The director, cinematographer, and stars of last year’s effectively muddy and bloody production of Macbeth have reunited for another movie about fate, ambition, and violence. Unfortunately, and confusingly, the movie is Assassin’s Creed, a murky, inscrutable video game adaptation that goes heavy on the action and portent but light on sense. How they ended up here, other than an eagerness to collect a paycheck, must have something to do with the material’s stupid clever conceit. A modern-day criminal is hooked up to a sci-fi contraption and sent to eavesdrop in the brain and senses of a violent ancestor living 500 years ago. (It’s a Quantum Leap with less responsibility.) There’s a nugget of a fascinating concept about historical inevitability and genetic determinism in this idea, but it is developed in a scattershot way, draining suspense and intrigue the more it tries to complicate matters. At first glance it may look and sound more important than the usual attempts to make action movies out of video games, but the longer it goes the worse it grows – tin-eared, nonsensical, consequence-free.
But you can’t say director Justin Kurzel isn’t trying. He has cinematographer Adam Arkapaw whip up a textured and dusty look for the past and a gleaming antiseptic blue-grey sheen for the future. Into these dark (dim, really) frames goes Michael Fassbender, bringing far more neck-bulging Macbeth emotion than the writing requires. He plays a man on death row who gets injected with the executioner’s chemicals only to awake in a covert institute in Spain where a mysterious Marion Cotillard (a little less Lady Macbeth-y) hopes to use his DNA to extract the history of a centuries-old assassin (also Fassbender) and his mission to hunt down the apple Eve bit in Eden. Yes, you read that correctly. This movie began pleasingly silly in the way plenty pompous pulp pictures do: with a wall of text. This one is describing an ancient battle over supernatural relics fought between the Knights Templar and Assassin’s Creed. The following confounding opening sequences are preposterous and exciting, cutting ruthlessly between slashing violence in the past and glowing doohickeys in the near future, trying breathlessly to tie two timelines and Fassbenders together into one nutty narrative.
By the time the swirling screenplay (by one writer who has adapted Shakespeare and two who adapted Vernoica Roth, if that indicates what’s going on here) settles into its main groove, the full incomprehensibility comes to the fore. We watch as our modern man gets attached to a giant apparatus that allows him to fully experience the sensations of his ancestor’s battles. Yet he can’t change the past. He’s merely an observer. And the company bankrolling Cotillard – and which also employs other great thespians Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael K. Williams, all asked to speak in hushed monotone – simply wants him to see where the elaborate historical action sequences – galloping horses, jabbing swords, and medieval parkour – take the apple. Why they can’t take him directly to when the apple is dropped off somewhere is beyond me. And what will this apple do once found? Nothing less than give them control of Free Will, though what that looks like or accomplishes is left awfully fuzzy. But if you’re already accepting a technobabble process by which DNA can be decoded into the ultimate VR experience, what are one or two more disbeliefs to suspend?
We’re watching two timelines: one in which unknowable future people stare at monitors, and one in which preordained action plays out without suspense because A.) we know they get the apple, and B.) our protagonist’s only involvement is paying attention to it. As a result, my attention dipped dramatically once I got used to the silliness and saw the stasis of it all. Sure, it looks striking and Kurzel has a tremendous amount of acting talent playing along with the inherently goofy story done up in total straight-faced seriousness. It has the thunderous sound design and huge CGI budget of a big studio production, and the constant drumbeat of flashy spectacle and weightless violence required of its genre. But every second that goes by means less and less as the groaning sturm und drang adds up to hollow, pointless confusion. The pseudo-mystical medieval swashbuckler hidden under layers of contrived convolutions would be a lot more fun if it wasn’t tied to such a ponderous drag about Fate and Conspiracy and Revenge. By the end, with the action finally mattering as it (mild spoiler, if you care) erupts in the other timeline, as the Assassin bloodline has its revenge on the techno-Templar, I found myself wondering why they hadn’t done that an hour earlier and saved us all the trouble of sitting through the hectic nothing. No movie this stupid can afford to be so dull.