Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed is a movie in search of a theme, which is weird because the theme should be right there in the title. Based on the video game series of the same name, the Assassin’s Creed can be summarized with the words “Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” and it’s supposed to be a rallying cry for free will. The antagonists are the Knights Templar, a group that seeks to obliterate free will because it equates peace with compliance.
Unfortunately, the movie is more concerned with arbitrary trivia than it is in its own ideology. It somehow manages to forget everything that makes Assassin’s Creed fun, giving fans (and non-fans) more of what they don’t want at the expense of things they do.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. If you’re unfamiliar with the franchise, Assassin’s Creed is an anthology series that follows a handful of Assassins in different historical eras. Though the game has a modern day framing device (we’ll get to that in a moment), most of the action takes place in the past as players explore exotic locales and climb all over famous landmarks.
The movie, on the other hand, is set primarily in the present. Michael Fassbender stars as Callum Lynch, a death row inmate who wakes up after his sentence has been carried out. His saviour is Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), a scientist working with the Abstergo company who wants to plug Lynch into the Animus, a machine that allows her to sift through the memories of his ancestors. She’s searching for something called the Apple of Eden, a magical artifact that was last seen in the possession of Callum’s ancestor Aguilar de Nerha of Spain.
The Animus is the aforementioned framing device, and it serves a similar purpose in the games and the film (that’s how Assassin’s Creed travels to different historical eras). In this case, Aguilar is a fifteenth century Assassin, while Abstergo is a modern branch of the Knights Templar that plans to use the Apple of Eden to dominate the world.
It sounds like a lot, but the exposition, though frequent, is relatively straightforward. Non-fans shouldn’t have any trouble following the plot, which zips along at an efficient pace while conveying all of the necessary information. In that regard the Ubisoft-produced Assassin’s Creed is one of the better video game adaptations in recent years, at least in the sense that remains faithful to its source material without alienating larger audiences.
The problem is that it doesn’t add up to anything substantial. The movie spends so much time explaining the Animus that it doesn’t have time to spend in the Animus, and I truly cannot fathom why Ubisoft felt that that was the one thing that fans wanted to see in a movie adaptation of the property. It leads to a movie with more exposition than plot, with only a few brief flashbacks to Spain.
It’s a complete inversion of the franchise’s usual dynamic, and it means that Assassin’s Creed is without a memorable protagonist for much of its runtime. Aguilar is supposed to fill that role, but we never learn much about him beyond the fact that he is an Assassin, and while the fight scenes and the parkour look cool, it doesn’t add much context to the happenings at Abstergo. Most of the movie takes place in drab corridors and grim laboratories where characters try to explain the monotone design.
That’s what makes Assassin’s Creed so frustrating. The source material has all of the necessary components of a colourful action flick, but it feels like Ubisoft has chosen to ignore all of them to focus on the most granular aspects of the franchise. A movie that should be set in a grand locale like Paris, Rome, or the Caribbean is instead set in a series of small, sterile rooms. A movie that should tell a story of swashbuckling adventure instead features a blank slate who doesn’t know enough about the war he’s fighting to choose a side. Ubisoft essentially made a movie about Desmond, and Desmond is no one’s idea of a charismatic lead. (You can disregard that last sentence if you’ve never played the games.)
It needlessly complicates what should be a simple premise. Assassin’s Creed is thematically engaging when it probes the natural tension between security and free will, but the movie is so preoccupied with world building that it never gets a chance to explore that theme in any meaningful way. Instead, we get platitudes. The Templars and the Assassins repeat their respective philosophies throughout the film, but the fight itself is so insular that we have no sense of the impact it will have on the outside world. The Assassins kill the Templars and the Templars kill the Assassins, but beyond that none of it really seems to matter.
It all adds up to a bland dystopia with none of the historical tourism that makes the game series so exciting. Most people – fans and non-fans alike – will simply find the movie dull. With Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft has demonstrated the ability to make a competent film, but it utterly fails to recognize what it is that people like about its signature franchise.