REVIEW: Assassin’s Creed (2016)

Michael Fassbender leads the way in another video game adaptation. Button-basher Rod Petrie gives us his verdict. 

Assassin’s Creed is the latest in a long line of video game to film adaptations. It has received generally negative reviews. Indeed, many reviewers don’t have many positive things to say about it. It could be that they don’t see any positive elements, or they deem its positives so minor they may not feel they are worth mentioning. Still, I wanted to see for it for myself, since I’m a huge fan of the games, going all the way back to the first title in the franchise. I felt like I owed it the benefit of the doubt, really. For those unfamiliar with the series, the original game, Assassin’s Creed (2007), initially began as a new Prince of Persia, or a spin-off for that franchise. But as Ubisoft worked on the project, they realised they had something which could become it’s own IP, and thus, Assassin’s Creed was born.

The overarching story of the series is that the Assassin Brotherhood and the Templar Order have literally been at war for centuries. In Present Day, the Templars exist under the name Abstergo, a pharmaceutical company with immense power and influence. They wish to control humanity by possessing artifacts known as “Apples of Eden”, which hold great power and knowledge. In order to find these Apples, Abstergo has created a machine called the Animus, that allows whoever uses it to re-live the memories of their ancestors via the genetic memory within their very own DNA. The idea being that, if they can find someone descended from an ancestor that came into contact with or ended up possessing an Apple of Eden, it will lead to its location. In the first Assassin’s Creed, Abstergo kidnapped a bartender by the name of Desmond Miles, and brought him to one of their facilities. Desmond, via the Animus, is forced to relive the memories of an Assassin ancestor by the name of Altair Ibn-La’Ahad, who lived during the time of the Third Crusade in the year 1191.There is, of course, much more to what happens in the game’s story than this, which I won’t go into further detail about.

The film adaptation tells a story that is set within the same universe of the games, and introduces new characters to the franchise. Michael Fassbender plays Callum Lynch, a convicted murderer who is sentenced to death. He also plays the role of Callum’s ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha, an Assassin who lived during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, 1492. Callum’s death turns out to be a fake orchestrated by Abstergo, without his knowledge, in order for them to get their hands on him. He is taken to an Abstergo facility located in Madrid, where others who are descendants of Assassins are also being held against their will. The CEO of Abstergo, Alan Rikken, played by Jeremy Irons, watches over everything and everyone at this facility. He is the only character in the film that has actually appeared in one of the games, and is mentioned in others. His daughter Sophia Rikken, played by Marion Cotillard, is not in any of the games, and is heading up a project that looks to eradicate the violent nature within mankind, seeing it as a disease to be cured. Her interest in the Apple of Eden (the only one mentioned; in the games, there are many scattered throughout the world) is to use it in order to cure violence.

Part of the Assassin’s Creed film is the narrative question as to whether Callum will actually become an Assassin, embracing the lineage he is descended from, or join the Templars and aid them willingly in their goal to dominate the world. I won’t spoil the outcome, but it is one of the reasons why I found the present day scenes interesting. The later games in the series added a bit of ambiguity to both the Assassins and Templars. Some of the things the Assassins do in the name of their Creed can make them seem like they are the antagonists, and some of the things the Templars do in the name of their cause can make them seem like protagonists. With the film, not only is there the question of where Callum’s allegiance will ultimately lie, there is also the question as to whether or not Sophia Rikken will remain a Templar or join the Assassins.

Aside from the previously mentioned Fassbender, Irons and Cotillard, the film also stars Michael K. Williams as the Assassin Moussa and Ariane Labed as a new Assassin character named Maria. She is Aguilar’s partner in more ways than one. I would say that Ariane does a great job portraying an Assassin, just like Fassbender, as she also seems to have put a lot of dedication into the role, too, and she has really good chemistry with our star. You really believe they are Assassins who have each other’s back. Brendan Gleeson plays Joseph, the father of Callum Lynch, and his own son, Brian Gleeson, plays the younger version of Joseph, who appears earlier in the film. Fassbender also serves as a producer on the project, which was an added benefit to him being involved, since he was so respectful of the franchise. The stuntwork, which includes all the fighting, running, climbing, jumping, and other acrobatic moves, is top notch. Fassbender did as much as possible himself, and he even learned a lot of Parkour to prepare for the role as well. He does a very good job at this, and blends in seamlessly with the performance by the stunt people. I was impressed not only by his performance, but also his dedication and enthusiasm to the project, as well as how respectful he was to the games.

Australian director Justin Kurzel was hired for the project based on his work on the latest film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. He was also hired because of his working relationship with both Fassbender and Cotillard, who were the main stars of Macbeth (2015). Since that film is set during a historical time period, and I liked the aesthetic of it, even though I haven’t actually watched the film, I felt that Justin’s attention to detail would be very suitable for Assassin’s Creed. While the fact that the film spends more time in the present means we don’t get to see heaps of fascinating history, Justin was still able to bring to life the historical setting. The score by Jed Kurzel, his brother, does an excellent job that is befitting of the franchise, incorporating some of the mystical-sounding elements you might hear in the score of the first game in the series. It has a lot of rousing moments layered within it, and I get chills when I hear it. It is definitely a strong point of the film for me. I personally haven’t enjoyed the music in the Assassin’s Creed: Unity (2014) and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (2015) releases as much as those two games in the list. And definitely not as much as I enjoy this excellent score composed for the film adaptation. I look forward to hearing more of Jed Kurzel’s work in the years to come.

General audiences who come to see Assassin’s Creed not knowing much, if anything at all, about the games will have the concept explained to them as to how the Animus works, in such a way that will make sense to them. A point of confusion for some of those viewers that could arise is whether or not Callum actually travels back in time when he’s using the Animus to relive the memories of Aguilar. For those reading this review who are wondering about this themselves, just know that whenever someone is reliving the memories of their ancestor, they experience whatever their ancestor did, and in the film adaptation’s case, they mimic their ancestor’s actions in present day, but more on that later. A criticism that has been levelled at the film adaptation is that the present day scenes are given too much focus and screen time, when compared to the scenes that take place during the past. This partly stems from the fact that, in the games, it is the other way around. And as Aguilar performs actions, it switches back and forth periodically between what Aguilar is doing, and then Callum copying those actions in tandem. Some have found that to be a jarring aspect of Assassin’s Creed, but I feel it serves to help general audiences understand what exactly the Animus allows Callum to do, and exactly what is actually happening while Callum is using it. I can partly understand why some fans of the games don’t like this element, because they are already knowledgeable about how the Animus works, and all the other aspects of the games, too, that general audiences will be learning for the first time here. This is part of the compromise that is made in order to translate the games into live-action. However, that isn’t to say that all things done in a game should be compromised when converting it into a film adaptation, as I personally feel that it depends on what exactly that compromise entails.

Filmmakers who work on a film translation of a game should not only strive to make it the best quality it can be, in all aspects of what goes into creating a film, but they should also ensure that they are being respectful to what the core elements of the particular game are. I strongly believe you don’t have to sacrifice one in service of the other, and vice versa. In the case of Assassin’s Creed, the core elements are the Animus, the Bleeding Effect, Assassins versus Templars, the Apple of Eden, Parkour (Free-Running), the use of stealth, and use of various weapons when fighting, most importantly of all, the Hidden Blade. If you don’t have any of these core elements? Then you’re not being true to the source material. In terms of what is faithful to the games in this particular go-around, Aguilar performs moves such as the Leap of Faith, fighting multiple enemies at once, and using assassination techniques like the air assassination, in which the Assassin leaps down onto their target from above to deliver a killing blow with their Hidden Blade. And like what was introduced in the Assassin’s Creed II (2009) game, Aguilar has not one but two Hidden Blades, allowing him to use both at once. You also have a scene where Aguilar and his fellow Assassin Maria are running and jumping across rooftops, being chased by enemy pursuers, while alarm bells all over the city are being rung, just like the games. It very much feels like the chase moments in the games have come to life! Another aspect that the film incorporates is the aforementioned Bleeding Effect. This occurs from extended use of the Animus. What happens is that the Animus user starts to see visions of their ancestor’s memories, which come to life vividly before their very eyes, when they’re not even using the Animus. Some can be driven insane from this happening. Another side effect of high level use is that the descendant learns the skills their ancestor possessed.

Where the film differs from the games is with Callum reliving Aguilar’s memories. Instead of him controlling Aguilar, like Desmond would control Altair in the first game, Callum is actually just mimicking the actions Aguilar performs. In the games, you as the player are essentially controlling the ancestor yourself within the memory, with the descendant character acting, essentially, as a conduit between you and the ancestor, and any actions you do that aren’t considered part of the memory, specifically killing innocent civilians or dying, means you “die” and the character in the present is desynched from the memory. But since that involves an interactive element, it was excluded from happening in the film. You could actually incorporate that into live-action but it would take up time which is needed for other things necessary for the viewer to absorb. The Animus itself is also very different than its video game counterpart. In the games, it is basically a table or a chair that the user lies down on, whereas in the film, it is a robotic arm that is attached to a special belt wrapped around Callum’s waist. The robotic arm responds in kind to whatever move or action Callum mimics, based on what Aguilar is actually doing in the memory, allowing freedom of movement whilst providing a way to hold him within the space that the arm operates, so he doesn’t go out of bounds. This change actually helps with the fact that prolonged use of the Animus allows the user to learn the skills of their ancestor, because it is related to the concept of muscle memory.

There are many more aspects of the games that weren’t carried over into this film adaptation, but it doesn’t ruin the film for me. One of these is the fact that, since the Animus is also a computer program, it loads up everything that makes up the memory, before allowing the player to control the ancestor. This isn’t done in the film, though. The same goes for there being areas within certain memories that the player cannot pass, and if they actually do, they will end up desynching unless they return to the area; something else related to the interactive part of the games. But Assassin’s Creed is one of the most faithful video game to film adaptations, in spite of what it lacks from the games. I think this film will gain more recognition and fans as the years go by. I will absolutely be purchasing a Blu-Ray  when it becomes available. I have already seen it twice, and look forward to seeing it more times in the future.

Overall, the Assassin’s Creed film is nowhere near as bad as a lot of reviews have made it out to be. Not only is it much better than certain films of other genres that are considered bad, such as Batman & Robin (1997), Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), or Highlander II: The Quickening (1991), the Assassin’s Creed film is also much better than other video game-based films, like Super Mario Bros. (1993), Double Dragon (1994), Street Fighter (1994), Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997), Doom (2005), or any that Uwe Boll has directed. As a film on its own merits, it is an enjoyable sci-fi/historical/action hybrid. If there’s a sequel, and I do hope there is, I would like them to spend more time in the past, and not as much time spent holding the hands of general audiences. I recommend giving it a chance because, you never know, you might actually like it.

Rod Petrie

Gamer since 1988 at the age of five. First system was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Favourite retro systems - NES, SNES, N64, MegaDrive, PS1, and PS2.

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