It may seem reductive to open a review of a movie based on a video game franchise with the phrase “video game movies never work.” Yet, history lays the foundation for such a claim to ring true – just last year we saw Moon-director Duncan Jones’ Warcraft, and the animated Ratchet & Clank fall out of favor with critics and audience members alike (Metacritic has them at 34/100 and 29/100 respectively) So, the deck is certainly stacked against Justin Kurzel (Macbeth, Snowtown) as he tries to bring one of Ubisoft’s flag-ship franchises onto the big screen – luckily, he is not the only one returning from 2015’s Macbeth.
Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard played the Macbeths to perfection in Kurzel’s Shakespeare adaptation, but the piece de resistance of that movie was its audiovisual presentation. Kurzel’s precise and succinct direction; Jed Kurzel’s deeply haunting score that swelled into operatic orchestrations; and Adam Arkapaw’s brush strokes with the camera – he created instantly commendable canvases of the Scottish countryside, and made the colors bleed and burn through the theatre’s projected images. With all this, it is only natural to assume – or hope – that Assassin’s Creed would manage to subvert general expectations about video game movies, and in some ways it actually did.
Assassin’s Creed is, and make no mistake about this, a video game popcorn flick that aims to appeal to a broad audience; it is a studio production through and through. It is littered with noticeable CGI – in action-sequences as well as renditions of 15th Century Spain – and close-ups in shaky-cam; which is not only hard to follow, but also a jarring contrast to the rest of the movie. You see, the Kurzel crew have not lost their touch, and they know the kind of movie they are working on. So instead of trying to subvert the entire genre/production (which inevitably ends in studio interference – see the promising idea of Fantastic Four versus the final cut), they infuse the genre/production with tremendously inspired ideas, in audiovisuals as well as character-wise.
There are moments that feel eerily familiar to any typical popcorn flick where your everyman is tossed into unreal circumstances, but unlike say the recent Dr. Strange – where our hero is literally tossed through time and space and reacts with a “woah. [insert joke]” – Assassin’s Creed and Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) are tangibly marked by the circumstances. Kurzel manages to play with tropes and allow them to become audiovisual rarities as much as integral pieces of characterization (which admittedly is quite poor in the screenplay) and the more subjective and interpretative themes of the movie. Arkapaw’s cinematography is painfully neutered in the sequences of 15th Century Spain – as CGI-spaces and a brown tint sucks away most of his vigor and color – but he still manages to capture interesting and beautiful compositions in modern-day, where the slick interiors of the Abstergo facility (in which most of the modern day-scenes take place) and its light allows him to flourish. Jed Kurzel’s music is also more reined in than in Macbeth, but it manages to not fall into the complete uniformity of most modern blockbusters. It does suit the tone of the movie, and it is at times bombastic in its orchestrations, but it does not have the impact of Macbeth or the chilling presence of Snowtown.
Assassin’s Creed is without a doubt a mess, but it is aspired mess. Its story is as non-sensical as in the games, and in many ways it does lack a real ending. It shoehorns in a few quotes and situations from the games that makes those of us who have played it cringe, and those who have not a huge question mark. Its characters lacks much nuance, but Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Ariane Labed are brilliant as always (let’s hope Labed gets the recognition she has deserved for years). It is still a fun movie, however; even quite a good one. It works as mindless popcorn entertainment with a fresher concept than we’ve seen in a long time, and Team Kurzel’s idiosyncracies are well worth it on the big screen.