Incoherence is an underrated virtue in popcorn films. Bad blockbuster movies are never dumb just because they’re nonsense. They’re dumb because they try so hard to explain their nonsense, weighing down even the most lightweight flights of fancy with the anvil-crushing logic of studio notes and nervous exposition. My favorite incoherent sequence in any terrible movie this year was the beginning of Warcraft, a goofy nine-minute symphony of pregnant orcs, neon-green slimegas, mountain-sized wormholes, relentless percussion, unexpected childbirth, and Paula Patton. If the whole movie had been that wild, it would’ve been…well, not half as good as Lord of the Rings, but at least half as fun as The Dark Crystal. Instead, the next two hours was all explaining, explaining, explaining the all-important mythology, mythology, mythology. Will pop culture never free us from these infernal mythologies?!
Warcraft was 2016’s first failed attempt to make a movie franchise out of a videogame franchise—not counting The Angry Birds Movie, which you already forgot about, or Ratchet & Clank, which you and I never heard of. Now along comes Assassin’s Creed to make Warcraft look good. Justin Kurzel’s adaption of Ubisoft’s infamously buggy game franchise can’t even thrill you with the possibility of mystery. It opens with a white-text-on-black-screen crawl explaining how Assassins fight Templars for the Apple of Eden. Don’t worry if this explanatory text makes you immediately confused; the main character of the film you’re about to watch will spend the whole film gradually learning what the opening crawl said. It’s as if Luke Skywalker spent a whole movie learning what an Empire was.
That main character is actually two people: Callum Lynch, a troublemaker on death row for the never-explained-and-inadvertently-hilarious crime of pimp-killing; and Aguilar, Callum’s lookalike ancestor from 15th century Spain. Both are played by Michael Fassbender. Historians will thank Fassbender for giving his two worst performances in the same movie. Cal is a cipher, a passive protagonist who does almost nothing but listen patiently while supporting characters tell him how important he is. Aguilar is just some dude who fights people, for reasons you’ll never care about.
Fassbender is a producer on the film, and Assassin’s Creed feels like it should have been a clever franchise play for the hardworking actor, a big-budget regular gig to fit in between prestige pictures and indie curiosities. He’s surrounded by collaborators. It’s being distributed by 20th Century Fox, the studio behind his X-Men and Alien paychecks. Kurzel was also Fassbender’s director on last years Macbeth. Marion Cotillard was Macbeth‘s Lady, and in Creed she’s Sofia, a haircut on a frown who loves science and hates violence.
Cal is rescued from death row by Sofia, who works at the mysterious organization Abstergo, and she needs Cal because (deep breath, I’m going for it) Abstergo is the corporate arm of the Knights Templar, and the Knights Templar want to end free will, and to do that they need to find the artifact known as the Apple of Eden, because the Apple of Eden holds the “genetic code of free will,” and the Apple of Eden holds the genetic code of free will because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, and once Abstergo gets the Apple of Eden they will use it to destroy free will by ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, and Cal is descended from one of the last people (Aguilar) to hold the Apple of Eden, and Abstergo has a machine that can use Cal’s genetic data to access the memories of his long-dead ancestors, and the machine turns those memories into holograms, and if Sofia watches Cal relive Aguilar’s life then the holograms will show her where the Apple of Eden so free will can be destroyed.
Now, that is the most insanely idiotic paragraph I’ve written in weeks, but the problem with Assassin’s Creed isn’t that it makes no sense. The videogame franchise trended loopy from the beginning, constructing a hilariously unnecessary backstory out of Illuminati conspiracy theory and ancient-astronaut cryptotheism and malevolent murder-popes and anachronistic parkour. If you fed Alex Jones an ocean of ketamine and made him explain history using only Batman action figures and Lonely Planet books, it would probably sound like National Treasure 3 and still wouldn’t capture the lunacy of the games’ story. (Lately, the franchise has trended into self-reflective metafiction about a nefarious globo-corporation producing nefarious videogames; coincidentally or not, the last few Creed games sucked.)
Assassin’s Creed mistakenly assumes that the plot is the most important element of its source material. Actually, it’s the least. The best Creeds are visceral wish-fulfillments of urban tourism, letting you wander over the rooftops of ancient cities. They encourage quiet, stealth, and even something like serenity; in a recurring franchise trope, you slowly climb a very tall building, stare at the city around you, and gracefully fall, literally climbing a mountain just because the game tells you it’s there.
Kurzel has no time for quiet, stealth, nor serenity. It takes almost an hour for people to start parkour-jumping over medieval rooftops, and by then you’ve suffered through endless exposition piled atop shadowy motivations. I can’t even get into how Assassin’s Creed successfully wastes Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams, and Brendan Gleeson. They all look as bored as you’ll feel, though I feel I have to call out the best line in the movie. After watching one of Cal’s various memory holograms, Sofia declares: “It’s Christopher Columbus! Where is he buried?“
Fassbender lets his weird instincts shine through just once, scream-singing an imitation of Patsy Cline’s rendition of “Crazy.” But he spends too much of this terrible movie being held up by a robot arm, which raises and lowers and shakes him in an attempt toward Zero-Gravity Action Ballet. It never doesn’t look stupid. Here’s a film that turns Michael Fassbender into a puppet, and oh, those strings hold him down. D