Given that I already knew Assassin’s Creed was a critical dud, why did I end up watching it? I’m asking that myself, having witnessed it first hand. I don’t usually read reviews of movies I’m going to watch in case they might influence my viewing and elements of my own reviews, and I didn’t with this one – one look at the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate score was all I needed to know. As anyone who’s scrolled through my reviews knows, I’m largely a genre fan, so some movies I’ll watch regardless – that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.
Based on the successful video game franchise from Ubisoft, Assassin’s Creed follows the basic principle of the games – that ancestral memories can somehow be banked in one’s DNA, and relived via a facilitating device known as The Animus. It’s a pretty far-fetched concept, and not one I could really get behind, even as a sci-fi plot device. It just seems kind of dumb. Yeah, I’m intrigued by how animals just know how to do things from very early on in their lives without the kind of educational experience we need, but whatever “instinct” is, I’m pretty sure these survival skills don’t come in the form of actual memories of dead ancestors. In the movie, Michael Fassbender (X-Men: Apocalypse) is the guy who gets strapped in, and not only is he able to see these memories playing out in his mind as if they were a cinematic movie, the process also kind of “downloads” the ancestor’s physical prowess and honed fighting skills, as if he was Neo plugging into The Matrix. Whereas Neo’s body was a purely digital creation set in a simulated environment, all that happened in that movie was upgrading a character’s skill tree – in Assassin’s Creed, the enhancements are all real world physical. It’s a good thing, then, that both Fassbender’s character, Callum, and all the others detained at the Animus facility are seemingly 100% perfect physical specimens – sure, the mind could gain the knowledge of these skills, but a human body suddenly able to perform them is just bullshit. And yeah, I really do get bothered by these kind of details. In addition to that, while I like Fassbender a lot, he just does not look like a career criminal who’s “drifted in and out of correctional facilities all his life” as Fassbender himself described Callum. No room in the budget for fake tats?
Dumb science aside, the movie itself is mostly just flat out boring to watch. The real world scenes are largely inert and the plot here is uninteresting: The Abstrego Foundation, led by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), is a technological front for the ancient order of the Knights Templar, a shadowy group, naturally, headed by Ellen Kaye (Charlotte Rampling). The Templar goal is to find the historical maguffin, The Apple of Eden, which contains the genetic code for human free will. Once they unlock the secret, they can subjugate the human race. They already tried and failed with religion, politics, and consumerism, Rikkin says at one point. If a genetic reason for “free will” sounds stupid to you, don’t feel alone. Exactly why they want to eradicate free will isn’t really explained – especially given that on the whole humans already are shackled to the Big Three yokes. The goal is too big, and presented in an almost meaningless, offhand manner by the three credited writers (and, of course, the other uncredited writers who come and go on every movie) Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, and Bill Collage. The story made me think of Angelina Jolie’s horrible second outing as Lara Croft, in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. How can such a massive concept with massive implications feel so meh?
Within Abstrego, the scientific Animus project was created, and is run by, Rikkin’s daughter Sophia, played by Marion Cottilard, but I never at any point felt there was any authenticity here. I like Cottilard just fine, but the writing of her character, and the mediocre direction of Justin Kurzel (who also directed Fassbender and Cottilard in 2015’s Macbeth), never really made her believable here as either. These real world scenes are boring enough, but also kind of silly upon further inspection. As Callum goes through the motions of reliving events from his ancestor’s life as a highly trained, dedicated Assassin in 1492, we as the audience can see him fighting all these shadowy bad guys as if they were happening in front of us, but they’re only in his mind – watching from the side as Sophia does would be like watching some kind of interpretive dance. And how does this thing work anyway? Callum is strapped into some kind of high tech robotic arm that allows him to perform in the real world as his ancestor does, so he’s leaping, climbing, fighting using this thing, despite there being nothing but empty space around him. Like I said, it just looks kind of silly.
So what of the “remembered” world of 1492? The story there is better, since it’s all action, but this is also the big problem. There’s a grain of story featuring the Assassin’s group trying to retrieve this Apple thing at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, but there’s very little actual story here. I didn’t get why the Apple was important in that era, considering it’s only important in the present day storyline because the technology exists to unlock the genetic code within it. Also, not having lived during the Inquisition I couldn’t say for sure what it would be like, but as presented in the movie it doesn’t seem all that interesting. Other than some fights and chases, there’s no real meat here. Fassbender’s character here is named Aguilar, and he’s ably assisted by female assassin Maria (Ariane Labed) – both are presented, through the magic of incompetent writing, as having almost no human characteristics – they’re 100% stoic fighting machines, all day, every day.
What could have livened things up would be to make the whole thing visually weird, like some kind of Heironymous Bosch painting. The character of Torquemada is played by a pudgy little bald man who just looks more suited to be giving out the Sunday sacrament. And sure, maybe Torquemada was more like that than, say, this:
But wouldn’t this have been better? Listen, the movie already has zero scientific credence, it should have gone full monty with historical accuracy too. I didn’t expect the comfy chair, just a better Spanish Inquisition.
© Andrew Hope 2017