This movie is totally hollow.
Over time, an unofficial rule of this blog developed and it is that I don’t typically go back and review movies from a previous year. There are always way too many and not enough time in the current year so I usually concentrate on what I’m seeing in theaters. For Assassin’s Creed, I am going to make an exception. Because I’m mad at it. It is so, so bad and the worst part is that it’s kind of regular type bad (it’s a lazy, shallow mess) rather than interesting or ambitious type bad. If all a video game movie can hope for is to be some shade of bad, I’d prefer the ambitious and bizarre bad of Warcraft to this any fucking day.
About the nicest thing you can say about this movie is that it’s occasionally gorgeous and very occasionally has some interesting ideas or revisions of the Assassin’s Creed “lore” as we might know it from the games. I played those games in the halcyon days before Ubisoft decided to make it an annual release and drive anything good about it to the merry land of tedious repetition and stagnant innovation. Still, I was cautiously optimistic about this movie because the trailer was stylish and there’s some solid talent both behind and in front of the camera. I was one of the people who liked Justin Kurzel and Michael Fassbender’s previous collaboration, 2015’s Macbeth adaptation. If Kurzel could bring his grit and eye for imagery to a video game movie, all the better. And he did, sort of, which is why there are shots in Assassin’s Creed that are great and might even trick some viewers into believing it’s ever more than some pretty packaging for a completely boring, by the numbers plot-driven vanity project. And it does feel like a vanity project for Fassbender.
All that being said, Assassin’s Creed is what I called “regular type bad” so at the end of the day, its many sins will be glossed and forgiven by people with an investment in what it offers: the elusive and fleeting thrill of seeing moments from a video game brought to life in a movie. There’s also that people probably genuinely want this movie to be way better than it is, that will fill in the yawning gaps it leaves everywhere (but especially with characterization, of which there is almost none) with dismissive “they explained that” statements. And yes, this movie explains itself a lot, right from the half-assed opening text, but it rarely if ever does anything else.
A movie where Bobby Sands is actually part of an ancient order of anarchists? That would be kind of disrespectful, right?
Assassin’s Creed is all plot, full steam ahead. We don’t get to know any of its characters and they frequently elucidate their motivations and reactions in stilted, awkward dialogue which often feels cryptic or like the characters are talking past each other. It seems like a first draft or a script that was chopped up during post-production to cut this movie down from two hours plus to its fairly lean one hour-forty minute final runtime. Interestingly, this movie clocks in at one hour-fifty-six minutes and fifteen minutes of that is credits. It’s kind of bizarre and suggests major post-production problems, which were rumored before the movie was released anyway (it was pushed back almost a full year too).
So maybe it’s not surprising that the story feels half-baked and the characters are kind of just there. Our “hero” is Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) who watched his dad murder his mom (played by the director’s wife, Essie Davis) sort of and then spent the next thirty years living a “life in the shadows” before killing a pimp and being executed for it. Abstergo, a shadowy corporation, plucks him from the clutches of death and inducts him into an experimental facility where they use shitty CG and a giant robot claw to force certain people to confront their genetic memories in search of an elusive and mysterious object. Scientist Sofia (Marion Cotillard) wants to eradicate VIOLENCE ™ by finding the source of “mankind’s” FREE WILL ™. Any philosophical nuance in these concepts, particularly how the Templars use violence to end violence, is barely touched on past a snarky remark from Cal. Sofia’s dad, a bored Jeremy Irons who mostly just stands around and looks at shit, will take all the credit for finding the Apple of Eden, a device only Cal can find the location of. They want it because they belong to the ancient Illuminati-like Templar Order, which wants to eradicate FREE WILL ™ and control people? Opposing them are the Assassins, whose anarchic “Creed” is often cited (because it sounds kinda cool) but never really means much to anyone in the movie. It just boils down to this movie checking boxes, and it rarely seems to aspire to more than that.
Cotillard is totally victimized by this movie. It’s barely a performance.
The Apple is just a MacGuffin and the movie feels like it’s about to break into a Community style parody of itself. Cruelly, that moment never comes. Instead this nonsense is treated as seriously as possible but it’s never lived in the way the mythology and lore of other high-concept genre movies, like say superhero movies or Star Wars, is. Let’s look at the best example: the characters. The only real characters in this whole film are Cal and Sofia, with everyone else existing to advance the plot, do badass stunts, or just kinda be there. A more specific example? Take Maria (Ariane Labed)… wait, you don’t know who that is? Of course not. She is never named in the movie. IMDB told me her name. She’s the badass maybe-lover assassin that hangs out with Cal’s ancestor. She’s in every scene he’s in almost, but she is never named and never has a personality. Then she is fridged in the laziest most callous way imaginable. I thought we were done with shit like this, Hollywood.
That’s exactly in line with how the other secondary characters are treated by the way. In the present day, there’s a bunch of captured Assassins living in Abstergo’s facility. It’s a cool idea, especially when the movie clumsily tries to show that they want Cal dead for the risk he poses. But none of these people have a character, not even the great Michael K. Williams who calls Cal “Pioneer” for seemingly no reason (but more on this later) and tries his best to look and sound wise. The other Assassins seem to be just waiting around for Cal to show up and lead them, but the movie never ever takes the time to set up why they never escaped at any other point. It’s so easy for them to bust out once the time finally comes, and there’s literally nothing Cal brings to the table to change anything besides his fucking pecs. In a less lazy or tooled up movie, there’d be some reason why the breakout couldn’t happen until Cal got there, is what I’m saying. And this movie is just full of poorly motivated things like this.
She is awesome and the movie does not respect her.
The whole 1492 Spain bit of the movie is a wash. It was cool to make it all in Spanish, and there’s an action sequence halfway through the movie that totally works and reminds you what is neat about Assassin’s Creed‘s take on movement. But interesting things like the connection between the “free-running” style of the Assassins and their “free will at all costs” ethos is never explored or even mentioned in this movie. It’s just rule of cool all the way down, which is exactly what makes it hollow and uninteresting past the eye candy of watching stunt doubles run around CGI buildings. The plot of this portion of the movie is skipped over and rushed through, but it has something to do with the Inquisition and the last Muslim power in Granada about to be snuffed out. There’s a hidden prince and everything, but the movie doesn’t care about any of this at all. Again, it’s kind of cool that the Assassins are trying to protect a Muslim dude, but the movie never pauses long enough to get to know anyone or anything so it just feels like iconography. Which is kind of one of the few things this movie does well, and which is often, sadly, enough to get movies adapted from insular nerd properties a pass from a certain demographic of viewers.
Speaking of rule of cool… what in fuck is up with the Animus? There is literally no reason to bother wasting what must have been a huge portion of this cheap-looking $180mil movie on this shit. The robotic claw is cool, but all the goofy cuts back to Fassbender climbing around holograms are a total waste since we just don’t need to see any of that. It doesn’t really look good (it’s cheap and weirdly lit, because holograms) and it serves almost no purpose. Near the end of the movie, when Cal has a poorly justified and unearned epiphany about whose side he’s really on, the Animus is finally used in a semi-interesting way to show him a row of his relatives, including his mother, to remind him of the legacy he comes from. It hints at a more interesting story, where Cal’s motives were more relatable, clear, and well-drawn. Imagine this movie where Cal seeks answers about his past, his ancestry, etc because he feels disconnected and lost? I hate to ask for a different movie, but what we get here is a gruff “resisting the call” and a low-key resentment for any kind of authority. It’s lazy riffing from the Big Book of Character Cliches and despite Fassbender doing his best impression of a brooding action badass, it never goes anywhere except the most lazy and perfunctory place possible.
Why don’t the Abstergo goons have guns? Why is taking off your shirt necessary for the final Animus run?
If I were rewriting this movie, I would find a way to make the story informed by the characters. Cal was orphaned and set adrift by this crazy ancient feud, shouldn’t he want answers and be self-motivated to find them even if it means flirting with becoming a Templar or carelessly helping them get what they want in a devil’s bargain? This feels like what the movie is trying to do, but it never gets there. Wouldn’t it also be more interesting if Sofia’s daddy issues dovetailed with Cal’s search for understanding, maybe prompting her own less-clumsy discoveries about her self? Instead, we get awkward and arch dialogue about ENDING FREE WILL ™ and how Templars have used religion and consumerism to combat it. It’s all very youtube “Elmo is Illuminati” deep. It could have been so much fucking better with just a little more care and detail.
Now back to “Pioneer”. This movie has a weird undercurrent of American chest-thumping going on. It’s just subtle enough to be missed, but once you see some of the more unanchored and weird things from this lens, they start to make more sense. The best gateway into that is the way Moussa (Michael K. Williams, though his character is never named) calls Cal “Pioneer” all the time. Let’s think about how Cal isn’t Irish like his dad. By the way, that scene with Brendan Gleeson was a nice touch but incomprehensibly written, like so much of the movie it was groping for something intelligible – a turning point in Cal’s self-understanding and motivation – but never achieved it.
So Cal is American. His servile black ally inside Abstergo, with whom he never shares even a moment of camaraderie, refers to him as “Pioneer”… and the Apple winds up in the hands of FREE WILL ™ ally Christopher fucking Columbus. Only Americans, and only some of them, still see ol’ Chris the pillager as a hero. The movie recasts him and, somewhat more subtly, America as icons of FREE WILL ™. The Apple is always referred to cryptically as the “seed of mankind’s first rebellion” and where does it wind up? In a country that sees itself as a nation of free-thinking rebels, bastions and defenders of FREEDOM ™ for all “mankind”. That’s some affirming shit for this movie’s target audience, no doubt. Because it’s so clumsy I don’t really think it’s that insidious, but it is really fucking stupid and patronizing. It’s also cringey for the non-American viewers who, like me, might prefer a more brazen and adorable brand of American exceptionalism in American movies. Where’s Michael Bay when you need him?
My main issue with Assassin’s Creed is that it goes on for an hour and forty minutes and doesn’t really tell a story. It has a plot, and it has cardboard cutout characters, but the richness and texture of a fucking story just isn’t here. That is an egregious sin for a movie to make, especially a movie that takes upon itself the mantle of latest contender for an actual good video game movie. Warcraft was not good, but it did have a story. So did Mortal Kombat, which remains probably the best video game movie ever.
I always write stuff like this and hope/assume people know what I mean by story. Stories have to have five mechanical elements (plot, character, setting, theme, and conflict), and one could say Assassin’s Creed is paying lip service to them, but none of them work. Even the relative simplicity of storytelling in something like Star Wars leads to a tangible understanding of these five elements, which is what gives the thing richness and texture and meaning. When your plot is lazy, your characters lacking essential features, your setting poorly illustrated or squandered by other missing elements, your themes unclear or confused, and your conflict muddled by similar lack of clarity… you’ve got a movie like Assassin’s Creed and these movies come along pretty often, to be honest. Most big budget genre “epics” tend to be hopelessly tampered with or stripped down to appeal to the lowest common denominator, winding up as McEpics that all make the same mistakes and fail to impact the pop culture in a meaningful way. Assassin’s Creed will stir up vaguely positive feelings in some people, but it’ll never have any staying power. Like a Cowboys and Aliens or a Transformers movie, it’s more concept than anything else and concepts alone just don’t make satisfying stories, no matter how many pedigreed actors you get to mumble your lines or how many underpaid animators you can leash to fill 1492 Spain with smoke and grime.