Assassin’s Creed has a lot of lore to explain, so it dives into the exposition right away. Some opening text introduces the idea that The Knights Templar have been in search of the Apple of Eden for centuries, believing that it contains the power to strip people of free will. Standing against the Knights Templar are the Assassins, who fight from the shadows to keep the holy order from reaching their goals. The main character of the movie is Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender), who is the last descendant of Aguilar (also played by Fassbender), an assassin from 15th century Spain who last possessed the apple.And so, Cal, who begins the movie on death row, is secretly taken away to a hidden facility somewhere in Europe. Sofia (Marion Cotillard), a brilliant scientist and daughter of a powerful member of the modern Knights Templar, is trying to unlock Cal’s genetic memories through the Animus, a revolutionary technology that allows him to relive the experiences of his Assassin ancestor. Through this, she hopes to discover the location of the Apple of Eden. Cal doesn’t really know what to make of all this, but his participation in unlocking Aguilar’s memories gives him access to skills he didn’t know he had, and a heritage that comes to define his place in the world.There is certainly ambition embedded in this story. There is a moral complexity inherent to the premise, which positions the unrepentant killers as the heroes of a tale standing against a villainous holy order that seeks to bring peace to the world. But the sci-fi elements of this narrative just don’t make for a very good movie. It largely strips the main character of agency, having him run through several fait accompli scenarios that don’t do much to build tension.
The main conceit is an integral element of the source material, of course. The Animus and its faux-time-travel hijinks are a central part of how the video games work. The difference is that in the video, there is a chance of failure. The player can mess up, or simply fail to handle the challenge presented by the artificially intelligent hordes. In the movie, the very concept gets in the way of telling a story. Almost all the action is taking place in the past, and we know right from the start that Aguilar somehow gets away with the Apple. Meanwhile, in the present, Cal is literally going through the motions of his ancestor’s various challenges.
The resulting narrative is strikingly cold. All the personal struggle is in the present, but all the action takes place in the distant past, where the ultimate fate of the characters is never in doubt. This might have been bearable had the action scenes been competently directed, but they’re all empty flash. The camera has trouble keeping track of the characters, and so the acrobatics and violence end up feeling distant and abstract. This is a severe waste of the acting talent on hand, which includes Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, and Brendan Gleeson. Each does what one can, but there just isn’t a whole lot to work with.
Assassin’s Creed is another example of how certain elements in one medium just don’t work when translated into another. This isn’t unique to video games; novels, comic books, plays, and television shows have all had their struggles in moving to the big screen. Perhaps the central conceit of reliving memories would have worked better if the film weren’t so tied down to using the Animus as a means of generating action sequences. There are certainly greater ideas at play here, but the film can’t exactly get to them as it cuts back and forth between its shakily directed chase sequences and scenes of Michael Fassbender swinging at holographic foes.
ASSASSIN’S CREED OPENS IN LOCAL CINEMAS ON JANUARY 4.