Patron Request: ‘Assassin’s Creed’

I’ve long been a fan of the Assassin’s Creed games. I say “long” in lieu of the longer explanation of how I fell in and out of love with the series, and then back in again, and the exact points at which those relationship shifts happened. Suffice to say: I loved the early games, took a break, and came back with the most recent entries. There are gaming pressure points the franchise, in its best installments, powerfully hit upon for me. The big one is their open world design. I remember spending hours upon hours just running across Venice rooftops in Assassin’s Creed II, or climbing to the top of the highest point in Constantinople in Revelations and paragliding off the tip over and over again. There’s some magic in the maps of these games, some potent combination of living history and digital playground. For all the Ubisoft bloat surrounding even their best outings, I’ll always love the “running around” of it all.

Assassin’s Creed the film takes place mostly in anonymous grey rooms. The ratio of present-to-past has been flipped from the games; here the minority of the runtime is genetic flashback, rather than the vast majority as it was there. The sinister Abstergo facility where protagonist Callum Lynch finds himself is mostly comprised of featureless walls and glass doors. It’s as though they didn’t finish dressing the set. Absent is the satirically corporate atmosphere from the games (one of which took place in a thinly-veiled recreation of a Ubisoft studio). It’s a film absent a setting.

The recreations of historical cities are digital here, like in the games. But there’s no sense of place in the film, no coherency to their design. They’re just CG backdrops for action scenes. A mid-film parkour chase attempts to approximate the “running around” experience, but the typically 2010s lack of continuity in the editing breaks any potential for recreating that “gamey” immersion. The fun of the games is in the possibility of running straight from one end of the map to the other, a single continuous trip across an unbroken world. This is the one time I might actually have appreciated a cutless tracking shot!

I can see a director like Paul W.S. Anderson doing something interesting with the blatant digital artifice of the setting. Justin Kurzel seems completely oblivious to that potential. Instead, the film regurgitates the most insipid thematic elements from the games. Vague arguments about “free will” take the place of actual ideas. In one hilarious moment, a villainous Templar insists that their goal is to eliminate violence. “Violence kept me alive,” Callum spits back. Our hero, folks! I suppose, if nothing else, this moment makes Assassin’s Creed one of the more honest video game adaptations.

I’m struggling to finish writing this review before this film evaporates entirely from my memory. It’s bizarre how they failed to translate the best elements of the games and failed to make a movie that’s fun on its own terms. They couldn’t even come up with a vaguely charming cardboard cutout for their past-protagonist. Everybody loves the compassionate womanizer Ezio from the games. Aguilar, on the other hand…it would be charitable to describe him as a “character.” I just don’t understand how this happened. Surely at some point someone should have stepped in and said, “Hey how come nothing happens in this movie? How come it’s so unwatchably dour? How come there aren’t any characters?” Assassin’s Creed is one of the better examples in recent years of a film so designed-by-committee that it ultimately fails to appeal to anyone. It saps everything likable about the games and ends up an unidentifiable grey mush. It’s barely a movie. Once I post this, I’ll forget I ever watched it.

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