"Assassin's Creed" Is Stupid With A Side Of Impenetrable

“I think the key divide between interactive media and the narrative media that we do is the difficulty in opening up an empathic pathway between the gamer and the character — as differentiated from the audience and the characters in a movie or a television show.” -Steven Spielberg

It should come as no surprise that one of the great storytellers of his generation understands why most, if not all, movies adapted from video games have misfired. Serious, marrow-deep storytelling in video games is a relatively new phenomenon, brought on by daring developers like Rockstar Games and Naughty Dog – developers wise enough to keep their properties off the big screen. For now, at least. As George Lucas noted in the same June 2013 panel, “I think ultimately the big game of the next five years will be a game where you empathize very strongly with the characters.”

Naughty Dog released survival horror game The Last Of Us, an astonishing work of art and a paragon of storytelling, just two days later.

Fundamentally flawed storytelling isn’t the only reason 2oth Century Fox and Ubisoft production “Assassin’s Creed” doesn’t work, but it’s a big one. The movie follows modern day death row inmate Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) as he’s forced to cybernetically tap into the memories of one of his assassin ancestors in order to find the Apple of Eden so that scheming scientist Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his daughter Sophia (Marion Cotillard) may eliminate violence by extinguishing free will on behalf of all humanity. Translation: a run-on sentence for a logline with a caravan of utterly expendable characters that don’t matter to each other in the slightest. Why should they matter to us?

Without an entryway to empathy in sight, it’s left to the story’s time travel element (the core of the Assassin’s Creed games) to provide for some nifty action sequences. But the 15th century Spanish characters are even more vacant, with Lynch’s ancestor Aguilar (also Fassbender) imbued with even less characterization than the average video game character. With only a handful of exciting action beats, fans will be left wondering why they’re wasting their time with an unplayable, less exciting version of the game they love.

Watching Fassbender, a terrifically dynamic performer, writhe around in a virtual reality machine in order to control a long-dead blood relative is something bordering discomforting. It crosses over into embarrassing by the time he’s tasked with shout-singing Willie Nelson’s classic breakup anthem “Crazy.” Meanwhile, Cotillard’s “Oh shit, I’m in the Assassin’s Creed movie” glaze isn’t much easier to take, nor is Jeremy Irons’ ludicrous monologuing about “finding the cure for violence.” And yet, the only remotely compelling thing about Justin Kurzel’s film is how it saddles some of the best actors alive with some of the worst dialogue imaginable. Surprise – the results aren’t worth the experiment.

It nearly goes without saying that the film has almost nothing to say thematically. Except when it does, at which point you’ll be begging for it to shut up.

Between the most nonsensical plot device of the year (the Apple of Eden contains the genetic code for free will), a juvenile understanding of genetics (certain characters are genetically predisposed to violence), and the fact that Cal Lynch looks nothing like his father (a spectacularly misused Brendan Gleeson) but exactly like an ancestor roughly twenty generations removed, the movie is headline after headline of bad news. This is a terrible story told terribly, stacked with dour visuals instead of fun and recognizable actors in lieu of fully or even partially realized characters.

The silver lining here might be that the film so clearly lays bare the problems inherent in eliminating the controller from the video game equation that Hollywood might finally think twice about spending $100 million plus on thinly-written adaptations of thinly-written games. Until that happens, “Assassin’s Creed” will remain the rule rather than the exception. God help us all.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: December 21, 2016
Studio: 20th Century Fox, Ubisoft
Director: Justin Kurzel
Screenwriters: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Michael Lesslie
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Khalid Abdalla, Michael K. Williams
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, thematic elements and brief strong language)