Since the 1993 release of the abysmal Super Mario Bros., video game movies have consistently failed to succeed. From Street Fighter to Doom to 2016’s Warcraft, nearly every one of them has been both a critical and commercial misfire. Despite this track record, many audiences looked to Assassin’s Creed, Macbeth director Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of the beloved Ubisoft action franchise, to break the trend. Unfortunately, it’s a bewildering disaster, and yet another disappointment in a genre that seems all but cursed at this point.
The film follows Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a death row inmate and descendant of a long line of assassins, who finds himself trapped in the Spanish headquarters of a mysterious organization known as Abstergo. There he meets Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), daughter of Abstergo’s founder, Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), and a scientist obsessed with discovering the “cure for violence.” Callum quickly learns of his use to the Rikkins, Sophia explaining to him that they wish to place him in the Animus: a crane-like virtual reality machine that allows users to access the memories of their ancestors. Sent back to 15th century Spain in order to inhabit the assassin Aguilar de Nerha and find the fabled Apple of Eden, Callum soon realizes the nefarious purpose behind Abstergo’s mission.
It’s among the most ridiculous narratives in recent memory. The script (credited to three writers) is one of the year’s most laughably inept, filled to the brim with utter nonsense and the occasional attempt at philosophy which comes off more like the mutterings of Paul Dano’s Nietzsche-obsessed character in Little Miss Sunshine but nowhere near as endearing. And that’s not even including the few scenes set during the Spanish Inquisition, which seem to lack a basic throughline, coming off more as tangentially connected setpieces rather than a cohesive story.
This isn’t helped by the paper-thin nature of the film’s characters, nor by their distinct unlikability. Callum is a cypher throughout, an impenetrable brute completely lacking in warmth (much like the film itself) until an absurdly abrupt closing scene. The only relationship in the film that has any slight success is that of Aguilar and fellow assassin Maria (The Lobster’s Ariane Labed), whose almost entirely wordless friendship becomes surprisingly compelling as the Animus story reaches its conclusion.
Not even the film’s assembly line of acclaimed actors, which includes four Oscar nominees, can breathe life into this dreck. Fassbender and Cotillard, two of modern film’s finest actors, give what are undoubtedly their worst performances, slipping between dull, monotone blankness and near-farcical melodrama. As the film’s primary antagonists, Irons and Charlotte Rampling are serviceable but never work to prove they’re there for anything but a paycheck.
Assassin’s Creed finds much more success in its production. Although the present-day scenes tend to look more than a little drab (light blue and chrome dominate proceedings), the film’s vision of 15th-century Spain is entrancing, the costume design a particular standout. It’s all expertly lensed by up-and-coming cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Macbeth), although his wondrous shots are sometimes overtaken by the overly hyper editing that dominates Assassin’s Creed’s occasionally entertaining but generally middling action sequences.
Despite a few truly beautiful sequences, Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed is one of 2016’s most egregious duds, a risible failure that lacks not only the passion the videogame movie genre is dying for, but also the basic tenets of successful storytelling.