Rebels, freedom fighters, revolutionaries, or resistance members. All have at times throughout history used questionable methods, even terrorism, assassinations etc. to further their goals. Who are the good guys when those opposed to oppression kill without discrimination? That question has been at the core of my fascination with the Assassin’s Creed videogame series. “Nothing is true… Everything is premitted” is the Creed. The Assassins make no excuses for their utter lack of morals. Their sworn enemies are the Templars, who while claiming the moral high ground are just as shady, and they want to rule the world.
The games are far from perfect, and some are even unplayable, but they all have a hint of that pure awesomeness found in the first game. I feel it most strongly when wandering through a crowd, approaching the target exactly as planned, before striking quickly and efficiently and then disappearing without a trace. It seemed almost impossible not to make a badass movie out of it, and yet somehow they managed to take everything bad from the games, and leave very little of the good stuff in.
Explaining the plot of the Assassin’s Creed series is always a bit like the Monty Python Proust Summary Competition, but I’ll give it a go. The Templars and Assassins have been at war for centuries. The Templars want to find the Apple of Eden, an artefact believed to contain the key to free will. They know it went missing during the 15th century. In order to find out where it is they use technology (called an Animus) that allows a person to relive their ancestors’ lives. Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is the decendent of Aguilar, the Assassin known to have held the Apple. He’s about to be executed for murder, but instead wakes up in the research fascility.
That’s really just the premise. You’d think the film would be about cool assassins running around in 15th century Spain as the Apple’s hinding place is located. Despite the fact that the film is a treasure hunt at its core, the Apple’s discovery feels like an aside. Like so many things in the film, plot points happen when the movie calls for it, not through a natural progression of events. In a film where presumably half of what happens is forced on the protagonist through his experience in the Animus, one would hope for some agency where we could get it, but no.
The main problem is not enough actual assassins. I want to be in 15th century Spain! But I do understand why Cal is the protagonist and not Aguilar. In the game the future vs past story went from being an interesting mechanic to a tedious slow trudge in between the good stuff. I have never cared for the “present” characters. The bulk of the games are set inside the Animus and when inside the player can easily forget who we “really” are, because it doesn’t matter – a death in game is just a bit that has to be replayed, in or out of the Animus.
In the movie, however, the danger inside the Animus becomes a problem. How can we care when all we’re doing is watching a movie inside a movie? All these people have been dead for centuries. So, I understand why Cal and his story has to be the main focus. I even applaud the movie for giving us a morally grey character. If only we knew anything substantial about him. Michael Fassbender does as much as he can with what he’s given. But it’s not nearly enough.
The Animus is absurd technology. We know that. It’s a bit like the Force in Star Wars: if you try to explain it, you’ll make it suck. The film makes the Animus a super immersive VR rig, but all it does is make you wonder how the rig lets him roll or fall on his back. The film loves going on and on about how the Templars want to save society from violence, but all that does is make them sound like 19th century phrenology fanatics.
Why do so many films these days want to be needlessly complicated and full of characters? The core story of Assassin’s Creed is right there: Cal is a violent man who is manipulated by the Templars to hate the Assassins, and while reliving Aguilar’s life he slowly comes to the realisation that some causes might be worth dying for, and that violence might sometimes be justified. Whether or not we agree with the Templars or Assassins isn’t the point. Knowing Cal is being manipulated could have created great tension as we hope he learns the truth. Instead the movie spells everything out without any sense of the secret societies they’re all supposedly a part of. Where is the mystery and intrigue? The games are about secrets, political machinations and solving puzzles, but there is no sense of that in what we see on screen.
The film has some great actors, but misuses them completely. Marion Cotillard plays Dr. Sophia Rikin, who undergoes her own journey of disillutionment with the Templars. Why? Why do we need two stories? Would not Cotillard’s beautiful and innocent face be better suited for the reveal of her pure manipulation and ruthlessness? The film doesn’t have the time to give us one good personal journey, let alone another one about a woman who might lose faith in her creed and her father.
The ideas in the film are interesting in the abstract, but on screen it comes across as muddled and at times boring. If I had to put my finger on the major problem of the film it’s the editing. It’s sometimes incoherent, lingers on too many faces, and makes the action a chore to watch.
As usual I have made a long list of complaints, mostly because I love these games when they’re at their best. There are great little moments in the film. When Cal sits down in the facility’s caffeteria he has a great WTF line. The designs and costume are beautiful, though the 15th century is stuck on sepia mode. Some of the action, when it’s watchable and not edited to death, is great. But the lack of focus in the story and lack of that cool assassin aesthetic makes the film a sad affair.
Dice roll: 2