The adaptation of videogames to film hasn’t gone well. For years the film adaption of a game has suffered from poor storytelling, poor pacing, poor writing and poor direction, leading to poor fans not receiving the high-quality film version they’ve hungered of their favourite gaming franchise. And there are myriad reasons for this; from writers not understanding the source material, to compression of an eight hour story to two hours simply not working. Assassin’s Creed makes less mistakes than many of its ilk, but despite this, it still doesn’t make the transition clean enough to qualify as a success.
Assassin’s Creed follows the story of Callum Lynch during the present day, and Aguilar de Nerha during the past. In the present, Callum finds himself in a facility run by Abstergo, where his lineage can be tapped into through a machine called the Animus, allowing him to relive memories of his ancestors, of which Aguilar de Nerha is one of them. Abstergo are using the Animus to find an ancient artefact called the Apple, and Aguilar de Nerha is the last person to have seen it. Aguilar de Nerha is part of the Brotherhood of Assassin’s and is assigned to protect Prince Ahmed de Granada from the Templars during the Granada war in 1492. The Templars seek the Apple and threaten to kill the young prince in order to get it from his father, Sultan Muhammad XII. Back in the present, Abstergo is the modern face of the Templars, meanwhile, The Brotherhood of Assassin’s continue to try and protect the Apple from the shadows. Abstergo probe Callum’s mind for clues, whilst Callum learns more about his ancestry and the Brotherhood of Assassin’s his family are bound to.
It’s all very familiar for anyone who’s played the games, and that’s certainly to the film’s credit; it does a great job of staying true to the established world the games have constructed. Abstergo are very much the same shady, power hungry organisation they are in the games, and the Brotherhood of Assassin’s are still very much the struggling to survive, morally numb murderers they are in the games. It’s very true to its source material.
Where it takes liberties is with the Animus. Here it’s not just a simple interface for accessing genetic memories, it’s a harness that allows the user to re-enact memories rather than simply experience them in their minds. It’s a smart choice that fits the ‘show don’t tell’ philosophy of film making.
However, whilst sticking to the source material helps connect the film with the already established audience of the games, an over use of nods and references to the games comes off as patronising and irritating. This is at its worst when concerning the eagle. In the games, the screech of an eagle accompanies daring leaps and the unlocking of an area’s map by climbing high on a landmark, but in the film there are literal shots of an eagle flying around, and not just short flybys to give a bird’s eye perspective on a location, but long following shots that scream ‘game reference’. Further references are more subtle, but entirely unnecessary and equally irritating, the ‘leap of faith’ section in particular.
Fortunately, a spectacular cast does a great job selling their characters. Michael Fassbender delivers the complexity of Callum Lynch and the devotion of Aguilar de Nerha splendidly, meanwhile, Marion Cotillard delivers the conflicted Dr. Sophia Rikkin in precisely the right manner to play off Callum’s aforementioned complexity. The rest of the cast are equally brilliant and do justice to their characters. However, it’s a shame we couldn’t see more from other Animus subjects in the Abstergo facility, in particular Michael K. Williams’ character of Moussa, in modern times, and the Haitian assassin Baptiste in the past, a character who appeared in Assassin’s Creed: Liberation.
And indeed, that’s one of the main concerns for the film: a lot of the games lore and its storytelling charm is compressed into a mere couple of hours. Here the film fails to find the right balance in telling Callum’s story, Aguilar de Nerha’s story, and that of the Templars/Abstergo verse the Brotherhood of Assassins. It doesn’t quite fit together, meaning the struggle between the Templars and Assassins is rushed, and Aguilar de Nerha is too focused on the Apple. Callum gets the majority of the character growth, and whilst it’s an interesting story, without the other aspects fleshed out enough, it still feels incomplete.
However, certainly the biggest problem with the film is in its visual direction. The screen is almost always lousy with smoke and dust effects. It’s one of the ugliest, dreariest and drabbest looking films out there. It could have been explained away if it was only during the past sequence, but it’s not, worst still, it looks as if a lot of it was digitally added in post. It’s a baffling visual choice that hides so much of the detail, and once you notice it you can’t un-see it.
The Assassin’s Creed games concentrate on the ancestor’s story more so than that of the modern subject, here the opposite is true, and whilst Callum is a good character, Aguilar de Nerha has the better story, and it feels like a missed opportunity not to have focused more on his life as an Assassin. Meanwhile, some the references to the game are a bit on the nose and hard to stomach, and the visuals are plain ugly. However, the film succeeds in setting up the modern story of the Brotherhood of Assassins verses Abstergo, and the change to the Animus is excellent, making it all the more disappointing that the whole experience didn’t quite come together in the end.