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‘Assassin’s Creed’ Is a Bad Movie, but the Best Video Game Movie

On the new Michael Fassbender action film, and the problems with adapting game titles for the big screen

(20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration)
(20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration)

The Assassin’s Creed video game series, now spanning nine main titles, is, like the old adage about blind men attempting to describe an elephant, a strange, indecipherable beast. The overarching lore combines Dan Brown–style, levant-centric illuminati conspiracy theories rooted in the pop philosophy of 19th-century central-European dudes with beards with a sci-fi time travel element. The gameplay is a fluid parkour action experience which can feel like a mind-numbingly repetitive hay jump simulation. The games can be patronizingly “orientalist” in their aesthetic details, while putting the player in control of an idealized ne plus ultra superhero who belongs to a historically marginalized ethno/religious group. The final boss of Assassin’s Creed 2, which many argue is the best game of the franchise (full disclosure: I hated no. 1, liked no. 2, and tapped out midway through no. 3), is the Pope. Read that again — the best game of the franchise culminates in you throwing hands with the pontiff.

The best illustration of what a weird amalgam of influences Assassin’s Creed is comes from the games’ fictional creed of the assassins: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” The phrase, per Karen L. Carr’s The Banalization of Nihilism, was a bon mot, popular among the European (especially German) intelligentsia of the 18th century, used to criticize atheism (there is no god) and materialism (there is only matter) as essentially amoral philosophies. The phrase first appears in print in 1838, in an unfinished two-volume work, Exposé de la religion des Druzes, by the French nobleman and linguist Baron Silvestre de Sacy. It pops up again in an 1862 book, Die grammatischen Schulen der Araber, by the German orientalist Gustav Flügel. Both authors use it in reference to the religious strictures of proselytes of the Ismailis, a branch of Shia Islam. The original historical group that came to be known as the “hashashins,” the source of the word assassins, were the armed followers of an 11th-century Ismaili leader named Hassan-i Sabbah.

The phrase was then used by the German philosopher and critic Friedrich Nietzsche (Little Miss Sunshine contains a surprisingly cogent primer on him) in his 1887 book On the Genealogy of Morality. Nietzsche writes: “When the Christian crusaders in the Orient came across that invincible order of Assassins — that order of free spirits par excellence whose lowest order received, through some channel or other, a hint about that symbol and spell reserved for the uppermost echelons alone, as their secret: ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted.’” This is not, strictly speaking, true.

Finally, in 1938, Vladimir Bartol, a Slovene author from Trieste (now part of Italy) who was an avid fan of Nietzsche, repurposed the phrase, thus solidifying the philosopher’s error in the popular imagination, for his book Alamut, which tells the fictionalized story of Hassan-i Sabbah. Alamut would go on to become a significant influence on Assassin’s Creed.

To sum up: Ariposte of atheism bouncing around Europe in the 1800s gets written into a couple of abstruse academic tomes on the Middle East, eventually filtering down to Friedrich Nietzsche, who is most closely associated with Nihilism, a philosophy the phrase, in its original form, would be a critique of, and who then writes in one of his books “hey, the assassins used to say this,” and basically here we are. In other words: The history of “Nothing is true; everything is permitted” is more interesting than the story told by Assassin’s Creed the game and film.

Assassin’s Creed, the film adaption of the long-running video game series, opens in theaters this week. It stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, and it is a bad movie. Not terrible, just normal bad. It’s a very “give it a shot when flipping channels” kind of film. This also makes it the best video game movie of all time. But let’s table that for now and focus on the badness.

The movie is directed by the Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel, who previously worked with Fassbender and Cotillard in a film adaption of Macbeth. Kurzel imbues Assassin’s Creed with the same sense of ever-encroaching doom that he uses, quite naturally, for Billy Shakes’s essential tragedy about the dangers of ambition. This is part of the problem.

The Assassin’s Creed video games can be infuriating. But at their best, the art and controls and design come together to give the player an amazing feeling of movement through defined space — running across rooftops, climbing ledges, launching into the air to drop on unsuspecting enemies. That is fun. None of that kinetic joyousness translates to the film. Fassbender and Cotillard are wonderful talents but any chemistry they might have is encased in a leaden tomb.

The main problem, though, is the cinematography. The images are simultaneously dim and undefined. The effect is similar to that of the oft-critiqued Marvel movie visual palette, which is the result of color-grading the black to be not-black-enough. But where the Marvel movies contrast the flatness of their images with bold colors, Assassin’s Creed is all grays, browns, and blacks. It’s like a pastel version of the Marvel films, drained of life. It doesn’t help that, in keeping with the late-15th-century settings, many of the scenes are suffused with smoke from torches, bonfires, and people burned at the stake (again, not that fun!). It’s like trying to watch a movie through gauze.

Complicating matters, our assassin heroes wear similar dark garb to the various people they fight, making it often difficult to discern who is doing what to whom. Sometimes, a set-piece action scene can make a sodden mess of a movie worth seeing — think the church fight in The Kingsman. There’s lots of action in Assassin’s Creed. You just can’t make any of it out.

All that said, I’m pretty sure Assassin’s Creed is the best video game movie of all time. Of course, we’re talking about a subgenre of film dominated by the timeless low-budget, low-imagination fuckery of Uwe Boll and Paul W.S. Anderson, i.e., the other director named Paul Anderson. The bar is so low, it’s in the Earth’s core. Why is this the case?

It’s not due to a lack of directorial talent. Kurzel’s feature debut, The Snowtown Murders, and the aforementioned Macbeth are both worth seeing, if slower moving and less complex visually than Assassin’s Creed. Warcraft director Duncan Jones’s previous films Moon and Source Code sneak up on you in interesting ways. And, in addition to the problematic Jake-Gyllenhaal-as-a-Persian-dude video game adaption Prince of Persia, Mike Newell directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin, and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Neither is it the writing quality of the source games, or the quality of the games themselves. The plot of Mad Max: Fury Road is basically a series of boss battles, and it’s one of the greatest action movies ever. You’d think by now someone would make a good video game movie by accident. Hitman, Doom, and Silent Hill are classic games that fell flat on the screen. (Though I will ride for the first-person scene in Doom the movie.)

The difficulty stems from the interactivity of games. A video game’s story is created, in large part, by the player, not the writer or level designer. Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 are among my favorite games ever. The plot amounts to little more than a series of setups — four player-controlled characters must cooperate to travel through various urban and suburban environments infested with zombies. And yet, I have had experiences in that game — running for the transport chopper as a teammate was attacked by a boss zombie, hearing him scream “DON’T LEAVE ME!” with real desperation in his voice — that felt like peering into a person’s soul. By translating that experience to the screen, you necessarily lose that interactive fourth dimension.

Interactivity also affects pace. A common observation of the Uncharted series is that the heroic character of Nathan Drake ends up murdering, like, 400 enemies per game. That’s because games are very boring unless something — like fighting various mercenaries — happens every few minutes. That pace cannot be sustained in a film without risking the audience weeping tears of blood and having seizures in the aisles.

The type of games that get produced for the screen are the so-called AAA games; these are often I.P. created for I.P.’s sake, and rarely the work of an auteur. Games studios don’t want their brands, their economic lifeblood, altered in a way that might devalue the property. This constricts a respective filmmaker’s creative latitude.

Additionally, games, while insanely lucrative as an industry and pervasive as a pastime, don’t have, and may never have, the cultural cachet of literature or television. The planned adaptation of The Last of Us, one of the most critically lauded games of the past 10 years, is already in development hell. If smart people can’t figure out how to make that game a movie, then the endeavour, writ large, is doomed.

Toward the end of the Assassin’s Creed film, it’s revealed that the Apple of Eden, a mystical McGuffin adapted directly from the game, is in the possession of …

[SPOILER WARNING]

[SPOILER WARNING]

[I’M SERIOUS; SPOILER WARNING]

[LAST CHANCE]

[OK]

… Christopher Columbus. Yes, the Christopher Columbus of “right-thinking people don’t celebrate this holiday anymore but I’m still trying to get work off” fame. During the showing I attended, this revelation produced snorts of military-grade derision from audience members. A film which took itself even 0.01 percent less seriously, might have played this for a laugh. Not Assassin’s Creed. None of the characters in the scene even blinked at this. They let the moment fall like a rock into a wagon full of hay.

And that, because it was at least as dumb as final-boss-fighting the Pope, was my favorite part of the movie. It got that part of video games right.