When the first Assassin’s Creed game dropped almost a decade ago, it got away with a lot thanks to its swoon-worthy presentation.
Critics and players were so bowled over by the game’s beautiful animation and the note-perfect historical environments, they mostly forgave its repetitive in-game experience and the fact that its plot was plonkingly stupid.
The above criticisms could easily be aimed at the first film based on Ubisoft’s biggest gaming franchise. Assassin’s Creed certainly looks the part – it’s arguably one of the prettiest films audiences will see all year – but it’s hamstrung by a silly plot and characters that are paper-thin and hard to genuinely care about.
In a way it’s probably the videogame film adaptation that most faithfully captures the spirit of the franchise it’s based on; like the first game in the series, the Assassin’s Creed movie is beautiful, but ultimately hollow and feels more like a blueprint for a better instalment that hasn’t been made yet.
The film begins with a rather convoluted intro (hey, very much like the first couple of games) and then the plot centres on Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a criminal on death row. After receiving his lethal injection, which turns out to be not-so-lethal-at-all, he wakes up at the Madrid headquarters of a company called Abstergo.
Here, he’s informed by a woman named Sofia (Marion Cotillard) that, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, he’s dead. Furthermore Abstergo would like his help in examining the activities of a long dead relative, Aguilar, a Spanish assassin who walked the earth circa 1492.
Abstergo has an apparatus called the Animus, which allows users to access the memories of anyone they share a DNA strand with. It’s also the front for an organisation called The Templars that’s after an item called The Apple of Eden. Said Apple will enable The Templars to remove free will from humans and thus end all war on the planet.
Since Lynch is related to Aguilar and the assassin was the last individual known in history who had an idea of the Apple’s whereabouts, The Templars want to strap him into the Animus in order to obtain the artefact’s current location.
If you’re still following all this you may have noticed that a lot of it sounds rather silly. Even if you can accept the notion that technology will one day allow people to experience the memories of their bloodline like a first person shooter, the idea that an ancient golden ball can remove free will from earth’s human population is one hell of a leap.
To be fair to the film, all of this claptrap is part of the game franchise. But unlike the game developers, who wisely choose to pay hardly any attention to the modern day storyline, the Assassin’s Creed movie spends the lion’s share of its time in the present day, which only throws the series’ ridiculous lore into sharper relief.
Like the games, when the action switches to the protagonist’s ancient relative’s perspective, things take a turn for the better. Watching Aguilar parkour through the rooftops of 15th Century Spain and hammer the hell out of myriad foes beats watching Lynch saunter around Abstergo, which looks like some sort of Buddhist retreat on lockdown. Unfortunately, Lynch’s ancestor doesn’t really get much screen time, and when he does, he’s given little to do apart from fight and run.
God knows the actors work hard enough to sell the material. Fassbender manages to make Lynch more than a scowling anti-hero with daddy issues, which given the lousy script, is something of a coup.
Cotillard has a harder job with Sofia; she’s essentially a conflicted villain who knows what she’s doing is wrong, but does it anyway for the greater good of mankind. It’s just too bad for Cotillard that the final third of the film throws her character’s motivations into a meat grinder. Only Jeremy Irons who plays Sofia’s creepy father Rikkin comes away truly unscathed, but all he’s required to do is be politely sinister – a role Irons has excelled at for years.
To be honest, the target audience for Assassin’s Creed is better off sticking to the games, and those who aren’t interested in videogames will wonder how the hell Ubisoft’s franchise warranted a film at all.
Assassin’s Creed isn’t as egregiously bad as a lot of other films based on videogames (we’re looking at you, Agent 47), but it’s not a movie that’s going to convince players Hollywood now knows what it’s doing when it comes to adapting their favourite gaming franchises to the silver screen.