On Assassin's Creed, video-game logic, smoke-filled rooms, and the trickiness of subjectivity
Assassin's Creed 20th Century Fox
Director: Justin Kurzel
Screenplay: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, based on the video-game series by Ubisoft
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Ariane Labed, Michael K. Williams, Denis Menochet, Essie Davis and Brendan Gleeson
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 56 minutes / 2.35:1
December 21, 2016
(out of four)
Assassin's Creed is a video-game adaptation that behaves like a video game exactly when it shouldn't, and doesn't behave like one exactly when it should. It is a movie that gets itself backwards.
There are two distinct environments in play. The primary one, in present day, is a high-tech prison-cum-research facility in which a convicted killer, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), suddenly awakens after quite expecting to be put to death. The second environment is the Animus – or rather, various settings experienced through the Animus, a massive apparatus through which the facility's carefully selected prisoners can physically relive the genetic memories of their ancestors, almost like a time-traveling version of the Matrix. For the purposes of the secretive organization that runs the facility, Cal finds himself virtually transported back to late 15th-Century Spain, where he finds "himself" a member of the Brotherhood of Assassins, deep in a long-standing struggle against the Knights Templar in the midst of the Inquisition.
What's important about the Animus sequences is implicit in the very concept: Cal's actual experience, his physical connection to the machinery and to the memories flooding into his mental and physical consciousness. It's kinda the point of the movie. And yet, bafflingly, these setpieces don't play out in any sort of subjective or experiential way. Aside from a few scattered point-of-view moments (i.e. a nifty first-person archer shot), the film almost seems to be going out of its way to detach from the experience itself.
If ever there were a perfect opportunity to go whole-hog into first-person filmmaking (a Hardcore Henry-style Spanish Inquisition epic?), it's these segments of this movie. But even without such extreme measures, any version built on more subjective camerawork and composition would likely be more optimal than what we get. Director Justin Kurzel makes the curious decision to go in the complete opposite direction, ignoring the very thing that's conceptually interesting about these scenes. We get lots (and lots and lots) of overhead shots and extreme wides, which give us a look at the film's reasonably well-choreographed action but doesn't come close to paying off the idea of what this character is meant to be seeing and experiencing. The entire visual approach here is self-serving and yet self-defeating; a huge fundamental miscalculation of the material that just happens to show off some impressive technical achievements.
When Cal first plugs in, the initial impression is encouraging. Our first images follow a hawk swooping over and through Andalusia before we finally land on our cloaked assassin; it's as if Cal's soul is flying into the body of his ancestor, Aguilar. It's a lovely opening gesture, but the scene soon begins playing by much more mundane rules. The more traditional filmmaking here might allow for more versatile ways to film Cal/Aguilar's exploits, but it simply refuses to engage one of the few video-game elements that could translate nicely - in certain contexts, at least - to film. Cal's "user experience" is the very basis of these Inquisition scenes, and yet the film provides no such experience. The character never gets to be anything more than a viewer, contradicting the entire conceit.
The film's other fatal flaw is equally counterintuitive. There's a conspicuous lack of integration between the two portions of the movie, the past and the present. The Animus is basically an excuse to get the necessary action sequences and "gameplay" into the film, but what the 15th-Century scenes are revolving around is devoid of interest in and of itself. And more crucially, it's here that Assassin's Creed behaves exactly like a video-game, as Aguilar's "storyline" is simply to find an item (and then, presumably, move on to the next level). Video-game movies will never work if they keep limiting themselves to video-game logic.
The item in question is supposedly the genetic key to free will, and those running the facility - Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) and her corporate CEO father Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) - have recruited Cal to help locate it for them. Free will is a rather fitting notion to play with here - or in any video-game adaptation, for that matter - as we explore characters whose actions are always at the mercy of the person controlling them. It's potentially a clever angle - with varying degrees of meta to play with - but Kurzel and his trio of writers display very little in the way of self-awareness or levity. (It would also fall in line nicely with a history of science-fiction, including the aforementioned The Matrix, to have covered the same territory.)
The film is a discouraging sign for game adaptations in general - and a disappointment from Kurzel, the talented filmmaker behind the haunting The Snowtown Murders and last year's bold, dreamlike, misunderstood Macbeth. Here, some of the same things that worked in previous efforts feel awkward or overdone. His atmospherics were so effective in Macbeth, using a swirling inferno of smoke and color to create a morally nebulous hell. He's at it again in Assassin's Creed, using smoke to blur his compositions - focusing on figures and de-emphasizing setting in critical scenes, in a way appropriate to a movie that artificially connects characters and time periods. But he leans on it so much that I felt like I was going to die of smoke inhalation. I had no idea this many rooms, hallways, buildings and rooftops were just flooded in smoke and fog at all times. (Is the research facility, in fact, a hotbox? Is that the hidden subtext here? Is Assassin's Creed the most somber stoner fantasy ever made?) In some cases, it seems to be there only to cover up seams in the compositing, or to mask various other special effects.
Kurzel and his artists do accomplish some nice things along the way. One detail I particularly liked was the layout of Sophia's office, which is backlit by a glowing white wall of shelved artifacts - like a hieroglyphic record of her years of research. Then there's the facility itself, with its anachronistic dollops of vegetation interrupting the cold steel and invasive fluorescents that pervade every room and corridor.
But the film gives neither its ideas nor its performers much room to grow. Fassbender and Cotillard are always captivating presences, but here, he is a glorified model and stuntman, and she an information mouthpiece. It never figures out quite how to reconcile its tedious narrative with its bigger ambitions. Plenty of video-game adaptations have shown conceptual promise, and this is as interesting a possibility as I've seen so far. But concept has still yet to meet its match in execution.