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Review: Assassin’s Creed (2016)

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

Directed by: Justin Kurzel

Premise: Adapted from the videogame. A prisoner (Michael Fassbender) is spared from death row to participate in a series of experiments that allow him to relive the life experiences of an ancestor who knew the location of a long lost artifact.

What Works: There’s something to be said for the imagery of Assassin’s Creed. Filmmaker Justin Kurzel, who had previously helmed The Snowtown Murders and 2015’s Macbeth, has a talent for creating striking visuals. The quality of the cinematography and production design are quite good with big outdoor set pieces and interesting uses of shadows and color in the interior scenes. The many action sequences of Assassin’s Creed have tremendous energy and kineticism and the movie impressively layers the action of the past and present on top of one another.

What Doesn’t: Unfortunately, the photographic qualities of Assassin’s Creed are all for not because the movie fails as a piece of cinema. The most fundamental understanding of filmmaking is that meaning is created by the juxtaposition of images. One shot follows another and collectively these images communicate a coherent idea, even if it is something as simple as a person walking across a room. Just as an outburst of random words doesn’t make a sentence, a cacophony of images doesn’t make a movie. Assassin’s Creed fails at this most basic tenant of filmmaking. It is utterly incoherent. Within many sequences, especially the action set pieces, one shot does not lead to the next. The action isn’t going anywhere and so the movie is a bunch of stunts and punches that don’t mean anything. Assassin’s Creed similarly fails in its storytelling. A lot of movies, especially sci-fi and fantasy pictures, mistakenly include too much exposition or halt the momentum of the narrative to explain everything. Assassin’s Creed fails in a different way. It has virtually no exposition at all. The film is about a man who is put through an experimental procedure by a mysterious organization that’s trying to recover an artifact. That’s about as clear at the movie gets. There is no context for anything and therefore no meaning. Because it is so vague there’s also no stakes. The characters speak in vague terms about the artifact and how it will do something that will destroy the heroes but it is never clear what that is or how it works. We’re also to believe that the organization that runs this research facility is evil and the patients are good but there’s nothing to indicate anyone’s moral values. It isn’t that Assassin’s Creed is morally ambiguous or even morally nihilistic. That would require coherent ideas at the center of the story. The supposedly villainous characters make comments about bringing an end to violence by eliminating free will and the assassins, who are supposed to be the good guys, take a pledge that sounds vaguely Nietzschean. But there’s no ideology here, just pseudo-philosophical mumbo jumbo. The failures in the storytelling and exposition are exacerbated by the failure to create interesting characters. There are many different people in Assassin’s Creed existing in both the past and the present but no one is characterized, which is to say that none of these people have defining qualities. They aren’t even stereotypes. The filmmakers attempt to disguise the lack of story or character with the novelty of the fantasy world. But even for a movie based on a video game, Assassin’s Creed takes some incredible leaps in its logic. The movie supposes that people can relive the experiences of ancestors who have been dead for 500 years by tapping into memories that are passed down in our DNA. This is so bogglingly stupid that Assassin’s Creed makes National Treasure look like a Ken Burns documentary.

Bottom Line: Assassin’s Creed is something of an accomplishment in bad moviemaking. It’s a two-hour feature film without a plot, without characters, and without context or coherent action. Assassin’s Creed sits with Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, and Doom among the worst video game adaptations ever made.

Episode: #628 (January 1, 2017)