Sunday, April 30, 2017

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

If you have played any of Ubisoft’s five thousand Assassin’s Creed games, you’ll know what this thing’s about. Otherwise: Templars bad, assassins good, history is a lie, we need that artefact. To be more precise, we need the Apple of Eden because it “contains the genetic code for free will”.

Frankly, the film’s dreadful, even when I put on my glasses with the highest possible tolerance for blockbusters and very carefully keep in mind what these films can and can’t do. It’s not just that the script is stupid, with character motivations that never make any damn sense at all and a plot that lacks any hooks that might make it exciting and a structure which misses any kind of effective throughline. The writing also makes the bizarre mistake to take all the AssCreed Templars versus assassins nonsense much too seriously, treating it as the most po-faced melodrama imaginable throughout, seemingly completely impervious to the fact that much of the tropes it uses are extremely silly, perhaps even outright goofy. Of course, that’s a problem the franchise’s games also tend to suffer under. A lightness of touch would not necessarily mean not taking emotional beats and metaphors seriously, but rather approaching them from an angle that makes sense. I don’t want to trot out Marvel Studios’ films as an ideal example how to do it again, but they are the obvious comparison, getting their tones just right without losing dramatic weight or excitement.

However, the script isn’t the film’s only problem. It’s also pretty boring from the perspective of sheer spectacle, a problem I can only fault director Justin Kurzel (last seen by me when directing the fantastic The Snowtown Murders) for. Kurzel apparently can’t direct a decent action sequence to save his life, so most of the fights and chases here are messed up by pointless sweeping camera movements, editing I can only call random and the director’s total inability to fulfil one of the most crucial rules of filmmaking when creating scenes that find characters traversing a dangerous environment: turn the environments into physical spaces in the audience’s minds. Otherwise, an action scene becomes just a series of random, pointless movements and shots of demonstrative coolness that never show anything that actually is cool because there’s no context to any of what we see. It’s like a musical whose director doesn’t realize he actually needs to show the dancers properly. There’s also a general air of emotional detachment surrounding the action scenes, something too abstracted, as if the film were going down a check list of what it needs to include but never finds any actual excitement in what it shows.

Because all these problems just don’t make the film quite tedious enough, Kurzel (or whoever actually is the guilty party) also decides to have his actors go through the (usually dumb) dialogue with all the emotional involvement of rocks, wasting a bunch of highly talented actors on the po-faced, lifeless staring of automatons. Not even Jeremy Irons’s big bad gets a decent moment of megalomania. Even the games don’t take themselves serious enough to make this particular mistake (and they are also much prettier to look at and more or less fun to play in the right-sized doses).

On the positive side, Marion Cotillard’s haircut is excellent. The production design is pretty good too, though Kurzel’s extremely muted colour schemes and distanced camera work don’t really do it any favours. But hey, it’s still better than a Michael Bay movie.

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