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Review: ‘Assassin’s Creed’ Is Silly, Senseless and Possibly the Best Video Game Movie Ever Made

Justin Kurzel's adaptation is utterly ridiculous, but it's also the most interesting blockbuster in a year where most of them were boring.

Michael Fassbender in Assassin's Creed

“Assassin’s Creed”

History, which is foundational to the captivatingly bonkers story of Justin Kurzel’s “Assassin’s Creed,” tells us that this should be a very bad movie. For one thing, this dense, dour, and oft-delayed holiday spectacle is based on a popular series of video games — a grim omen in a year that brought us the likes of “Warcraft” and “Ratchet & Clank.” For another, Kurzel’s moody adaptation is told on a massive scale, budgeted to compete with other franchise monstrosities like “Rogue One” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” — the familiar trouble with making a film like this is that it’s too expensive to afford any risks.

But “Assassin’s Creed,” in which Michael Fassbender’s blank protagonist quite literally repeats history, refuses to be defined by the past. On the contrary, this bizarre, borderline incoherent action movie becomes the most interesting blockbuster of 2016 because of how defiantly it confronts the expectations of its heritage. As cold and weird as anything a major American studio has released since they started gearing all of their products for a Chinese audience — it borrows almost as much from “Under the Skin” as it does “The Matrix” — Kurzel’s film illustrates how free will can wiggle its way into the franchise system, how the messiness of bloodshed can be the only way to break free from the shackles of bloodlines.

 

The kind of movie that opens with a wall of dopey text about an ancient grudge and the violence it makes possible for our viewing pleasure (like “Star Wars,” but slightly ashamed of itself), “Assassin’s Creed” begins during the Spanish Inquisition, where a man named Aguilar de Nerha (Fassbender, enjoyably terse) leads a secret brotherhood of killers as they plot to protect a relic called “The Apple of Eden” from the rival Knights Templar. Cut to: 2016, where a career criminal named Callum Lynch (Fassbender again, this time with a snarl) is on death row in California for murdering a pimp. His execution goes as planned, except for the dying part; instead of being spirited away to oblivion, Callum wakes up in a Madrid research facility owned by Abstergo Industries, the present-day incarnation of the Templars.

READ MORE: Michael Fassbender Laments His Magneto Performance: “It’s Just Like Some Dude Shouting”

Okay, here’s where shit gets silly — just take a deep breath and we’ll all get through this together: Abstergo, a monolithic company run by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and maintained by his daughter, Sophia (Marion Cotillard), has dedicated billions of dollars to a secret project where they abduct descendants of the Assassins and strap them to a machine called “the Animus,” which is sort of like a super intense VR version of ancestry.com. Using a glorified spinal tap to access the user’s genetic memory and then project it on a billow of fog, the giant contraption allows Abstergo to see the 15th century through the eyes of their captives’ great-great-great-great-great (etc.) grandparents.

Alan and Sophia keep a close eye on all of the playback, looking for any hint as to where the Apple — a magical device that represents “the seed of man’s first disobedience” and is endowed with the fascistic power to eliminate human agency — might now be hidden. By impaling Callum on the Animus, Abstergo can see through the eyes of Aguilar de Nerha, a man whose life apparently consisted of one frenetic action scene after another (mercifully, if inexplicably, the film’s nimble chase sequences aren’t from a first-person POV).

“Assassin’s Creed”

I could go on about Callum’s fellow prisoners, or his sordid relationship with his father (Brendan Gleeson), or how Charlotte Rampling somehow ends up as the film’s big bad (just be grateful and don’t ask questions), but it’s safe to assume that the “Assassin’s Creed” movie hasn’t forsaken the video games’ signature WTF factor. If anything, Kurzel has fully embraced it, the Australian director of grimly airless indie fare like “Snowtown” and “Macbeth” refusing to sacrifice a scrap of integrity for his characteristically bleak studio debut. In a production of this size, that obstinance comes off as willful strangeness — he drapes the film in a frigid gauze of gray so that light only pokes through in shafts, he frames throwaway scenes with the stillness of a renaissance painting, and he evens the whole film out with a haunting score by his brother Jed that sounds closer to Tim Hecker than it does Hans Zimmer.

Most refreshingly unexpected of all, he sets almost half of the film in Spanish even though the games provide a cheap rationale for why everyone is speaking English in 15th century Spain. The decision pays off brilliant dividends: Knowing that Fassbender is only so good at faking a fluency, Kurzel removes most of the dialogue from the flashback portions, focusing instead on all the leaping and stabbing and death from above. This adds a primal charge to the kinetically choreographed scenes in which Aguilar and Maria (an awesome fellow assassin played by “The Lobster” star Ariane Labed) unleash hell on dozens of unsuspecting Templars, and compensates for the unnecessary frequency with which Kurzel cuts back to images of Callum flailing around in the Animus.

It would be overstating the case to suggest that any of this coheres into anything particularly meaningful (though it steals just enough from “The Matrix” to offer a more nuanced illustration of the battle between determinism and free will), but the film’s weird rhythm and strange energy add a compelling new veneer to a story that boils down to the typical hero’s journey. Each line of dialogue — and there aren’t many — might sound like it’s from a different movie, but all of those movies sound like a blast. Mileage will vary, and it’s mighty hard to trace any clear arc for Cotillard’s non-character, but there’s no dismissing a work of art in which Jeremy Irons turns to the camera and barks: “The history of the world is the history of violence.”

Few studio offerings of this scale so proudly express the violence of their creative process, so openly confront their genetic makeup in order to become something better than what was written for them. Declaring “Assassin’s Creed” to be the best video game movie ever made is the kind of backhanded compliment that sounds like hyperbole, but the description fits the bill on both counts. Regardless of what you call this peculiar, arrestingly uninviting nonsense, the fact of the matter is that it’s the only blockbuster of 2016 that left me desperate for a sequel.

Grade: B-

“Assassin’s Creed” opens in theater on December 21.

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Comments

Emma

The games are not on first person perspective. Why would the action sequences be?

    iFox

    I think the point is that “memories” would probably be first person, rather than artistically framed third person views.

Josh

Ehrlich, you’re the King of the Fassbender Fanboys. You even gave a positive review to Light Between Oceans FFS… Can you start reviewing movies on what you actually SEE and not based on the biases and/or crushes you had before going into the theater? Like your Sing review which was just a diatribe against Illumination. Filmgoers would appreciate it.

    Céu

    *clap clap clap*
    Bravo.

Sam

Ehrlich definitely is biased in his reviews and prejudges films based on who is in it. Fassbender always gets good reviews on Indiewire or they give excuses for his performances.

    Josh

    He gave Sing (the totally inoffensive Sing, a kiddie movie which I enjoyed too) a D-. If his beloved Fassbender had voiced the koala, probably a B+? LOL! He hates McConaughey’s guts as much as he loves Fassbender. It would be nice if he’d leave his prejudices out of his reviews and try to honestly evaluate the movies he sees. He’s a very good critic but this tendency to fanboy and/or unreasonably hate actors is skewering his judgment. You start to get the feeling he writes some reviews before he even sees the movies.

      Céu

      He hates James McAvoy too. I really can’t trust critics who are as biased as he is. A good critic should be neutral and judge the film for what it is, not be a fanboy of certain ones while hating others out of nowhere.

Jay

This is not about Fassbender, this is about movie itself. This one is a blast. No matter what critics say. Critics are too lazy to play any game, even tetris, they would’ve never handle any of AC games. Though it would not be somewhat nice if guys-reviewers would do a tiny bit of research before calling “silly” some things they know nothing about. I’m 37, have wife and kids, and I’ve been playing games (both PC & PS) my whole life. Didn’t notice it made me (or my wife, she’s playing too) a degenerate. Though it seems all the critics implying this. Games like Heavy Rain, Last of Us, Alan Wake, Witcher 3 – can’t remember when I last saw movies with stories as good as these. Not in recent years, that’s for sure. So you can take your La La Land and watch it over and over again, give it a couple of Oscars, and let us, normal people, to just enjoy good movies without your plain “silly” comments.

SickBoy

Ehrlich is off his meds on this one, I guess. The final grade doesn’t match the text. By text alone it would have been around “D”. My own opinion on film is even lower but that’s beside the point right now.

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