Tuesday, December 27, 2016

'Assassin's Creed' review

I've never really been much of a video game player. Sure, I've played casually throughout most of my life, but I've never been an intense gamer, which is at least partially due to my lack of skills. I can play Madden and 2K all day, but ask me to beat a level in Halo and I will be totally lost. That being said, I'm not entirely opposed to the idea of video game movies, because I think they provide us with a unique opportunity to explore new worlds and bold ideas on a spectacular big-budget canvas. I honestly couldn't tell you a single thing about Bioshock or Halo or The Last of Us, but I do sincerely hope that these movies get made, simply to provide us with a change of pace in the blockbuster landscape. 2016 was originally supposed to be the year that video game movies would break into the mainstream, becoming critical darlings and box office success stories that would stick out in the current world of action cinema. Unfortunately, that hasn't quite been the case.

Duncan Jones stepped up to the plate first with Warcraft, a fantasy epic based on the best-selling World of Warcraft games. Expectations were high thanks to Jones' previous features, Moon and Source Code, but the film was one of the biggest misfires of the summer. While it did make a healthy amount of money in China, Warcraft was a resounding critical and financial disappointment. I was a bigger fan of the film than most, but there's no denying that it was a shaky debut for the Warcraft universe. Six months later, Macbeth filmmaker Justin Kurzel is taking a stab at making a video game adaptation of his own with Assassin's Creed, which is based on the hit series by Ubisoft. With a cast led by Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, and Brendan Gleeson a big budget, a prime Christmas release, and a daring concept, there was a chance that Assassin's Creed could be the first legitimately successful translation of a popular video game to the silver screen.

Instead, we've received a movie that is destined for a long life in the bargain bin at Walmart. If you thought that Warcraft would surely be the worst video game movie of the year, well, I'm afraid you were sorely mistaken. Assassin's Creed is utter nonsense, but worse than that, it's mind-numbing, soulless nonsense. Goofy concepts and ridiculous ideas can be fun if there's some semblance of recognition from the filmmakers, with maybe even a dash of tongue-in-cheek humor thrown in for good measure. But when a movie as dumb and incoherent as Assassin's Creed has everything play out in the most self-serious way possible, it's a recipe for total disaster. Despite not getting off to the worst start, Assassin's Creed soon becomes a tedious, exhausting experience. During one particularly insane moment in the film, our hero looks around the room and asks "What the **** is going on?" I trust that many audiences will be thinking the same during the latest video game adaptation fiasco.

The story begins in 1492 in Spain, as famed assassin Aguilar (played by Fassbender) is initiated into the Assassin's Creed organization. The Assassins fight the Templars, who search for the mystical Apple of Eden in an attempt to control humanity. The battle has raged for centuries, and it only grows more and more intense as the years go by. Flash forward to 1986, and young Cal Lynch has witnessed the murder of his mother at the hands of his father. Flash forward again, and it's suddenly the present day. Lynch (played by Fassbender as well) is on death row for capital murder, and we see his execution. After being killed, he wakes up in a strange hospital in Madrid. He's totally confused, but thankfully, the brilliant Sofia (Marion Cotillard) is there to give him answers.

Sofia tells him that he's been transported to the Animus, a place that harbors a technology that uses genetic DNA to view the events of the past. Sofia and her father (Jeremy Irons) need Lynch, mostly because he's the last descendant of Aguilar. They're searching for the Apple, and she tells him that the goal is to eradicate violence from the planet. Lynch reluctantly goes along with the grueling procedure, but as the other inhabitants (Michael K. Williams, Callum Turner) start to get suspicious of him, Cal realizes that something truly disturbing may be going on in the Animus. To stop a plan to destroy humanity, Cal will have to embrace his destiny and become an Assassin.

Assassin's Creed is one of those blockbusters where you have to resist the temptation to laugh at almost every moment. From the very beginning, this movie is almost hopelessly silly, and yet it prays that if the esteemed, "prestigious" actors look serious enough, maybe the audience will go along for the ride. It's painfully hilarious to watch actors like Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard try to spin this garbage into something entertaining, something that the audience can be engaged by. Maybe there are some fans of the video game who will enjoy the mythology played out on a large scale, but at the same time, I have a feeling that they'll be bored by what's actually on screen. See, there's two problems with Assassin's Creed. The first is something that couldn't be changed- the mythology is ridiculous. It's goofy material, a weird blend of sci-fi and history that doesn't work. But the second problem is the execution, the direction of Justin Kurzel and the screenplay. Shake that up, and you might have an entirely different movie.

Kurzel has two stories to work with here- one set in the modern world, and one set during the Spanish Inquisition. Assassin's Creed clumsily bounces back and forth between the two tales, and neither one manages to feature any interesting characters or intriguing plotting. The two stories are threaded together by the general MacGuffin plotline involving the Apple, but it's clear that there should be other things going on in the film. There's another assassin character who interacts with Fassbender's Aguilar during the Inquisition scenes, and there are many other assassins who get minimal screen time in the modern pieces. We get nothing from any of these characters, and it all feels totally superfluous to whatever story the filmmakers are trying to tell. It doesn't help that Kurzel's direction is as dull and mundane as humanly possible, repeating the same action beat over and over while also giving us massive exposition dumps that are sleep-inducing. His direction is deprived of any flair, any energy, any sense of momentum to keep us engaged in the plot.

Assassin's Creed is also a hopelessly ugly film, one that is overwhelmed by both an absurd amount of dust and dirt during the historical moments, and a pristine, sterile look in the lab scenes. The fight scenes are some of the worst I've seen all year- the action exists without stakes, seeming content to be nothing more than a glorified parkour routine. But worst of all, Assassin's Creed is an incredibly forgettable film. It's awfulness doesn't overwhelm you- it sinks in deep, making you numb, giving you the sensation that you're a zombie watching total incoherence on the screen. I was thoroughly exhausted after this film, and not for a good reason. It just feels like a burst of nothing, a non-stop rush of bland action and copious amounts of world-building. Assassin's Creed is a movie where everything and nothing happens, which is indicative of a much larger problem in the sphere of Hollywood blockbusters.

Sure, maybe fans of the franchise will have a good time. I don't know the specifics of the games, so this could be seen as a faithful, entertaining adaptation. But as a standalone film, Assassin's Creed is miserable, dour, and nonsensical, another video game movie that will go down as a missed opportunity. I just felt bad for Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard while watching this disaster, a film that no amount of acting talent could save. Assassin's Creed is a film that will evaporate from your brain the moment you watch it. There are no memorable characters, no witty moments, no fun action scenes- this movie is a black hole. After all of this time, it looks like we're going to have to wait a little longer for the video game adaptation that finally brings the genre to life.

THE FINAL GRADE:  D                                                 (4/10)

Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Poster Credit: IMDB

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