Assassin’s Creed: Good Movie, Great Video Game Movie (SPOILERS)
Video Game movies are hard.
Adaptations of games have a lot to take into consideration besides plot. Great video games often have great narratives, but these are usually secondary to gameplay, and game logic often stretches credulity. To remain faithful to the source material, filmmakers must do more than simply adapt the story that is often just a small part of the gaming experience. The feel of playing the game needs to be transported to the theatre, and that means knowing what is special about the gameplay, often one or more unique mechanics that define the experience, plus the visual style. In addition, video game narratives do not work in the same way as films, and they are paced quite differently. Even if you cut out the gameplay, story-heavy games can stretch out much longer than a movie: YouTube cuts of the most recent Final Fantasy installment (#15) are about five-and-a-half hours long. Since games are played in multiple sessions, rather than all at once, some of the story-telling is redundant, but there are also a lot more twists and turns, and gamers can tolerate weak premises, plot holes, ridiculous developments, and laughable acting if the game itself is fun to play. Conversely, good action sequences can’t quite support an otherwise terrible movie.
Prince of Persia (2010) is a good example of this. The game’s most interesting and innovative mechanic was the ability to rewind time a few seconds, and this enabled you to retake failed leaps, get a better position in a fight, or even come back from the dead. Using this ability was an exciting way to help guide your character through a video game world. In a movie, that kind of power can get old fast, and is not itself a compelling plot device, especially since we’ve already seen something similar from “bullet time” in The Matrix – a film that understands that you need more than just one hook. The Prince of Persia film wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t that good. Faithfully retelling the 2003 Sands of Time installment was a double-edged approach. While it was a satisfying transition of all the game elements into film, the story itself is too video gamey, in that it is not very interesting, being mainly a vehicle for the other things about the game that made it great: the time mechanics and the parkour-inspired jumping and climbing. The movie managed to keep these elements in, while retaining the game’s lighthearted Han-and-Leia-inspired banter. But, the story about a vagrant stumbling upon magic powers and an imperilled princess teaming up against a royal advisor with plans for world domination makes for a dull story; Disney’s Aladdin did it better.
I was expecting something of this sort of faithful adaptation from Assassin’s Creed (2016). Each installment of Assassin’s Creed tells a story set at a different point in history, with a character in the present living through the memories of an ancestor using a machine called the Animus. From what I can tell, characters are forced to see these memories so that the Knights Templars (the bad guys) can find objects – the Pieces of Eden – that will help them rule the world. Meanwhile, the ancestor whose memories make up the gameplay are part of the Assassin’s Creed, a rival group sworn to defend the artifacts from the Knights Templar. The movie took this premise and ran with it in thirty dull, credulity-stretching minutes of exposition that includes an opening crawl and two prologues. Fortunately, once all that’s out of the way, the movie gets quite good, starting with the first big action sequence, which involves leaping and fighting on a moving chariot convoy. At this point, the movie begins to embrace the game series’ stealthy, acrobatic fighting style and the overarching epic narrative about evil vs. somewhat less evil. With most of the background out of the way, the film is fun and exciting.
Assassin’s Creed succeeds as a video game adaptation because of how it follows in the spirit of the games, without trying to rehash any of its specific plots. There are references, both obvious and subtle, to the games that will keep fans happy, but as someone who has not played any of the games, I still found the movie accessible. I knew there was some information to be had that could enhance my understanding, but not so much that I was taken out of the movie at any point. Typically, deviating too much from the games will annoy fans, and very often won’t pay off with viewers unfamiliar with the game, but the Assassin’s Creed franchise seems particularly well-suited for movie adaptation because the games tell related, but not linear stories. The movie easily fits into the universe by telling its own story – about the last guardian of the Apple of Eden, a device credited with giving humanity free will.
The plot is compelling without trying too hard to touch all the main points of the game, and it differs in a crucial way by putting a lot more emphasis on what is happening in the present, not just the memories. Reliving his ancestor’s life gradually alters the hero Cal’s personality as he learns more and more about the Templars and Assassins. This allows the movie to build up to a climax that sees Cal and other Assassins break out of the Templar facility, launching a renewed present-day war between the Templars and Assassins, oppression vs. freedom. In games, story is just background to the action, to give it context and purpose. Films, however, need much more payoff from the premise, and in this case, we get a playing out of a familiar movie trope of an imperilled minority rising up against tyrants (as in Hunger Games, The Matrix, Star Wars, etc.). The familiarity of this premise goes a long way to smoothing over the silliness that leads up to it.
The film also captures the feel of the game by keeping the action creative, with some very impressive stunts that are a long way from the typical CGI stuff that have become too common recently. As well, the science fiction premise is enhanced by cutting between the past and present as we see Cal mimic his ancestor’s moves while plugged into the Animus. Scenes from the past are hazily overlaid onto the present in a way that’s sometimes interesting, but mostly distracts from the impressive practical stunts. Fans of the games – my wife included – can be especially delighted that the movie kept in the “leap of faith” element from the games, in this case creating the highest free-fall jump used in film in 35 years.
Assassin’s Creed is weakest is in its mandatory adherence to the games’ two key premises: the conflict between the Templars and Assassins over whether humanity should have free will or not, and the science fiction story about a device that allows people to experience the lives of their ancestors through genetic memory. The movie is front-loaded with exposition in order to lay out both of these absurdities – a sort of cross between The Da Vinci Code and The Matrix. The religious side of things is more problematic because it concerns the characters’ motivations. The Templars want to take away free will to restore humanity to a purer state. This of course is based on the Garden of Eden story, but in this world, the Apple is actually some kind of device designed by God, or possibly aliens, that can grant or revoke free will. Ridiculous of course, but there is some interesting payoff because of how this sets up the Assassins as protectors of free will.
Since the past sections of the movie occur in 1492 with the Catholic conquest of Spain and the fall of Granada, Muslims are actually the good guys here. King Muhammad XII of Granada is a protector of the Apple, while the Assassin’s Creed, we are periodically reminded, have Arabic roots. The Spanish conquerors, especially the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, are not depicted nicely at all, so it’s refreshing to see filmmakers switch things up a bit in the religious politics. I was reminded of an obscure novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (a writer more popular than Dickens in their lifetime) called Leila (1838) set during the same period. That novel likewise positions Granada as the force of relative good and the Catholics as the bad guys (and, incidentally, Jews are somewhere in the middle).
The historical elements of the movie are impressive to be sure, but it’s still hard to swallow the idea that a secret movement bent on enslaving humanity for their own good persists into the 21st century. More confusing is Marion Cotillard’s character’s belief that she can make people happy by eliminating all violence. It’s absurd on both religious and scientific grounds, and since she’s the creator of the Animus, and the one who guides Cal through his past, this is a big hole in the film. The religious conflict is at least reasonably based in history and Biblical narrative, but the science fiction elements are pure nonsense. The conceit is that all the things our ancestors did in life are encoded in our genes, while the Animus provides access to this genetic memory. As silly as the science fiction premise is, though, this part of the movie does not bother me as much as the stuff about Knights Templar, violence, and free will. I suppose I can tolerate pseudo-science, but not pseudo-religion.
Verdict: 7 Wrist Blades out of 10