Video games being adapted into films almost always suffer the same issue of being immediately unsatisfying for gamers. To put it simply, they confiscate the controller. For non-gamers, they’re often a drudgery of ‘lore’ references and visual nods to the source material that forget that they’re trying to make an engaging film inspired by the narrative’s appeal. I’ve come to coin the phrase “auto-redundancy,” to describe the entire genre. However, “Snowtown” director Justin Kurzel has re-teamed with his “Macbeth” star Michael Fassbender for "Assassin’s Creed"; a property that in concept alone finds a way into the lure of inhabiting another powerful person.
In a sparse coastal town in Mexico, a young thrill seeker Callum Lynch is killing time with the stupid exercise of casually jumping his bike between buildings. It’s the kind of thing that makes total sense when you’re a bullet-proof kid. When he sees a commotion near his house, he rides fast to get to his parents. Standing, nursing his mother’s (Essie Davis) dead face is Cal’s hooded father who instructs him to run.
Years later, that abandoned thrill seeker Cal, has grown up to be Michael Fassbender, but unfortunately is a convict awaiting death by lethal injection. Then something unexpected happens; he wakes up. In a private concrete prison asylum hybrid, he’s introduced to Sofia (Marion Cottilard), the chief developer for Abstergo, a company with a machine known as the ‘animus’ which accesses genetic memories. Cal is plugged into the ‘animus’ to live out the life of his assassin ancestor Aguilar de Nerha in 15th century Spain. Abstergo wants to observe Aguilar and the ‘Creed’ and their fight against the Templars in the time before he acquires a sacred object with the power to enslave humanity.
Writers Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper & Bill Collage adapt the material to be as much about the strange impulses and mechanisms of gaming as they do to bringing the premise to life. “Assassin’s Creed” shows Cal living out the life of an ancestor. The animus for Cal is much the same as an immersive gaming experience. Sofia (Cotillard) is a proxy game developer and has been unlocking different characters based upon the genome of the players. This time, she’s finally seeing the potential of apparatus. The animus sees the inserted player living out the character’s movements and can be placed into the memories as a passive spectator. Our emerging generation of games that take place in virtual spaces with intuitive true-to-life controls absolutely have built in our desire to appreciate other players in the game as we wait patiently for our turn or take their expertise back to our consoles.
This next generation of games also have the ability to begin integrating natural movement skills into how we play games in a way that we’re only beginning to scratch the surface. With every moment that Cal spends in the life of Aguilar he gradually begins to absorb his talents, skills and insights. The patients in the facility around him aren’t merely a disparate array of weirdos, they’re an awakening force of Assassins, like Moussa (Michael Kenneth Williams) who are piecing together that the Abstergo is the corporate face of their ancient enemies, The Templars.
Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed refreshingly has the cast, the multi-layered material of the eponymous game to be able to take the audience, through Fassbender, into the experience of the animus.
The days of the Spanish Inquisition feel like they’re on fire. The seething heat and ochre dust is captured in those claustrophobic moments as the character’s bound and parkour through stone buildings. Editor Christopher Tellefsen keeps the pace high but it’s not beyond your comprehension. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw adapts the texture to heighten the lavish production design in the drastically different spaces. Warm, dust caked organic stone in the15th Century religious crusades exquisitely contrasted with glacial concrete and glass with the shrine of the metallic beast that is the ‘animus’ enabling this window into the past.
If you ever had to ask, why would Fassbender pursue the role of Cal/Aguilar, you’ll be answered as the film progresses. He’s essentially building two completely different characters with different impulses and temperaments and finds a way to fuse them together. Williams is always magnetic and has eyes that almost will Cal toward his destiny. Gleeson's brief and powerful moments as Cal’s father, giving a window into the endurance of the Creed. Charlotte Rampling playing Ellen Kaye Rampling and Jeremy Irons playing Rikkin (Sophia’s father) share the Peter Cushing reign as bad British folks wanting to get their hands on the ‘Macguffin’ to acquire more power. Finally Cotillard, who is just one of the most talented actors working today, seems to be tonally off here. She’s the genius, the person that’s enabling her father and their organisation to manipulate these descendants of the Creed, the secrets of the past. She seems rigid and her natural flow is being blocked here.
“Assassin’s Creed” doesn’t allow us to hold the controller but you want to stay in the room to watch how the story unfolds.