‘Assassin’s Creed’ Actually Is The Best Video Game Movie So Far, But It’s Still Lacking – Forbes
I won a gold medal at the Olympics once.
I ran the 100 meter dash, and broke across the finish line in record time. As I danced around in victory, my enthusiasm was not diminished by the fact that I was 8-years-old, and my only opponents had been my asthmatic neighbor and a few action figures that hadn’t moved from the starting line.
By this metric, Assassin’s Creed has also won a gold medal. It’s the best video game movie I’ve seen to date, but as everyone knows, that’s quite a low bar. Stacked up against the larger world of weird sci-fi outings and action blockbusters, it just doesn’t hold up, and yes, once again we still are stuck at merely “decent,” rather than becoming that eternally out-of-reach “great” video game movie adaptation.
It may be encouraging to some to hear I do think this is the best video game movie so far. I like it more than the generic mess that was Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia. I like it more than the original Resident Evil which believe me, is not as good as you remember. And I certainly like it more than this year’s attempt at a Warcraft feature, a film that left a bad taste in my mouth for quite a while thereafter.
Perhaps the best thing about Assassin’s Creed is that by the end, it manages to tell a more compelling and effective story than nearly any of the actual games in the series. Granted, that may only be possible since storytelling has never been Assassin’s Creed’s strong suit, but the narrative improvements are noticeable. The path Callum (Michael Fassbender) takes from a brutal childhood to death row to Abstergo which helps him understand both the Assassins and Templar is well orchestrated, and has a solid payoff in the end that is arguably better than any found in the games, which are always content to make the modern day storyline an afterthought, if they bother with it at all.
The film is aesthetically excellent, from the cold hallways of Abstergo to the smoky haze of 15th century Spain. The direction and cinematography make this the most visually stimulating video game film to date, and there’s a sense of polish that pervades it that so many other films in the genre lack.
The action sequences are rather fantastic, splicing together recognizable situations and combat from the games to make for memorable set pieces, the best of which is an “oh crap I sounded every alarm in the city” mad dash rooftop escape that every player can remember stumbling through dozens of times throughout the games.
It’s a film that grows on you, and by the end, I was on board with the idea that yes, I really could declare this the best video game film so far, and I do think there’s a lot that Assassin’s Creed fans in particular will like about it. With that said, that’s where the good news stops, in my estimation.
There are a number of very strange choices made throughout Assassin’s Creed that I don’t quite understand. The one that fans might find the most galling is the desire of the movie to focus almost entirely on the present day Abstergo storyline, leaving the historical stuff as a side note when it’s always the meat of the games. The film only puts Callum in the Animus exactly three times, and each segment is little more than an action sequence, meaning there really is practically no character development of Callum’s ancestor Aguilar or his female companion, who has very neat fighting skills but I genuinely don’t think the film ever took a spare second to give her a name.
But character development isn’t all that much better in the present day storyline either. We know nothing about Callum other than his confusing, tragic backstory, and he only inches forward on an emotional journey to discover the true nature of the Assassin-Templar conflict and process the horrors of his past. But he is not really a fully-fleshed out character and is simply “a guy stuff happens to.” It’s Abstergo scientist Sophia (Marion Cotillard) who seems like she’s on a path to self-awareness about the nature of her organization’s work, but without giving anything away, that’s a plotline the film seems more than content to abandon by the end for little to no reason.
And while the action is fairly solid throughout the film, I can’t help but think it would have been even better if Assassin’s Creed would have been able to let loose with an R rating. I’m not sure why an eternally M-rated game felt the need to release a PG-13 feature, but it’s more than a little goofy when there isn’t more than an ounce of blood spilled as Assassins and Templar are stabbed, sliced, gutted and skewered left and right throughout the film. This is a rare case where a lack of gore is actually distracting, and the PG-13 gambit for younger viewers makes the film lose something.
While I don’t have a ton of problems with Callum’s arc, and I can even tolerate the heavy focus on present day, the thing I found the most strange was the almost total lack of mystery employed in telling the story here. The movie opens up with a crawl that explains the long war between the Assassins and Templar, the Apple of Eden and its ability to control free will. Then, the movie launches into nearly a full hour of painstaking explanation, explaining exactly who everyone is (that Abstergo is a Templar front and Callum is a prisoner is never in any doubt) and what’s going on (genetic memory and the Animus are explained in excruciating detail no less than three times). Sophia even drops the casual revelation early on that the Apple of Eden was probably made by God and/or an ancient civilization. This is a series where Ubisoft was so secretive about its many mysteries they didn’t even reveal the present day/Animus aspect of the original for as long as they could. But here, every single detail you learn through the first two or three games is laid bare in monotonous exposition as the film ramps up.
I get why critics say the film is over-plotted between the Apple, the Animus, genetic memory, the Templars, the Assassins. It’s a hell of a lot going on. I do think there was probably a way to make this work where, like the games, the film was set 95% in the past and some aspects remained a mystery. The filmmakers went too far trying to explain every facet of the Assassin’s Creed universe to a general audience, and it saps the life out of the first half of the film as a result. A different film, say Uncharted, could have just gone with “guy must find treasure” concept and launched right into things from there. But Assassin’s Creed requires all this explanatory nonsense that almost had to be in the film to some degree, lest the entire core concept of the series be changed. It’s a tough situation, but ultimately it doesn’t seem like the right calls were made here.
Assassin’s Creed has great visuals but a lack of context for them. It has great actors but weak characters for them to play. It has a somewhat compelling narrative arc but a bad script. There are just so many of these elements working in direct opposition to each other that it’s ultimately a coinflip whether you might consider the film good or bad by the end. While I personally think the incredibly terrible scores the film is getting from the movie critic crowd are too low, at best, if this movie isn’t an 18% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s certainly not more than a 50%. And sadly, that would indeed make it the best video game movie so far.
I’m still not ready for everyone to quit making video game films altogether, as I know there’s a great one out there somewhere. I genuinely believed that Assassin’s Creed might be it, but I have to admit that I don’t think it was the direction or acting that was the problem here, it was the very concept, and ultimately the anemic source material. Perhaps a game with a stronger innate story will have better luck, but Assassin’s Creed gets lost in its own convoluted mythology even when trying to write a new tale that isn’t directly from a specific game.
I do think that any fan of the series should see it, as you will have a better chance of liking it than most. I do not think this movie stands up to other, non-gaming movies in similar genres, despite the hope that it could.
As always, maybe next time.
Maybe next time.