Thursday, 22 December 2016

Assassin's Creed: The Movie

So I've recently become kinda a big fan of the Assassin's Creed video games. As of this writing I have currently played four different installments: Brotherhood, III, Liberation, and Black Flag. The games can be weird but they have some great storytelling and often are extremely addictive (okay, III wasn't as great, but the others were all extremely compelling). They often have great characters, intriguing storylines, and good gameplay often set against the backdrop of various historical time periods. 

Naturally, with my interest in the games, it seemed like I had an obligation of sorts to offer my thoughts on the Assassin's Creed movie. I tried to remain optimistic and avoided reviews as best I could (easier said than done when I was trying to get images from the film) so that I would be able to develop a perspective of my own. It also seemed appropriate because, while this isn't my first time watching a movie based on a video game, it is the first time I actually played the game (or games, in this case) before seeing the movie. 

Now there are different approaches to looking at Assassin's Creed. and I can say I have mixed feelings in different areas. But overall my reaction to the film was a fairly positive one. It's not a perfect film by any means, and there are definitely areas that could have been better (and probably would be good to look into if any more films should be made). That said, it does do surprisingly well in making the transition from video game to movie, being able to homage and mimic elements of the games while simultaneously adapting them to meet different requirements. I would say it works as an entertaining action movie, although it is more effective if you are familiar with the source material (which makes it easier to pick up Easter eggs and inside jokes).

Before I go into too much detail, I should probably give some background regarding the source material. The most straight forward explanation of the games' premise is that there are two secret societies locked in a seemingly endless war that has spanned hundreds of years. One faction is known as the Templars, which are kind of like Hydra. The Templars believe in the philosophy of order at the cost of freedom and want total control over everyone. The second faction is the Assassins, an order of... well... assassins who fight for free will. 

The conflict between these two organizations is what drives the franchise, with the player usually fighting for the Assassins (Rogue provides an exception to the rule, with the player instead being a Templar). The individual games take place across different time periods and generations, with the recurring theme that the growing conflict shapes major historical events, often with appearances by historical figures. The Assassin "Brotherhood" (the term being used loosely; there have been plenty of female assassins) has included among others Niccolò Machiavelli, Caterina Sforza, Leonardo Da Vinci, Copernicus (former Templar), Samuel Adams, Blackbeard, and Mary Read (these are just from the games I've played). Meanwhile the Templars have included the Borgia family, Charles Lee, and Laureano de Torres y Ayala. 

This is arguably the most straight forward explanation I can provide of Assassin's Creed, and I haven't even gone into the more confusing elements of the games. The important thing to understand to have any context is the two basic factions and their motives. It's probably best if I don't confuse anyone who hasn't played the games any further by trying to explain, for instance, the part about the ancient alien civilization which left behind artifacts that the two groups are often fighting over. 

The one other thing I can note is that the games are ordinarily structured around a present-day framing device which usually relies on a machine called the Animus. Basically, it is a kind of window into the past based on genetics. The idea is that the Animus can track a person's genealogical history and through some complex DNA analysis unlock memories from their ancestors. Once the memories are extracted from the person's DNA, the Animus can then allow the person to experience those memories as if it were their own. To provide a more basic explanation, the Animus is a device uses a person's DNA to recover memories from previous generations and can allow a person to see through the eyes of someone who has been dead for hundreds of years.

The Assassin's Creed movie includes these elements but presents an original story with new characters. This is probably for the better. I feel like it would not have worked as well to try to link the story directly to Ezio, Edward Kenway, Avaline, or any of the other protagonists in the games. Plus the games move around so much that having the basic elements is sufficient for it to be recognizable as part of the series. In their defense, I would say that this was a good step in making the transition from game to film, as it allows the filmmakers an entirely new base to work with. 

Unlike the games, the story places more emphasis on the modern-day portions. The Animus sequences are set during the Spanish Inquisition, an era which has yet to be covered in the games (the closest I am aware of the series getting to this was Renaissance-era Italy). The Animus itself has gone through a huge redesign. To be fair, the machine already went through several different models in the games, and I actually found the new look of the Animus to be an interesting new twist. It looks strange when it is first shown, but it actually does make sense as it allows the person to act out the memory. This also works better with the fact that we are watching a film instead of playing a video game.

left: Animus in Brotherhood; right: Animus in the movie

Naturally, there are lots of moments that mimic aspects of the gameplay. Anyone familiar with the series will probably spot brief moments alluding to different mechanics from the games (such as the "leap of faith," where an Assassin could jump off a high ledge and land safely in something soft). There is a big chase scene that could easily have been in the games, but also adapted for use in film. One frequent recurring moment in the games is that there are often short portions when the player completes a mission and then has to make their getaway. 

Normally in the games, this is a short but challenging task, where the player often gets chased by enemy guards and then he/she has to lose them. Usually this involves fighting off any who get too close, climbing on buildings, traversing rooftops, and finding good hiding places. The movie contains its own answer to that situation, but instead reworks it into an action scene. Instead of having the characters simply hide until the guards give up, we get a much more extended chase which makes use of different buildings and weapons. It is moments like these that make the transition work, being able to simultaneously replicate elements of the games while also adapting them.

There is, unfortunately, one criticism I would have of this movie. While it is otherwise a fairly well-made adventure film, I feel like there could have been a much stronger effort at gender representation. Most of the video games generally included a strong array of female characters. Two of the games so far, Liberation and Syndicate, even have female protagonists. Even the male-dominated installments usually like to have at least one or two strong women in supporting roles. Across the franchise there have been a number of female assassins both in lead and supporting roles. There have also been a few female Templars across different games.

Aveline de Grandpré, Assassin's Creed's first female protagonist

The Assassin's Creed movie does make an attempt to replicate the strong female characters of the games, but unfortunately it is not as effective as it could be. Much of the film is so heavily focused on Callum Lynch/Aguilar de Nerha that we don't really get to know very much of the supporting cast. It was probably intended for Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cottillard) to be a strong character. But she lacks any real motivation and fails to do much of anything. The other character who seemed promising was a female assassin in the animus sequences named Maria (Ariane Labed). 

She was set up as a competent assassin but the only problem was that while she got a few brief moments to show her skill, the film kept using her as a damsel who had to be saved by Aguilar. There were some brief moments during the chase scene but I would have wanted to get to know her more as a character, and they really should have played up her strengths better. Perhaps a good start would be if she rescued herself from the stake (like Aguilar did) instead of waiting for the male protagonist. From there, they should have given us more time to get to know her as a character.

My final verdict would be that, if you have played the games, Assassins' Creed works alright as a fun, if imperfect, homage to the series that provides an okay model for how to adapt a game to screen (perhaps if it becomes successful it will make way for something better). For everyone else, it is an okay action adventure with some fun ideas and a reasonably straight forward narrative.

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