Film and video games; two of the most dominant forms of media in the world of pop culture. But when it comes to the many attempts to combine the two, the results have been less than satisfactory. Video games that are directly based on films or TV shows generally turn out to be mediocre titles that were clearly rushed out to profit off their source material. And as for films based on video games, well, it really says something when the best ‘video game films’ are films like Tron and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World that are NOT based on a pre-existing video game. From early efforts like Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter to more recent disasters like the many, many abominable efforts from the infamous Uwe Boll, video game based films have had quite a rotten run when it comes to critical and audience reception. Will this bad luck ever change? Well, there were some who felt that last year, 2016, could’ve been the year that might have potentially turned the tide, as there were not one but two big-budget blockbusters based on popular video games that came out that year. The first was Duncan Jones’ Warcraft, based on Blizzard Entertainment’s worldwide phenomenon of a franchise. But while the film did well at the international box-office and seemingly pleased fans of the franchise, it was, as perhaps to be expected, savaged by critics. Thus, all eyes turned to the other big video game film adaptation of the year, Assassin’s Creed, based on the popular franchise of the same name from Ubisoft. Like Warcraft, there were some big names attached to it. Michael Fassbender starred in the lead role alongside Marion Cotillard, and the film was to be directed by Justin Kurzel, who Fassbender and Cotillard previously worked with on the 2015 remake of Macbeth. But, alas, upon release, the film got savaged by critics just like the many other films in its genre. So, the question is this; from the perspective of someone who was genuinely looking forward to this film, is it as bad as the critics say? Well… they’re not entirely wrong.
In the present day, prisoner Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is slated for death via lethal injection on the charge of murder. However, instead of being executed, he is brought to a mysterious facility in Madrid, Spain. There, he learns from the head scientist in charge, Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), that he’s been selected by the organization that she works for, the Abstergo Foundation, to assist them in finding the fabled artifact known as the Apple of Eden, which has the power to control the free will of all humanity. To do so, Callum is put into a device known as the Animus that allows the user to relive the memories of their ancestors on a genetic level. In Callum’s case, he is inundated with the memories of his ancestor Aguilar de Nerha (also played by Fassbender), who lived during the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and was a member of the brotherhood known as the Assassin’s Creed. And as Callum soon finds out, Abstergo is the present-day front for the Assassins’ greatest enemies, the Knights Templar, who plan on using the Apple to wipe out the entire brotherhood. Thus, as Callum is forced to cooperate with Abstergo (and therefore, the Templars) to find the Apple of Eden, due to Aguilar being one of the last known people to have had it in his possession, he begins to further embrace his Assassin roots as he soon leads his fellow Assassin prisoners in a revolt against their oppressors to prevent the Templars from eradicating their entire society.
To the film’s credit, it looks decent enough from a visual standpoint. For the record, though, the film does utilize a considerable amount of CGI. Not only that, but it also goes for an odd visual aesthetic of having a lot of the action surrounded by a foggy haze. Still, it looks fine enough, at least when compared to a few other entries in the genre. Plus, when the film does go back in time to 1492 Spain, the action sequences do manage to capture the overall feel of the Assassin’s Creed games. Most notably, the big chase scene in the middle of the film is, if you ask me, ‘pure Assassin’s Creed’ and was single-handedly responsible for keeping me from giving this any lower of a rating than I ultimately did. With that in mind, the film does do a solid job at staying generally faithful to the overall lore of the series. Aside from changing the main protagonists around and doing an admittedly cool redesign to the Animus, in which the subject is lifted into the air instead of being restricted to a chair and is seen directly imitating their ancestor’s actions as they happen, this basically follows the same general plot of the first AC game. So, what could possibly go wrong? Well, sadly, there is one big problem with the film and it ends up being the same one that affected the 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four (which ironically, or unironically depending on who you ask, was made by the same studio). For some odd reason, the overall tone of the film is a dreary one. From having it open with a young Callum witnessing the death of his mother at his father’s hands to the already mentioned ‘foggy haze’ that surrounds the action sequences, the film is overly dark for no good reason. What should’ve been a fun action-adventure set across time ends up being a dreary tale that lacks any sort of emotional depth.
Thus, this weak story also ends up affecting its characters as well, all of whom are generally bland and underdeveloped. Callum Lynch is a rather generic protagonist who isn’t helped at all by the fact that, apparently, he killed someone. Yes, technically speaking, our main protagonist is a murderer. Not only that, this plotline is only brought up a few times during the film and is never fully delved into. His father Joseph’s (Brendan Gleeson, with a younger Joseph being portrayed by his son Brian Gleeson) murder of his mother gets more attention than the murder he was tied to, ironically making Joseph the most developed character in the entire film. His ancestor, Aguilar, gets even less character development. He’s the literal definition of the term ‘avatar’, which is basically one of the main concepts of the entire franchise but that’s still no excuse. He doesn’t get much screen-time either, as the film primarily focuses on Callum’s story. So, simply put, Ezio Auditore (the main protagonist of Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, and Revelations) he is not. It’s a shame, really, because the film does feature a solid ensemble cast that includes the likes of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Irons (who plays Sofia’s power-hungry father, Alan), just to name a few. All of them are fine enough in their respective roles but, as noted, none of them get anything substantial to work with.
As I noted in the intro, I was genuinely looking forward to this film. That is because, unlike Warcraft, I was much more familiar with the Assassin’s Creed franchise going in. At the time that I’m writing this, I have played through and completed the first four games in the series. Thus, I was hopeful that this could’ve been the film that was responsible for breaking the long-running curse of video game based films. Sadly… that ‘curse’ still stands. While I don’t think that it’s as bad as the film that I primarily compared it to in this review, the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot, it does make the same general mistakes as that film. Namely, it goes the odd route of maintaining a generally dour tone throughout. And while the Assassin’s Creed games aren’t exactly ‘light-hearted’ affairs, none of them (or, at least, the ones that I’ve played, as I just noted) went ‘this’ serious. Literally, the fact that the film, at the very least, stayed as faithful as it possibly could to the source material was the only thing that kept me from giving this the same rating that I gave the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot, 1/5. Still, I won’t lie, I was feeling rather empty by the time this film ended on a cliffhanger that was clearly meant to set up a sequel that will probably never come. And, thus, we’re still waiting for the first ‘truly good’ video game based film. Could it possibly happen? Well, I hate to say it but it might not ever come because, at this point in the genre’s history, Assassin’s Creed was basically the ‘make it or break it’ entry after the countless critical failures that came before. And with a dismal 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, it arguably sealed the genre’s fate for good.