In 2007, French game developer Ubisoft took a leap of faith with a new game IP called Assassin’s Creed. It followed the exploits of one Altaïr ibn-La’Ahad, a member of the brotherhood known only as the Assassins. 10 years later, Assassin’s Creed the film has arrived, and much like its namesake, Ubisoft have once again taken a massive leap of faith, flying in the face of history, and have reached for the seemingly unreachable… a great film based on video game property.
Game Adaptations Suck
Ok so Silent Hill was ‘decent’ and Prince of Persia was ‘average’, but before we get that ever-elusive Holy Grail of gamerdom, let’s start with the obvious.
Now, you would think that the first film adaptation of a hugely marketable videogame global property, one that bursts with all the tasty trappings of an Epic, Historical, Action Adventure Sci-Fi Blockbuster… would be offered to a seasoned Hollywood Director. Someone that could handle the daunting $130 million-dollar budget. Who could juggle complex action with big-scale digital fx and spectacle. Someone who can tell a good story. Unfortunately for fans and audiences in general, we got Australian Justin Kurzel. Known mostly for his bold, opulent ($15 million) Macbeth adaptation. Well, this ain’t Shakespeare and this ain’t an art house film – this is Assassin’s Creed, and not only does his lack of experience in this size of film show, the filmmaker and writers show a distinct lack of basic storytelling technique that just boggled my mind.
Story is King
In the first few minutes, Kurzels film begins with a crawl of expository text that explains the events of the period. We’re in 1492 during the Spanish Inquisition where a hooded man cuts off his own finger as part of the initiation into of the Brotherhood of Assassins. He’s given an assignment to protect a Prince, but before we get to know this new character (don’t worry, we won’t) it fasts forward 500 years into our past. It’s now 1986 and Callum, a young boy finds his mother dead and his father – in a hood – stands over her with a hidden blade. We fast forward – again – 30 years to the boy (now a man) about to be executed for murder. Our protagonist survives his execution to be imprisoned by Abstergo – a mysterious organisation who wield the Animus, a machine that allows you to see through the eyes of your ancient ancestors via your DNA… Confused? Unless you’ve played the games, I would expect so. So much of the set-up is rushed through to get to the action. But telling a multi-tiered story with a sci-fi hook works when it takes the time to explain everything in a succinct and clear manner; a way that doesn’t detract from the plot or the action. When outside of the action/animus, the dialogue scenes grind the film to a screeching halt. At least you can skip boring cut-scenes in a game, here – no such luck. Again, it all comes back to the writing. If we’re on board with a character, understand their motivations, even like them, we’ll be there for those expository scenes. In this case, that’s a big “if.”
The Zero’s Journey
When you have not one, but TWO protagonists, and both are being played by one of the most captivating lead actors on the planet – and both are boring characters – you KNOW the writers have shat the bed (pardon my Spanish).
Callum is merely a passive guide to the Animus aka ‘virtual reality plot device’, and that is for getting us to that character’s ancestor… So SURELY (surely) that ancestor must be a character worth visiting, right? Someone with his own story? His own motivations for dedicating his life to a cause that insists upon him removing his middle finger and becoming a trained killer for a higher purpose? No? No. In fact, our assassin friend is the least developed character in the film. He’s a henchman. A parkour stunt man. He’s Darth Maul – he looks great on a poster and will sell some cool toys, but he’s a hollow shell. I’m sure there’s a novel or comic book that explains who this man really is and explores what makes him tick – but not here. They say the book is usually better anyway…
Fix it in post….
After all this rushing through backstory, exposition and jumping back and forth through the movie, the middle section arrived and I found myself perking up. Two assassins are being pursued by soldiers from above and below, and they expertly parkour their way through streets, over walkways and across rooftops, while being fired upon with arrows. It’s the kind of sequence that would have been written into the first draft of the film, and it’s a thrilling chase. For fans of the game it is classic Assassin’s Creed through and through (and for fans of staying awake it’s a nice jolt). Sadly, a lot of the impressive stunt work, fight choreography and swordplay gets a little lost in the staccato editing. I don’t know why directors and editors like to cut up modern action films so quickly, but when editing is used as a substitute for excitement, you know your director just covered it with a few different cameras to go over later in the edit suite. And that’s a shame, because an adventure film like this should be allowed to breathe visually, to allow the audience to enjoy all of the beats of the action. There aren’t many directors working today that actually understand how action can be shot as spectacle, it has to be said.
Leap of Fail
Assassin’s Creed is not a terrible film (if it was terrible, this review would be a lot more entertaining and fun) but I can’t say it’s any good, either. There’s a lack of focus on what’s important. Our heroes – yes, even our anti-heroes – need to be interesting in some way. We need to be able to if not empathise, then at least relate to them in some way. The audience needs characters that can speak to them on some level. If I’m rooting for nobody, then you’ve lost me, and I’m only in it for the action and the spectacle. And when those aren’t even up to the expected standards of a massive blockbuster, you wonder just what the hell they were thinking in the first place.
Thanks to lacklustre box office and poor reviews across the board, the curse of the subpar game adaptation is alive and well. Perhaps next time – if there is one – Ubisoft should look to more experienced storytellers to help breathe life into their new cinematic franchise, and not rely solely on a stellar (but wasted) cast and a massive (and misspent) budget.
ASSASSINS CREED – The Review