damn thing), the bleeding effect of the previous models is an occupational hazard that only manifests after repeated and prolonged use of the Animus, but here Callum demonstrates severe symptoms after only a single brief session, making this model of the Animus functionally worse than the others. I can understand they wanted to avoid unfavourable Matrix comparisons, and the grabby arm makes for a more visually interesting experience (Callum slicing the ghost images of long-dead Spanish soldiers is admittedly rather slick), but in addition to being stupidly elaborate, this Animus design conflicts with accepted canon by making no practical sense in-universe.
A smaller example is the finger-severing ritual: We see Aguilar having his ring finger severed before receiving his hidden blade in order to demonstrate his devotion. However, this is a practice that had been obsolete for centuries by the time the scene takes place in the name of pragmatism. It turns out Altaïr realised having a missing finger may negatively affect performance in the field, and it made identifying members of your super-secret order pretty fucking easy. Alas, it is a striking concept, and so it is included. Alan Rikkin’s portrayal may also be a bit of a bugbear. In the games the CEO’s indirect portrayal was always that of an impatient, vulgar philistine; not the classy, refined manipulator shown here.
These are all changes that would be perfectly acceptable in a separate film continuity, but as the same canon all they serve is to keep some poor writer up late as they try to reconcile these discrepancies for the next entry. That is assuming they address the contradictions at all, and just pretend it was all separate all along, with any evidence of canon declaration vanishing from the web.
That’s Ubisoft Abstergo Entertainment for you.
(Note to Editor: 1972 words in the document, RUH-ROH, RAGGY. You’d think I was being paid by the word! Or paid!)