Assassins Creed (2016)
Critical Review Rating: 17%
“Our lives are so brief and unimportant”
The season of the gaming movie continues with this interpretation of the Assassin’s Creed movie with Germany and Ireland’s favourite prodigal child, Michael Fassbender. Released the same year as the equally serious and straight-faced Tomb Raider movie that attempted to establish a new cinematic franchise based on a gaming series, without the burden of the divisive Desmond Miles instead we focus on the troubled Callum Lynch, having witnessed the death of his mother at the hands of his father whilst being raised in Mexico grows up to kill a pimp and is sentenced to the death penalty before being ‘rescued’ by the Abstergo Foundation and setting him on a course to embrace and explore his lineage and destiny as a member of the Assassin’s Creed. As someone who has played a number of the titles over the years, I was curious to see which direction the film would take, whether to focus predominantly on the historical setting and lineage or instead establish the modern world and company behind the mystery of the series. We’ll explore this in-depth but suffice it to say, as a stand alone motion picture introducing a new generation to this franchise there was an arguable necessity to feature the present day, if for the sole reason why a Spanish assassin would have the accent and dialogue of a mixed lineage German Irish man. The film satisfies in some areas but suffers from a great, many of the issues of its contemporary neighbour Tomb Raider, perhaps the worst being as with Miss Croft, a stylistic choice to abandon any shed of entertainment or merriment and focus on the dour and dystopian world of both the present and the grim violent world explored by the protagonist. Either way, until the final moments this is a very tonally and visually dark film desperate to be taken seriously by its peers and suffering all the same.
In its current state, the digitized world of Assassin’s Creed has become somewhat of a convoluted mess, the central narrative of Desmond Miles having concluded a number of titles ago but continuing to forge forward, or further back with the exploration of both ancient Egyptian and now Greek culture. Thankfully, and this perhaps will be one of the rare occasions where I’ll tip my hat to the film makers but in an attempt to appeal and open up the world to a new audience, or perhaps even fans of the series who have got lost along the way and play it more as a tourism simulator now, the central narrative of the movie is based around the Apple of Eden, stripping away a lot of the superfluous plot lines and story that have weighed down game series and instead opting to focus on this one mystical piece of technology. Objectifying this Biblical mythology was always an interesting choice and here works, to a degree as the symbolism of free will and choice encapsulated in this simple piece of treasure is as strong a framing mechanism in my opinion as the Lost Ark in Indiana Jones. Even more so arguably as instead of trying to ‘locate’ the object as the primary focus without any real clear intention as to why to a great extent the movies narrative is fairly straight forward, locate and obtain the device that gave civilization and humanity choice in order to control said behaviour. Simplistic and to the point in a way other franchises have suffered. As a narrative it works, to an extent it’s the execution that suffers with a determination to explore the motivation of the present day characters through talented actors who unfortunately spend a majority of the time standing idly watching Fassbender execute Matrix like wire frame moves in the virtual Animus world at the expense of a historical interpretation of Spain that is both visually impressive whilst maintaining certain, consistencies with the game series.
The world of the Assassin’s Creed movie has a number of visually contrasting aesthetics that work to compliment each other, the warm and somewhat ‘inviting’ world inside the Animus of the Spanish Inquisition mirrors the cool blue sterile appearance of the facility in the modern-day. I always enjoy a clever and well-balanced use of colour and filters in film to showcase two different environments and atmospheres, whilst Spain is the hostile and volatile environment the warm hues and use of lights does create somewhat of a ‘safe space’ the protagonist can operate within to accomplish his mission. In contrast whilst he does have a certain element of control in the present, the cold blue hues suggest an uncomfortable and unsettling modern-day setting that is both familiar but alien at the same time as the scope and magnitude of the threat to the protagonist unfold. Arguably, perhaps too much time is spent in the present day setting, as a game series Assassins Creed has largely abandoned the modern framing chapters that were prevalent in the earlier games with Desmond’s quest exploring abandoned and forgotten tombs whilst on the run from the Templars. The general plot became a convoluted mess and with the release of the fourth game, Black Flag the series began instead to minimise these incursions into the present and instead focus on the ancient worlds the games inhabited. This, after all was the great draw of the game series, exploring ancient open worlds unlike anything previously available, a practise expanded upon in Origins with the virtual world tour mode that stripped away all the combat and thematic elements and instead allowed the user to explore the world of Egypt at will. A restriction of presenting a cinematic universe is having to set up the world a new audience has yet to discover and understand, but equally a world the game’s fans will have largely forgotten and wish to see the end of. A conflicting state arguably it doesn’t satisfy either way with to little time spent in Spain, or conversely too much time spent in the limited environments of a prison facility. The final sequences in London were contrasting and refreshing to the other environments in the game, just a shame they were so brief.
Unlike other video game inspired movies which have suffered from a drought of talented actors, opting to rely instead on a big name draw surrounded by a weak supporting cast to its credit, Assassin’s Creed does have a remarkable pedigree of talent on display. With Fassbender as the central protagonist in both periods you may have expected that alone to be where the film spent its budget but supporting to somewhat of equal time on-screen includes Jeremy Irons as the modern-day villain whose experienced somewhat of a renaissance in recent years having joined the DCU in the Batman and Justice League films, Marion Cotillard, joining her co-star from MacBeth and bringing a certain international appeal to the cast. I hadn’t expected or realised having had no intention to see the film originally but playing a small role is Brendan Gleeson the Irish actor from films such as Calvary who given his Irish lineage has a connection to Fassbender. And then in a fairly substantial supporting role that presumably was creating a returning character for a supposed sequel Michael Williams known for his memorable and iconic character in The Wire, Omar. Matias Varela is the final actor I recognised from the ensemble of actors from his turn in Narco’s, although I was astonished to find he was Swedish given his convincing turn in Latin America Colombia. In short, a great deal of money was spent and a great many actors of a high-caliber were assembled to bring to life the world of Assassin’s Creed and its remarkable, or perhaps unfortunate more wasn’t done or accomplished with the talent at hand.The characters in the Spanish setting were perhaps the weakest of those featured, not for lack of trying and the fight scenes are memorable for instance but missing the impact of the interactions as seen in the present day. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion the largely experienced cast in the present day setting are confined to staring at digital screens and Fassbender on wires, it just feels like a waste of talent that could have been better spent enriching the world of the Spanish Inquisition.
There are certain beats and moments in an Assassins Creed game that are both familiar instantly recognisable to players due to their repetition over the course of the series. On occasion, when translated to the big screen a director will attempt to subvert expectation for the sake of creativity and surprise. Here, however it was very much the case of inserting certain key moments into the plot with the accompanying effects played out to see, for instance and one of the key landmark moments the leap of faith to the cart below with the screech of the Eagle echoing through the air. It was fun to see but ruined somewhat by the film makers placing a few to many jumps into the final release and distorting the presentation with questionable computer generated effects. I understand the need to create a believable effect for your actor transitioning from the modern-day into the past but visually it was a mess that just didn’t capture that sensation of height and speed experienced in the game on multiple occasions. From the reported development of the film where a jump sequence was filmed using a stunt double to recreate the jump in its entirety it is a genuine shame having sat through the movie it didn’t leave an impression. When the original Superman film was released, it held the tagline ‘You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly’, a spectacle of never seen before imagery that captured the imagination of a generation. With the progression of technology and digital effect, that same wonder and spectacle has been lost to a degree, the advancement of computer generated graphics rendering practical effects to the way side. I’ll champion the practical over the digital, but when I learned the fall in the movie was one of the highest stunts attempted, despite that knowledge I still haven’t come away with a positive or lasting impression. Interestingly I had expected some elements or tropes to be held back for any subsequent sequel but items such as the hidden blades are front and centre, more so than the reveal of the pistols at the end of the Tomb Raider movie for example. It has the look and feel of an Assassin’s Creed game brought to life, through the costumes and props, the best compliment I suppose you could pay to the movie, but in turn suffers from the confused and jumbled plot mechanics so prevalent and a distinct lack of character progression and growth.
Overall, I’ve come away with a sense of disappointment with the movie as a whole. For its sins a number of positive elements, visually it captured a great many details and moments from the games franchise from the iconic leap, the hidden gauntlets, the robes of the Assassins and even the general movement and fighting style during combat. But collectively missing the mark and suffering as a result, a weak script, strong actors without any credible dialogue or motivation, its top stars wasted staring blankly at computer generated imagery and training sequences for a large part. Also, a great deal of the humour present in the historical moments within the gaming franchise have been stripped away in pursuit of a darker more straight narrative. Granted there perhaps wasn’t a great sense of merriment in Inquisition led Spain but for fans of the series it was perhaps a sense of dissonance with the stylistic harmony of the franchise. For every positive inclusion, the blades, the costumes, the fight scenes an equal detraction and criticism. My lasting impression perhaps best summed up and presented towards the end of the movie as Fassbender stood transfixed with the ghosts of the Assassin’s, the other supporting cast members staring in wonderment as the camera focussed on some hidden and deep meaning, lost perhaps on the audience wondering quite why in the midst of a climatic battle the lead Assassin was dumbfounded by glitches in the Matrix. Trying desperately to add some hidden depth and meaning but in truth just a bloated scene and a waste of a talented cast.
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