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Assassin’s Clarity

Lessons for the future of video game adaptations after a high-profile Hollywood flop

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

About a week before Assassin’s Creed came out in theaters on December 21, Azaïzia Aymar, the brand ambassador for video game publisher Ubisoft, told livestream listeners to expect a “milestone movie.” Granted, brand ambassadors aren’t paid to say that their products are probably going to bomb, but Aymar and other executives seemed certain that their film would snap the long losing streak of Hollywood adaptations of video games. “There’s going to be a ‘before and after Assassin’s Creed movie’ for sure,” Aymar announced.

Thus far, the “after” features a 17 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating and prominent placement on multiple lists of 2016’s biggest box-office failures. The movie, directed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Irons, finished fifth in its opening weekend and has grossed $43.9 million domestically and roughly the same overseas, not nearly enough to recoup its considerable costs. Jean-Julien Baronnet, then the CEO of Ubisoft Motion Pictures, said in 2015 that the film’s budget was higher than $150 million and “not far from” $200 million. Pam Abdi, president of coproduction company New Regency, later walked that back to $130 million, with the official figure finally trimmed to $125 million. Whatever the true tally, the movie’s only hope for profitability is to follow in the footsteps of Warcraft, another 2016 video game adaptation that debuted in the U.S. to similarly lousy reviews and lackluster sales but did such big business in China that its worldwide earnings topped $400 million (with almost 90 percent of that total coming from foreign markets).

We’ve seen some successful movies loaded with explicit references to video games (Wreck-It Ralph, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and others that repurpose video game conventions to fine effect (Wall-E, Edge of Tomorrow). But we’re still waiting for the first film that makes enough out of an actual license to satisfy fans and critics alike. Assassin’s Creed’s bid to raise the extremely low bar for video game movies had every advantage: deep pockets, a high-profile license, a reputable director and cast, and a developer that retained some degree of creative control. That it didn’t do so convincingly suggests several lessons for the next video game film that aspires to be better than a casual cable watch for preexisting fans of a franchise.

Take Smaller (and Smarter) Risks

Given the consistently terrible track record of video game adaptations, investing even $125 million in Assassin’s Creed was a bigger leap of faith than the record 125-foot jump a stuntman performed for the film. Although the first Assassin’s Creed game debuted less than a decade ago, the series is up to nine major installments, with dozens of side stories in downloadable content and mobile titles. The movie was also clearly constructed with sequels in mind, and although that made sense for such a sequel-prone property, it was perhaps overly ambitious in light of the absence of critically acclaimed video game movies and the scarcity of remunerative movie series that can trace their roots to games. It’s also a disservice to the movie’s story, which suffers from its transparent attempts to set up subsequent films we may never see. There’s something to be said for choking up with two strikes, and taking a conservative approach makes even more sense when you’ve already racked up dozens of strikes, as Hollywood has in its misadventures in video games.

That doesn’t mean that studios should abandon big swings, but the biggest (and best) swings from a creative perspective might not require, or even benefit from, blockbuster spending. Most movie adaptations of video games draw from high-profile franchises, which sounds sensible: In theory, the more people have played or heard of a game, the more might be willing to see a film with the same name. In practice, though, few of gaming’s long-established series have rich-enough stories to make for good movie material once their interactivity — the main draw — is removed. A game whose sole substantial source of entertainment is punching people, shooting demons, or hopping between platforms loses a lot in translation to a medium in which one isn’t doing the punching, shooting, or hopping. Passively observing intricate choreography is rarely as satisfying as controlling it.

Many of today’s games tell sophisticated, complex, and subtle stories for adult consumers. The most frequent moviegoers in the U.S. and Canada are between 25 and 39; the average “frequent game purchaser” is 38. Plenty of titles would appeal to both groups. They just might not always be the ones at the top of the historical sales charts.

It’s About the Story, Stupid

The complete plot of the Assassin’s Creed series is hot nonsense. A fan-made story summary published before the last major game release runs 18 minutes and leads with ancient, luminous beings called the Precursors who had six senses and triple-helix DNA. (That’s one whole extra sense and one whole extra helix.) The video doesn’t mention assassins until almost the five-minute mark.

Kurzel’s Creed wisely sidesteps the thornier mythology (or at least saves it for the now-less-likely sequels), but what does make the movie is inscrutable enough. There’s a passable story in the building blocks of the franchise — Assassins, Templars, conspiracies, genetic memories, MacGuffins — but the big-screen version omits too much at some times and tacks on too much at others. The process by which Fassbender’s character, Callum Lynch, dives into his ancestor’s memories (which veterans of the franchise understand from the get-go) is hardly described, while his backstory is laden down with dead weight that wasn’t in the games.

Too often, Assassin’s Creed presumes that ticket buyers are already familiar with the video game franchise. And although that’s true in many cases — Ubisoft says the series has sold more than 100 million copies — it’s not true in enough cases to bump the movie into tentpole territory. Thanks to Ubisoft’s willingness to go back to the well, some Creed fatigue has set in among gamers, which has yielded declining sales and prompted the developer to take 2016 off from its annual launch of an Assassin’s Creed original. Even if every player who bought the most recent games in the series also bought a ticket to see Assassin’s Creed, the movie wouldn’t earn back its budget, so it can’t completely rely on its license. Its success still depends on courting action junkies and Fassbender fans who’ve never picked up a controller, and the film rarely holds their hands.

Assassin’s Creed commits another of the genre’s repeated sins by going out of its way to replicate the look of the game. Some fan service is fine, but Kurzel frequently mimics the game series’ signature iconography — leaps of faith, parkour-style free running — without ever conveying what makes it special or sets it apart from other stunts, which results in set pieces that are impressive only to players. Video game movies needn’t look like video game movies. There’s no real reason why a viewer who hasn’t played the original should be able to identify that a movie began its existence as a video game, any more than a movie adapted from a novel or nonfiction work needs to telegraph that it’s based on a book.

Pinpoint the Appeal of the Original

Part of Aymar’s insistence that Assassin’s Creed would be a precedent-setting project came from Ubisoft’s creative involvement, which distinguished the film from many movie cash-ins in which the developer sold the rights to a studio and severed all ties to the product. That model of moviemaking became a trend in 2016: Insomniac was closely involved in Ratchet & Clank (which tanked both critically and financially) and Blizzard consulted on Warcraft. That small sample proved that developer involvement isn’t a panacea for what’s always ailed video game movies. If Ratchet & Clank was too faithful to the original, which made it seem inessential and (in comparison to, say, Pixar) slight when divorced from its arcadey action, Assassin’s Creed seemed surprisingly oblivious to what made the best of the games good.

Apart from its gameplay, which a movie can’t capture, the Assassin’s Creed series thrives on its vibrant historical settings and its depictions of the assassins’ skills: stealthiness and freedom of movement. The games’ sights and sounds bring back bygone eras in a visceral way, while the games’ assassins can climb anything, kill anyone, and escape unscathed.

Like the games, the Assassin’s Creed movie is split between present and past. Unlike the games, it anchors itself to the present, by far the less interesting environment both visually and conceptually. Even when Callum is mentally reliving his ass-kicking ancestor’s battles, the movie constantly cuts to shots of Fassbender pantomiming the same motions while attached to a gleaming machine. The assassins don’t do much sneaking, and the movie’s editing, shaky-cam free-for-alls, and hazy cinematography suppress the exhilaration one would otherwise derive from the fighters’ fluidity. Future video game filmmakers have to do a better job of evaluating what worked in the first place.

Lighten Up a Little

Despite its structural flaws, Assassin’s Creed’s would work if it weren’t so serious about being serious. Not only does the movie strain its audience’s suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point — Christopher Columbus makes a ridiculous cameo — but it does so without a whiff of self-awareness. The only line that gets a laugh — and one of the only lines that attempts to — comes early on, when Callum, bewildered by clumsy exposition, wonders aloud, “What the fuck is going on?” It’s the only instance in which the movie acknowledges, and rewards, the audience’s incredulity. Couple that somber tone with the script’s simplistic dialogue, Fassbender’s unsmiling gruffness, and Cotillard’s dead-inside delivery, and most of the movie smacks of the cutscenes one would normally skip. If people can’t be more compelling than polygons, what’s the point?

Whether Ubisoft was trying to make the first “fresh” video game movie or, as it once claimed, simply seeking to sell more games, Assassin’s Creed comes up short. At least it left a few breadcrumbs for the next project that loses its way while tilting at a Hollywood windmill.