Most of the worst moments in the original Assassin’s Creed game happened just after you finished a big, juicy, satisfying quest. “Congratulations!” the game would say, “welcome back to the bland, white, walking-speed-only world of The Modern Day.” Assassin’s Creed, the film, is a full 116 minutes of that.
In the game, Abstergo meant a boring sequence where you had to run (sorry, walk) around the lab for a while until you found a password for a computer, or looked at the right thing to prompt a conversation. To the movie’s credit, its Abstergo scenes are a bit more interesting than they are in the game — the problem is that there’s just too many of them.
A note on spoilers: I’ve made an effort to avoid spoilers as the movie doesn’t release in Australia until New Years Day, but you should turn back now if you want to go in clean. I’ve tried to restrict talking about plot points to things you will have already seen in the trailers.
As you might expect if you’ve watched any Marvel, DC or video game film in the last few years, Assassin’s Creed is not a standalone film but rather, a setup for a franchise. As you might also expect, it suffers because of this.
Assassin’s Creed has a lot of things to set up in its almost two-hour runtime. Aside from all the backstory that has to be established for main character Callum Lynch (Fassbender), the film also has to detail the fairly involved history of the Assassins, the Templars and Abstergo itself, the Apple of Eden and what it does, and what any of this has to do with Michael Fassbender walking around in pajamas for an hour.
Unfortunately, the adaptation seems just a little too keen to answer all these questions. In fact, many of them are explained before we even see Fassbender on screen, in a title card that lays out most of the tricky backstory. It doesn’t leave you to figure out anything on your own, it just straight up tells you “these are the good guys, these are the bad guys, this is what they both want”.
After that disappointingly frank title card, the movie actually gets off to a strong start, nodding to fans of the game series with Aguilar’s initiation ceremony. The movie is visually appealing, even if they go a little overboard with the colour grade sometimes. Be prepared for a lot of teal and orange.
There’s also so much haze added to the background of the historical scenes that you may start to think 15th Century Spain existed in a perpetual duststorm. You thought Game of Thrones had haze? Ha! Just wait until you see this!
The production design is probably one of my favourite aspects — it does the classic Assassin’s Creed thing by taking recognisable design elements from the series and giving it a unique spin for the time and location.
Abstergo is similarly visually interesting — it takes the stark white offices of the games and makes them actually interesting, even if the ultra-modernist look gets taken a little too far at times. Poor Marion Cotillard, playing Alan Rikkin’s daughter Sophia, gets stuck in some truly heinous outfits to match the Abstergo aesthetic at times. Just try not to cringe too much.
The one thing I truly hate, out of all this interesting design, is the Animus. You’ve probably seen it in all of the trailers, and it’s no less fussy, unnecessary and annoying in the film. It looks and functions like the most awful, over-the-top version of all those clunky VR treadmills, and Assassin’s Creed just can’t stop itself from cutting back to it over and over and over.
Aguilar runs across a rooftop — look, Callum is doing the same thing in the Animus! Aguilar assassinates a random grunt — look, Callum just made the same motion! Aguilar does a leap of faith — yeah, you know what’s gonna happen next.
The constant cutting back and forth between the modern day and the Spanish Inquisition not only interrupts the flow of the really-quite-cool action of Aguilar’s missions, it also feels like it’s talking down to the audience: as though somehow, an hour and a half in, you still haven’t figured out how the Animus works. This is made worse by occasional cuts to Sophia muttering enlightening phrases like “he’s synchronising!” or “leap of faith!” You know, in case you didn’t get it.
The few attempts at humour fall flat, probably because everyone seems to speak in the same husky whisper the whole way through. Unfortunately, the moments that did have the entire cinema laughing were the ones that were meant to be serious — shots that are so tropey you just can’t take them seriously.
Overall, Assassin’s Creed really suffers from spending its time in the wrong places. The entire middle of the movie is a black hole in which I don’t remember anything but one scene that was memorable for all the wrong reasons (you’ll see when you get there).
Aguilar, Maria and the entire Spanish Inquisition subplot are criminally under-used in a film that centred its marketing around the ‘welcome to the Spanish Inquisition’ line. The focus on the historical setting and its various details is one of my favourite things about the game series — so it’s disappointing to see that so neglected here. The ancestral Assassins probably say about 10 lines in the entire film, more than half of which are some version or repetition of the titular Assassin’s Creed. Hey, maybe they’re just setting up for an Aguilar spinoff.
The film’s commitment to showing the ‘bleeding effect’ — a part of Desmond’s story in the games that I had all but forgotten about — is admirable, but the time spent on it would definitely be better put somewhere else (hint: in 15th Century Spain).
Now I realise I’ve just spent quite a while listing things I really didn’t like about Assassin’s Creed, so I should probably point out that I actually didn’t hate this film. In fact, I think I almost enjoyed it.
All the scenes set in the past were exactly what you would expect from an Assassin’s Creed film — really solid filmography following some even better parkour, fun action scenes and creative fight choreography. They do go a little overboard on the shakycam, however, to the point where it’s occasionally futile to even try to focus on the screen at all.
The movie deviates from the games a little by introducing Callum to a handful of other ancestral Assassins — fellow detainees at Abstergo. The most notable of these is Michael K. Williams as Moussa, the descendant of Haitian Assassin Baptiste (who actually appears in the AssCreed Vita game ‘Liberation’). Another is Lin, played by Michelle Lin, a disappointingly silent but undeniably badass Assassin.
As far as villains go, the highlight is definitely Charlotte Rampling as Ellen Kaye, the ruthless but oh-so-well-put-together leader of the Templars. Jeremy Irons isn’t nearly as interesting as Alan Rikkin — the only named character from the original games to appear. He seems to spend most of his time wearing Steve Jobs-esque turtlenecks and looking at things.
Maybe my brain went for a wander during the dull middle stretch of the film, but both the beginning and the end were surprisingly enjoyable. Just as you’re almost ready to give up on the film, things finally start to heat up — and not just because Fassbender takes his shirt off. But that’s definitely part of it.
You can just forget any of the prior scenes actually happened once you get to this point, and the last few scenes are just straight up exciting. You finally find yourself rooting for the characters instead of just wondering what the hell they’re doing with their lives.
While it really, really sucks that this film suffers for the sake of setting up sequels, I have to admit that it did its job well. I want to see the sequel. In the end, the thing that excited me most about Assassin’s Creed was the potential.
The best way to describe Assassin’s Creed is that it’s the movie equivalent of the first game — tedious, obsessed with its own concept, but setting up for a sequel that could potentially be brilliant. But whether the sequel will turn out to be the film version of the masterpiece that was Assassin’s Creed 2, or if it will be a Unity-sized disaster… well, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.