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Through a revolutionary technology that unlocks his genetic memories, Callum Lynch experiences the adventures of his ancestor, Aguilar, in 15th Century Spain. Callum discovers he is descended from a mysterious secret society, the Assassins, and amasses incredible knowledge and skills to take on the oppressive and powerful Templar organization in the present day.
The Movie is the film adaptation of the popular video game franchise of the same name. The overarching plot of the games is that two secret societies, the Templars and the Assassins have existed throughout history. They wage a secret war to control various magic/technological artefacts which have the potential to influence human thought. The player usually takes control of an Assassin - a master of stealth, combat, and parkour - and guides them on an adventure through a period of historical interest such as the Crusades (the first Assassin's Creed) or the Italian Renaissance (the second, third and fourth games respectively).
In this case, the Assassin is Aguilar de Nerha (Michael Fassbender) during the 1492 Granada War and the Spanish Inquisition. He is charged with defending Prince Ahmed de Granada, the son of Sultan Muhammad XII, who the Templars seek as a hostage. The Sultan holds an object known as The Apple, which is rumoured to contain the secret of free will, and the Templars believe holding his son will convince him to surrender it.
Enter Cal (also Michael Fassbender), our modern-day protagonist. As a child in 1986, Cal witnessed his mother murdered by his father and subsequently went on the run. We meet him again in 2016, about to be executed for a murder we know nothing about, and which will be barely ever mentioned for the remainder of the film. His execution is faked, and he is taken to the HQ of a mysterious company called Abstergo, where Dr. Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) asks him to take part in the Animus project - a research project aiming to understand and cure the roots of human aggression.
And this is where everything starts to unravel. The modern/historical protagonist thing is a direct lift from the games, where a modern person is kidnapped by Abstergo (which is run by the Templars) and stuck in the Animus in order to relive the "genetic memories" of their Assassin ancestor, usually because that ancestor was the last known owner of the macguffin du jour. The purpose of this conceit in the games is to handwave away a number of video game tropes as "features of the Animus" - it generally translates all overheard languages into English, player death is treated as a temporary "desynchronisation" rather than a serious issue, the player is sometimes fed extra information as voice-over or optional extra text info about famous landmarks or personalities by a "researcher" who is part of the Animus team, and so on and so forth. It also allows an overarching plot between games as one person may have multiple Assassin ancestors, so several games can follow the same modern person and have a different Assassin and historical setting each time.
However, since people are pretty tolerant of movies replacing whatever the lingua franca is with English, and you don't have a player to stuff up each mission several times before getting it right and moving on, translating this part of the mythos into the movie isn't strictly necessary. Moreover, as any fan of Assassin's Creed will tell you, Ubisoft have an unerring talent for creating the dullest modern protagonists possible, and the time you spend playing them in "nondescript corporate-scientific HQ #37: pale blue with indirect lighting" is reliably the least entertaining part of the game every time. In this respect, Cal is true to form - growling out awful macho dialogue which is empty or leadenly expository by turns, and spending the rest of his time moping or hallucinating about (slightly) more interesting people.
What the split timeline does in the film is to rob the historical storyline of any weight. We know that Aguilar can't possibly succumb to whatever dire strait he gets himself into, as he hasn't got to the bit of the story that the Templars who run Abstergo want to see yet. This could have been overcome by embracing the video game conceit one step further, and making the drive of the story about Cal learning to use the Animus properly (i.e. allowing Aguilar to die a few times while Cal works stuff out) but instead the Animus is reworked from a sunbed-looking thing which requires no physical input from the user, to a bizarre harness-on-a-robot-arm which flings Cal around in the air as Aguilar does stunts. The goal, from the film makers' perspective, was presumably to shift the focus of drama onto the real-world consequences for Cal if things go wrong, but the actual result is that instead of watching Aguilar run around a visually-interesting setting, we watch a lot of Cal waving around in a big empty science room.
That said, the historical moments aren't much better. Usually an Assassin's Creed game stands or falls story-wise on how much fun the Assassin is to hang out with (Ezio Auditore from the second, third, and fourth games is a fan favourite) but Aguilar is as dull as Cal, if not more so. The combat scenes are all shot in terrible post-Bourne shaky-cam, making it nigh impossible to tell what's going on at any moment, and the parkour scenes are largely strangled by weirdly claustrophobic choices of angle, and hopelessly vague geography. This is particularly painful in this film, as the main draw of the Assassin's Creed games is their sense of purposeful and skillful movement, and the advantage this gives you over less-agile enemies.
In addition to these shortcomings, the movie is overstuffed with characters in both timelines to the point where it is difficult to keep track of them or care at all about any of their eventual fates. The plot is both dull and hard to follow, with a weird attempted twist near the end which falls completely flat.
This is not the worst video game movie ever made by any stretch of the imagination, but anyone who knows video game movies knows that's not much of a bar to clear. You do get to see a bunch of Assassin's Creed iconography, and also Michael Fassbender has his shirt off a lot - so if either of those ideas appeal to you, you might go along for that. Otherwise, it's a bit meh.
Movies that are based on video games are always difficult to do with success (some would argue that it is still yet to be successfully done). Generally this is thought to be because of the differences in medium; the game involves hours of personal involvement and full control of the main character, whereas a film obviously provides a cinematic approach that by comparison can struggle to properly engage the viewer. So I was curious to see how well this would turn out.
The film starts off with some script, before a multitude of time jumping; from the 15th century, to 30 years ago, then up to 2016. All in an attempt to portray the lineage of assassins. In all honesty, it had already started to bore me at this point. The jumping made it harder to properly engage and with the character when you are getting introduced to so many characters, and so much backstory without any answer as to what you need to really keep track of. Don't get me wrong, I loved the 15th century parts. In fact I loved everything directly related to that part of the film. The setting, the characters, the movements, and fight scenes, the hallucinations. I enjoyed it all.
My general area of dislike came from the "current day" portions of the movie. In the game you will spend the vast majority of your time in the past, so to spend so much time in the current time (i.e. away from the assassin stuff) was frustrating. I can understand that coming up with a viable plot for an Assassin's Creed film would be difficult, but I can't help but feel that the balance between historic and present scenes was off. This also would have had a double damaging effect on the film as it led to rushing the stuff that we want to see. The pacing entirely felt off, moving from far too slow, to way too fast. Accelerating to the point that we never had a chance for anything to sink in. It just rushed from one thing to the next.
It is probably one of the best video game based movies I've seen, but it still falls short from expectations. There are very few stealth moments, and the assassin stuff while well done, just didn't take up enough of the film. Hell, I would have preferred a film with no "present day" scenes. Just give me more assassins!
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 - 1882)