Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams
(20th Century Fox)
US theatrical: 21 Dec 2016 (General release)
UK theatrical: 17 Feb 2017 (General release)
“Ancestral travel is a way of connecting oneself with their progenitors and finding one’s rootedness in a confusing and fast-paced world.”
—Dallen J. Timothy, editor of The Journal of Heritage Tourism
“After all, your family story is the story that leads to you.”
“Tell my father I’ll see him in hell.” Asked if he has last words before his execution, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) can’t help himself. He’s been mad at his dad since he was a boy (played by Angus Brown), and came home to find his mother with her throat cut. This primal scene introduces Cal’s story in Assassin’s Creed, which leads pretty much directly to the execution, “30 years later.” He’s injected, his jaw goes taut, the screen goes black.
From here the movie spirals into the elaborate illogic of the videogame on which it’s based. Following his death, Cal’s resurrected by a very earnest scientist named Sophia (Marion Cotillard). Part Frankenstein monster and part Rambo revisited, Cal’s daddy issues end up rather paralleling Sophia’s: her research is funded by her father Alan (Jeremy Irons), whose villainy is indicated by his preference for turtlenecks and shadowy corners, not to mention his generic bad-guy’s desire to rule the world. He’s aided in this ambition by those perpetual bogeymen, the Templars, in this film engaged in an apparently endless war with the group from whom Cal is descended, the Assassins.
In order to please her father, Sophia has Cal excavate his past, in particular, a 15th-century Spanish warrior named Aguilar (also played by Fassbender). She manages this enforced fantastical Ancestry Travel with a device that resembles a giant mechanical arm that drills up inside his spine, then lifts him up so he’s dangling in a chamber, while his body contorts and jerks, genetically absorbing Aguilar’s martial-artsy skills. As Cal “syncs” or “de-syncs” with this Animus, he’s zapped directly into Aguilar’s ancient experience. Here, Sophia and her dad anticipate that Aguilar ill lead them to where he’s hidden an artifact, namely, the apple from the Garden of Eden. Alan and Sophia insist it holds the seeds of human violence and they mean to control all violence by accessing it.
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All of this is, of course, lunacy. For one thing, the pursuit of the apple—and all the Catholic mythology that follows—produces lots of violence, most performed by Aguilar, which is to say, Cal, bobbing and jerking on that big mechanical arm up his spine. No surprise, his route to Aguilar goes through a confrontation with Cal’s own father (Brendan Gleeson), whom Alan has found and locked up at his facility, along with an assortment of criminals (here called “lab rats, all born with a predisposition to violence”), whose particular sets of skills will prove helpful to Cal when he decides to resist Sophia and her dad. None has an individual backstory, but together they provide a menacing backdrop, so that Cal might look part of an incarcerated community. Among these, Moussa (Michael K. Williams) offers Cal a measure of moral support, helping him look less like a convicted murderer than a victim of larger—and much wealthier—forces, embracing his innate brutality to wreak vengeance on those forces.
As Cal makes that embrace, his brutality begins to resemble ballet, as the movie uses slow motion parkour stunts and sweeping camera movements. This familiar action movie (and video game) choreography asserts Cal’s physical brilliance, as he’s leaping from building to building or soaring off rooftop, so much so that you might, for a moment, believe Sophia when she tells her father, “We’re not in the business of making monsters.” But they are, and that’s the film’s premise, that the monsters can only defy their makers by recognizing and then manipulating their monstrosity.
As much as Sophia declares that finding Aguilar (and so, finding the apple) will help to “cure” Cal and other killers, the film repeatedly makes the violence glorious. To this end, it gives Aguilar an especially fetching partner in the 15th century, the assassin named Maria (Aiane Labed). As accomplished and magnificent as Aguilar, she serves as a kind of anti-Sophia and also the anti-Cal. She’s supremely good at what she does (the parkour especially, but also the violence), self-possessed, slightly mysterious and categorically averse to speaking, much less explaining herself or digging into her own motivations at every possible juncture. Amid all the chaos and the egos, Maria is a figure of art and grace, not hung up on ancestors or descendants, just herself. As such, she makes clear pretty much everything that’s wrong with Assassin’s Creed.
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