Assassin’s Creed Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons. Directed by Justin Kurzel. Rated PG-13. Opens December 21 citywide.
Over the summer, the head of video game company Ubisoft said in an interview that the movie based on the company’s Assassin’s Creed video game series is mainly a marketing tool for the core video game brand, rather than an effort to craft a box-office success. As the main financial backer of the movie, Ubisoft retained creative control, so the company should bear at least some of the blame for the film’s incoherent plotting, grim tone and laughable dialogue. That’s the kind of stuff that players can easily pass by in an actual game, and the main way that the Assassin’s Creed movie might work as a marketing tool is to show viewers that they could do a better job of controlling the action than the filmmakers manage.
Unless a movie is part of the Star Wars franchise, it’s generally a bad sign to open with an expository text crawl, and Assassin’s Creed never stops expositing over its entire dragged-out runtime. The convoluted plot involves two secret organizations, the Knights Templar and the Assassins, who’ve been battling for centuries over control of a cosmic MacGuffin known as the Apple of Eden, which has the power to control humanity’s free will. The Templars want to use it to rule the world, while the Assassins are more the libertarian types. All of this is detailed in a dark, humorless prologue set in the historically significant year of 1492, which eventually becomes relevant to the movie’s most hilariously dumb plot twist.
In the present day, death row prisoner Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender, also a producer on this train wreck) wakes up from his supposed execution to find himself the prisoner of chilly scientist Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard, whose stylish haircut is literally the best thing in the movie). Sophia and her obviously sinister industrialist father Alan (Jeremy Irons) want to put Cal into something called the Animus, which allows him to experience the life of his ancestor Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender), an Assassin in 1492 and the last known possessor of the Apple. And that’s just the basic setup!
This means that Cal is essentially playing a video game, strapped into a mechanical rig that bounces him around as Aguilar fights his way through various Templars to retrieve the Apple. This absurd premise gets treated with maximum seriousness by all involved, including accomplished thespians Charlotte Rampling and Brendan Gleeson in supporting roles. The cast members probably deserve some kind of special Oscar for their straight-faced delivery of such ludicrous dialogue, but none of them can make it any more believable or coherent. The repetitive action isn’t much better, and director Justin Kurzel, who worked with Fassbender and Cotillard on a similarly dusty and murky version of Macbeth last year, obscures most of it with debris and quick cuts. That’s when he’s not swooping the camera nauseatingly over CGI-assisted vistas, trying to give the movie the scope and heft of a historical epic.
Instead it’s more like a fancier version of I, Frankenstein, right down to the dramatic putting-on and taking-off of hoods. The confusing ending sets up a promised trilogy that seems destined never to be completed—even loss leaders meant to serve as marketing can only waste so much money.