You can have stunning visuals, promising source material and a fantastic ensemble, but all of that is going to cave under the pressure created by a complete lack of access to the characters. The big screen adaptation of Assassin’s Creed had a lot going for it and even finds a great deal of success on the technical front, but when you couldn’t care less if the characters live or die, the movie is dead in the water.
Michael Fassbender stars as Callum Lynch, a convict due to be executed who’s suddenly whisked off to a mystery facility owned by Abstergo Industries. There he meets Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), the daughter of the company CEO and the leader of the Animus project. The Animus is a contraption that allows Cal to tap into the genetic memories of his ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha, and travel back in time to experience the events that went down in 15th Century Spain when Aguilar attempts to stop the Templar Order from getting ahold of the Apple of Eden and using it to eradicate free will.
For those with little knowledge of the source material, like myself, that might sound complicated, but one thing Assassin’s Creed does quite well is acclimate you to the situation without relying on a dull, confusing first act exposition dump. The movie appropriately opens with a much-needed crawl that quickly dishes out the basics, allowing character behavior to fill in the rest. However, once you get beyond “Creed good, Templar bad, Apple important,” the Assassin’s Creed narrative is absolutely riddled with plot holes, particularly when it comes to character motivation.
Fassbender looks fantastic in the role and has absolutely no trouble selling both Cal and Aguilar as highly capable fighters, but there is no emotional access to Cal whatsoever. During one of our first encounters with our main man, he’s being executed for murder. The movie does make a very brief attempt at suggesting that Cal killed someone who might have deserved it, but that doesn’t get you any closer to actually rooting for him or understanding why he makes certain decisions. The closest the movie comes to humanizing Cal is in a single scene Fassbender shares with Brendan Gleeson.
Fortunately Fassbender has more luck in 1492 with Aguilar. Not only does the 15th Century action blow most of the fight sequences that take place in present day away, but in the past, Fassbender actually gets to have a compelling connection to one of the characters. There are a whole bunch of Assassins trying to protect the Apple, but Aguilar is mainly in the company of just one, Maria played by Ariane Labed. There’s no backstory or meaty conversations for the two. Everything you come to understand about how Maria and Aguilar feel about each other builds naturally from how they act in battle.
In the present however, it’s all talk. Cotillard does her best as Sofia, but sadly she doesn’t get all that much to do beyond stating how important her work is and how she cares for Cal. One can deduce it’s because she needs his connection to Aguilar, but there’s so little fire there that you can’t feel her passion or the urgency of her assignment. And the fact that the facility itself is extremely underdeveloped doesn’t help. If Animus is indeed Sofia’s life’s work, it would have been nice to get an understanding of how the device came to be and how it’s been used since it’s been operational, prior to Cal’s arrival. There are other “patients” in the facility, including Michael Kenneth Williams’ character, but good luck keeping track of their names or figuring out their agendas.
From a technical perspective, Assassin’s Creed transitions from the present to the 15th Century rather smoothly and with a great deal of added momentum from Jed Kurzel’s bombastic, percussion-heavy score, but the constant jumping back and forth significantly detracts from the present day material – one, because it means the facility gets less screen time and, two, because everything that happens in the 15th Century is monumentally more riveting.
Minus the material with Aguilar and Maria, Assassin’s Creed operates in cruise control. A similar sequence of events happens over and over again, and all you can do is just sit back and look at the pretty picture. And yes, Assassin’s Creed often does look fantastic, especially the costume design and the chase sequences that take place in the 15th Century. But all the riveting roof-top running and hand-to-hand combat in the world won’t make a movie worthwhile if you don’t give a damn about the characters.