Thursday, December 22, 2016

Assassin’s Creed – the Macbeth family hunt for the Golden Snitch (in cinemas from 1 January)

When it comes to computer games, I suppose I got stuck back in the 1980s with Jet Set Willy, Chuckie Egg and Elite as well as text-based adventure games like Lord of the Rings and Hitchhikers Guide. Not to mention Pokemon which is more of a fitness regime than a game. So I’ve no particular skill at shoot-em-ups and before heading to the cinema, no notion of the ‘universe’ that the Assassin’s Creed series of video games revolved around, nor any idea about the gameplay.

While Rogue One was (understandably) missing a scroller at its start, Assassin’s Creed introduces a few concepts to any bewildered audience members before the action starts.

The Assassins fight the Knights Templar. In this episode of ill will, they’re searching for the golden snitch Apple of Eden, a metal ball that contains genetic code. Much of the action is centred on Spain and jumps between 2016 and 1492. Callum Lynch (played by Michael Fassbender) has escaped death and finds himself incarcerated in a scientific research institute. With a blood line that connects him to Aguilar de Nerha in the fifteenth century, Lynch is strapped to a gigantic robot arm – the Animus – and forced to relive the genetic memories of his predecessors to identify the location of the much sought-after Apple which can apparently eliminate violence from the gene pool.
“Violence is a disease like cancer, and like cancer we have to control it one day.”
Given its video game heritage, the filmmakers have cleverly bridged the divide by including various game elements in the big screen production. What feels like a ‘loading screen’ appears to announce a time-shift. The camera follows a soaring eagle that glides into the new location. The ghostly projections that the institute’s staff see while Lynch is exploring his predecessor’s life feel very computer generated. Though the producers stopped short of putting an Assassins vs Knights Templar scoreboard up in the top left of the screen to capture the body count.

While the science is fairly mystical, the fighting scenes stick to physical combat. Very physical. Superhuman jumps are another stylised trademark of the film, with Fassbender demonstrating extreme parkour as he traverses across rooftops with fellow Assassin Maria (Ariane Labed). Coping with the perhaps understandably stilted dialogue – “We work in the dark to serve the light: we are assassins” – Fassbender sweats, bleeds, grunts and dashes about like a member of a secret cult on a mission.

It’s quickly obvious that scientific endeavour is not immune to the evil desires of powerful organisations and the kind of clearly wicked men who sit playing the piano while watching recordings of themselves delivering speeches to the UN.

The father/son relationship of disappointment and surprise within the Lynch family is mirrored with a similar relationship between visionary father Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) who wants to perfect humankind and daughter Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) who is the brains behind the science and the more idealistic of the pair (and also played Lady Macbeth opposite Fassbender last year). Charlotte Rampling plays the chief of the Elders, a powerful woman with an air of mystery who is unfortunately underexploited in the script.

Director Justin Kurzel creates a world without brash colours, and his brother Jed Kurzel scores its musical background (throwing in some electric guitar amongst the orchestral manoeuvring).

There’s an abundance of stone buildings, smashed glass, jumping through holes in roofs, furious fighting and spilt blood, while there’s absolutely no glamour, other than the architecture and Marion Cotillard’s nurse’s uniform. If you’re going to convert a game into a film, then that’s in essence what needs to be captured. And capture it they have. Apparently 80% of the action was live rather than CGI, though it’s clear that nearly every scene will have involved green screen or digital manipulation of the set and background to enhance the scale.

There is little of intellectual merit in Assassin’s Creed. No one leaves the cinema pondering the nature of violence and underground power structures that control the globe. No one will weep at the cutthroat success of the Assassins as compassion fatigue sets in very early. No one will have a pain in their side from laughing: I don’t recall a single funny line (other than Fassbender asking what is going on at just the point I wondered the same). No one will rush away to the history books to find out more about the Spanish Inquisition. No one will even ponder that the Assassins are no less evil than the Knights Templar. Though audiences will step out into the bright corridor outside the cinema screen and ask each other why the writers lost the will to add a proper fight scene into the final five minutes of the film.

Assassin’s Creed is a video game that has been squeezed into a virtual reality time-travelling regression machine and borrowed its chase sequences (though only one motorcycle) from the Jason Bourne franchise with a very small sprinkling of Highlander and Dan Brown.

It’s essentially a fantasy adaptation. Relatively pointless. But it’s one that will appeal to hard core gamers who appreciate that elements of the Assassin’s Creed world normally restricted to their PC and console screens has exploded into their local multiplex. And while it won’t push you back into your cinema seat or make you grip the armrest until your knuckles go white, it probably will spawn future cinematic releases to explore other time periods through the eye of battling descendants.

Assassin’s Creed opens in Movie House cinemas (and others) on 1 January.

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