The ‘Assassin’s Creed’ Movie Is the Most Expensive Commercial Ever Made
It’s everything fans love — and hate — about the long-running game series
I love Assassin’s Creed. Not the new movie, but Ubisoft’s long-running video game series. I was in my early 20s when Altair and Desmond Miles leaped into my life.
At the time, I read a lot of William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson. So I was hooked the moment, early in the first game, when Altair says, “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”
Here’s a game that explored the strange story of Hassan-i Sabbah and the ancient order of assassins. A game that retells the strange conspiracy theories that fascinated my then-idols. It’s a vehemently anti-fascist series that’s full of lavish historical recreations.
I love Assassin’s Creed. I’m the target audience for the Assassin’s Creed movie. So believe me when I tell you … it sucks.
Game developer Ubisoft had creative control of the film and it shows — the movie is determined to replicate every aspect of the game franchise. Even its worst elements.
That devotion betrays something I’ve long suspected — Ubisoft has no idea what people like about its billion-dollar series. Worse, Ubisoft doesn’t care if the movie makes money. Assassin’s Creed is a commercial for the games.
The most expensive commercial ever made.
Let me see how succinctly I can explain the plot of Assassin’s Creed. Assassins and Templars have been fighting for hundreds of years. It’s not a battle of good versus evil, but one of control versus freedom. The Templars want to eliminate free will because … reasons? The assassins desire freedom because, well, screw you.
For centuries, the two sides have battled over an ancient artifact called the Apple of Eden — yes, the literal apple from the garden — and the Templars of the modern era think they’re close to getting it. They kidnap descendants of dead assassins and, by way of dangerous technology, probe their genetic memories to figure out where the ancient order has hidden the apple.
Callum Lynch — played by Michael Fassbender — is a death-row inmate and the last in a long line of assassin descendants the Templars kidnap to probe. He’s a direct ancestor of Aguilar, the last assassin to see the apple.
Still with me? Okay. So, the movie takes place in two timelines. In the current timeline, Lynch is a prisoner of the Templars. He meets his fellow inmates, talks philosophy with captor and scientist Marion Cotillard and learns assassin history.
The other timeline is Aguilar’s story as he tries to protect the apple from Templars in 1492 during the siege of Granada.
The current-era story sucks and the 1492 scenes are incredible. Unfortunately, the movie mostly focuses on the present.
This film is a mess. Fassbender, Cotillard and director Justin Kurzel are all rare talents, but they can’t save what is a blatant commercial for the games. In July 2016, Ubisoft Europe head Alain Corre spoke with the gaming trade magazine MCV about the movie.
“We are not going to earn a lot of money from it,” he told MCV.
“It is a lot more a marketing thing, it is also good for the image of the brand. Although we will make some money, it is not the purpose of this movie. The purpose is to bring Assassin’s Creed to more people. We have our core fans, but what we would like is to put this franchise in front of a lot more people who, maybe, will then pick up future Assassin’s Creed games.”
It’s a canny move. The series has suffered a slump in recent years, with the last three iterations underperforming compared to previous titles. The Assassin’s Creed gameplay is stale and needs an update. Its meta-narrative no longer makes sense.
The series has sold more than 80 million copies during its nine-year run and earned Ubisoft, conservatively, around $4 billion. The games are a huge source of revenue for the company and it pushes out a new one every year. But not in 2016.
The last two entries — Unity and Syndicate — undersold the previous entries by more than half and the company took 2016 off from Assassin’s Creed in order to tweak the formula and make a better game. But they didn’t want people to forget the franchise, so they spent around $200 million to produce a movie and get it into theaters during the busy holiday season.
That makes the Assassin’s Creed the most expensive commercial ever produced. The runner-up, a Chanel № 5 ad costing $33 million, doesn’t even come close.
Ubisoft had been trying to make an Assassin’s Creed film for years, but the deals always fell through because no studio would cede creative control to the developer. In 20th Century Fox, Ubisoft finally found a partner that would let it make the movie it wanted.
From the ridiculous pre-order promotion for film tickets to the reliance on the meta-narrative fans have stopped caring about, Ubisoft’s hand is all over this picture. Which is a shame because there is a great flick inside Assassin’s Creed.
The best parts of the Assassin’s Creed games has always been jumping from rooftop to rooftop in historic settings and stabbing people. Revelations takes players to Constantinople, Syndicate recreates 19th-century London and Unity dazzled with Paris during the French Revolution.
Unfortunately, this gameplay is always sandwiched between moments that pull the player out and force them to interact with the meta-narrative set in the present. It’s never fun.
One moment you’re tear-assing across the sands of the 18th-century Caribbean in Black Flag and the next the game pulls you out to inch the meta-narrative plot along. In Black Flag, players go from being a pirate to suddenly becoming a game developer in a Templar-owned facility. It ain’t fun.
Worse, that overarching plot has gone on so long through so many different games that I can’t keep track of it anymore. There are ancient bloodlines, an apocalypse, the missing corpse of the game’s early protagonist, aliens posing as Sumerian gods and other assorted nonsense. It’s a mess.
So, what does the Assassin’s Creed film focus on? The meta-narrative, of course.
Assassin’s Creed runs two hours and 20 minutes and the audience spends most of that with Lynch in the present. That sucks because, just as in the game, the present-day story is a mess of weird character moments and nonsensical plotting.
It’s painful to watch Cotillard and Fassbender try to choke out the dialogue. “This is my life’s work,” Cotillard tells Fassbender, her eyes wet with tears.
“This is my life,” Fassbender responds without charm.
“The apple contains the genetic code for free-will,” Cotillard says in a bit of expository dialogue that raises more questions than it answers.
But, three amazing times, Assassin’s Creed transports the audience to 1492 Spain. There, the movie is a visual feast. An eagle cries and flies across the besieged city of Granada in an establishing shot straight out of the games.
In the past, the motivations are straightforward and the dialogue spare. Aguilar and his assassin friends want to keep the apple out of Templar hands and they’re willing to kill to do that.
In the past, the assassins parkour across ancient rooftops, toss daggers and stab guards with a reckless regard for human life. The costumes are strange and beautiful. The sets, exquisite. The action, first-rate.
Then the Templars pull the plug and rip the audience back to 21st-century boredom. Jeremy Irons talk about consumerism and violence with a weary look, Fassbender tries to render emotion on a flat character and Cotillard plows through like a professional cashing a check.
Halfway through the film, when Cotillard asks Fassbender why he’s so violent and Fassbender replies that he’s a violent person, I checked my watch. I had an hour to go and I ached for the film to take me back to the past and show me more of Aguilar.
It did, but only briefly. During the exhilarating finale in old Spain, I realized Assassin's Creed commits the only unforgivable movie sin — it’s boring.
If you’re already a fan, wait for the home release so you can skip through the tedious parts. If you’re not already a fan, don’t bother.