Justin Kurzel’s newest flick may not have cracked the cinematic code for video game adaptations, but that doesn’t denigrate gaming as an art form, or gamers themselves. Instead, the collective sneering from the film intelligentsia suggests something far nastier than a bad movie.
Assassin’s Creed, cursed by its video game roots, has slipped by largely unnoticed in the past few weeks. It is projected to generate merely $25m at the box office this weekend with competition coming from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (which has already taken nearly $300m), the star-powered Passengers, and child-friendly musical Sing.
What is even less of a surprise, now that the first reviews are in after a lengthy embargo (never a good sign), is that it has been greeted with a poor critical reception.
Scratch that. Poor is complimentary in this case, derisive would be a more accurate term. With a current score of 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, it manages to score a point below the video game movie average, and a whopping 11 points behind the underwhelming Warcraft adaptation.
After all, it’s a video game movie. So the knives are out.
The reviews have hammered the storyline, the overly-cut nature of the fighting, the music, the lighting, the acting, and above all else the writing. This last criticism seems particularly reliable when the screenwriters are Billy Collage and Adam Cooper, who have brought us the scriptural damp squibs Tower Heist, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Allegiant in recent years.
On the surface there isn’t much wrong with the collective panning of this movie.
Assassin’s Creed, as a gaming franchise, owes its popularity to the incredible detail it conjures in past worlds such as the 12th century Holy Land, Renaissance Italy and, most recently, Victorian London. They are incredibly addictive to play through, and the fun of its stealthy combat only adds to the illusion that you are some major force in the making of history.
Though it has always looked cinematic, these two main strengths aren’t particularly transferable to the silver screen, especially when the narrative is so lacking in substance.
Rather than having the dramatic heft of video games like Red Dead Redemption, BioShock or The Last of Us, Assassin’s Creed is built on a hokey B-movie premise. It is the dubious story of reliving the memories of past ancestors through DNA memories, while the gamer endures the insufferable whining of the present-day central characters in the intermissions between stabbing and leaping as a historic hitman. When you add into the equation the extra layer of confusion with its theory of former human societies presiding on earth and worshipping alien-like gods with Roman mythology names, it isn’t a shock that it received such a drubbing.
Video game experiences are very intimate, more so than any other visual medium. They are also very much long form in comparison to a two-hour screening at your nearest Vue, and some of the nonsenses and failings of a storyline can be forgiven when the other parts of the game are so compelling. I mean, if the main storyline sucks in Assassin’s Creed, you can just spend thirty hours exploring sprawling foreign lands. The same can’t be said in a movie when you only have an allotted and scripturally curated period of time to spend with it.
In the case of this Assassin’s Creed adaptation, they were clearly at fault in setting most the action in the present day, where scenes in even the most successful of the games don’t work very well, and perhaps should have allowed it more time to breathe rather than chopping it to a 102-minute running time without credits.
Yet something here leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
The choice of words used by a number of critics in their reviews, the flourishes with which they have dispensed with the gaming series as well as the movie, and the occasional dismissive asides about gamers and teenage boys (the great evil of our time, clearly), suggest a snobbishness that should be completely out of place in their community.
Tellingly, Variety’s Owen Gleiberman criticises it for being shot “ten-times classier than it needs to be”, because apparently video games are intrinsically low rent. He even goes on to say that Fassbender is wrong to “confer respectability on…semi coherent overly art-directed video game sludge.” Here again we see that any sort of distinctive aesthetic or colour pattern is too worthy of a mere video game. It isn’t the film’s fault, it’s the video game, which should clearly know its place which is not as a screener disc on Owen’s laptop apparently.
The routinely pretentious website, The A.V Club, scolds the movie for its “juvenile fantasy” while making a dig at its “libertarianism” (shock-horror, snowflakes!), and questions why serious actors should contemplate roles in something as lowly as a video game adaptation. Meanwhile Stephanie Zacharek gives up reviewing the movie in her review for Time Magazine and just starts hacking away for puns like this one concerning the McGuffin artefact: “We went all the way back in time with Assassin’s Creed and all we got was this lousy apple. It’s not even a real one.” The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin decides it better to just denigrate the wider franchise including the games that I doubt he has ever played, by calling it “junk” and comparing it to the mythos of Dan Brown.
Furthermore, the committed serious nature of the film is also seen as a detriment. The Hollywood Reporter is desperate for “self-deflating jabs” and a “wink” and IGN criticises its “lack of levity”, because apparently video games have to behave like cape-costumed Marvel movies with nods and jokes aplenty.
The worst offender here is Alan Scherstuhl, writing for the Village Voice. After making a semi-reasonable comment on the lack of female agency in the movie (though are two female leading roles) he then paints Assassin’s Creed (the games and fans by extension, too) with an alt-right brush. He says, as a final put down, “Maybe this miserable junk is the fantasy action-adventure dreamed of by all those dudes mad that Star Wars now let’s girls play, too?’
For those of you unaware of the rather unpleasant protest concerning Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, essentially a conglomerate of various losers and trolls often referred to as “the alt-right” (which is about as tight a definition as describing the unknown elements of a black hole as “dark matter”) have attempted a boycott of the movie due to the central casting of the female actress Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. Of course, it is pathetic. Women have often led some of the greatest sci-fi movies and the reactionary sexism of this contingent of masturbating losers at their keyboards is frankly depressing. That said, they make up perhaps 30,000 people on twitter at most, with about as much as power and intellectual heft as a host of conspiratorial memes allow. What they can’t represent is 90 million copies sold of a series since 2007.
As for gamers, go see the movie if you wish too. It isn’t meant to be good, but if anyone gets anything out of it is the fans of the series.
Where this leaves us for video game adaptations, only time will tell. The questions concerning whether it is possible to convert a title from one distinct art form to another are soon going to be replaced with “What’s the point?”
Video games succeed on their own terms and are just as valid as movies, and just as creative and engaging for doing so.
The creed of exceptionalism saying otherwise is much more of a worry than a bad movie
Words by Nick Earl