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Movies have long tried to bring the video game experience to life on the big screen, each layered in great promise though nearly all fail in capturing what fans of both gaming and film really expect. That’s mostly because while games are active and can seem cinematic, allowing players to feel transported into the worlds of the characters they control, movies are a passive medium, where viewers remain a spectator. Time and time again, the expectation of a video game title adapted to film ends up a forgettable exercise in futility. When Assassin’s Creed was announced, a game franchise where players essentially guide varying characters in different time periods to climb buildings and stab enemies, there was a collective expectation that this time, someone would get it right, especially given the talent in front of and behind the camera. On many levels, it does, but unfortunately, can’t make the great leap necessary.
We meet a prisoner named Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender), living in the not-too-distant future. Seemingly executed for his crimes, he wakes to find he was actually rescued by a mysterious group who call themselves The Templars, claiming that Lynch’s DNA holds the key to locating the Apple of Eden, which is not a fruit but rather a powerful device that can end free will and therefore stop rampant corruption and the enslavement of the human race.
Lynch learns that he is the ancestor of Aguilar de Nerha, a member of a counter-revolutionary group named the Assassin’s Creed, a secret order who for centuries have opposed the Templar Order. Now in their control, Cal is forced into a thing called the Animus Project by Dr. Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), the lead scientist, a sort of virtual time machine that allows him to see through the eyes of Aguilar and therefore search for the Apple. Once in the machine, Cal is sent to Spain, 1492, and meets his partner Maria (Ariane Labed), where they are tasked with rescuing a prince in the first step of reaching the device. Along the way though, back in the Animus, Cal is becoming imbued with the same highly-trained fighting skills of his ancestor, and a battle for freedom wages in two different centuries.
Directed by Justin Kurzel, who re-teams with Fassbender and Cotillard, having directed them in last year’s stylish and violent MacBeth, Assassin’s Creed is a decidedly different film but retains the style and high level of performances as it surges forward with great momentum, made so by a number of stunning action scenes and some impressive imagery, but the complex story is weighted down by a need for exposition, which slows the pace to a crawl throughout as characters try to keep audiences up to speed in a film trying to spin a few too many plates.
Naturally, the movie can’t escape the legacy of the highly successful games, which are seeped in historical accuracies woven into the fictional accounts, and while the film borrows plenty of recognizable elements of the games, it is an original story and elevated by its cast, including the always impressive Jeremey Irons and Brendan Gleeson and the incomparable Charlotte Rampling. Gamers searching for parallels will find lots of moments that echo their own experiences, but few resembling actual gameplay. The film, in gaming terms, often seems like a collection of un-skippable cutscenes, and while they are well made, do little in giving the heavy story any real sense of depth or place in a time.
There are some nice touches though, such as authentic use of Spanish in the Animus-projected scenes and a commitment to the gameplay aspects that have come to define the series, including some terrific rooftop running set-pieces and of course, those silly leaps of faith, though great liberties have been taken with several other areas, including the Animus itself. Some of the more troubling issues come from a lack of investment though as we don’t get any clear picture of who these characters are, who, much like the game, are shrouded in cloaks so faces often come with glimpses. The fighting is solid if not perfuctory and thankfully there isn’t a lot of it, though the lags in-between don’t pack the off-setting punch to keep it truly compelling.
Assassin’s Creed is surely meant to be the start of a new film franchise and while it plants some worthwhile seeds, it is far from a perfect film and already seems like it’s played out. Gamers will get the most from it, naturally, and while it clicks with mechanical precision, it lacks heart.
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons
Genre: Action, Adventure
Language: English, Spanish