Tony Black on how the Assassin’s Creed movie might differ from the games…
Around half a year out from the arrival of Justin Kurzel’s big screen adaptation of Ubisoft’s monster hit video game series Assassin’s Creed, and with filming complete, first images and limited plot details are starting to trickle out about arguably the most anticipated video game movie version in many a year. Michael Fassbender, one of Hollywood’s A-list, heads the cast which includes such luminaries as Marion Cotillard (who co-starred with him in last year’s Macbeth, directed equally by Kurzel), Brendan Gleeson and Jeremy Irons, giving the piece a built-in pedigree unlike almost any other video game adaptation in history. The omens are consistently looking like Assassin’s Creed might be the first film to break the seeming curse of poor video game to movie translations.
The cast may appeal to outsiders unfamiliar with the game it’s based on, as may any forthcoming trailer that accentuates the historical action and mystery of the story, but what Assassin’s Creed fans will be looking out for is simply this: does it represent the game they have loved playing since 2007? A series which began auspiciously as an 12th century open world stealth action game and evolved into a mythology which has covered almost a thousand years of history, branching off into animated features, novels and comic book series. What will Kurzel’s movie take from Ubisoft’s (largely) beloved games? And what may it leave behind?
Firstly, what do we know at this stage about the movie itself? Beyond casting and production announcements such as Justin Kurzel’s brother Jed composing the score, having done an excellent job on Macbeth. Truth is, slim pickings at this point. We know Fassbender is playing Callum Lynch, an inmate on Death Row who as the press release describes “through a revolutionary technology that unlocks his genetic memories”, he ends up reliving the life of an ancestor. Despite the fact such technology is likely to be called the Animus (perhaps only left out of press releases so as not to have to explain the name to non-fans), this is already a marked difference; when Fassbender was announced, the assumption was that he’d be playing Desmond Miles, the average Joe, New York bartender who in the original game is abducted by the villainous Abstergo Industries and forced to relieve ancestral memories through the Animus. Desmond was our present day lead through the first game, Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed III before he… well… let’s not get into Desmond’s fate. It’s contentious to say the least.
That could be a reason why Kurzel avoided using the established character, and the truth is Desmond was always the least interesting element of the original games anyway, so not even fans may be too concerned he’s been ditched. Fassbender playing a criminal already suggests a much darker present day narrative and morally dubious, interesting protagonist for Abstergo to start exploiting. The principle either way remains the same – Callum will experience the life of Aguilar de Nerha, an ancestor from 15th century Spain, and as the press release states “he discovers he’s descended from a mysterious secret society, the Assassins” of whom we can only assume Aguilar to be a member, or will become a member of through the course of the film.
Again, this is where the movie is diverging from the source material; in the original game, and indeed in part of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Desmond experienced the life of Altair Ibn-la’Ahad, a 12th century Assassin from the Middle East, who played a key role in the progressive mythology of the game, as the Assassins waged a war across time against the Knights Templar. It appears Kurzel is taking more of a cue from the series’ arguably most successful game, Assassin’s Creed II, in which Desmond experienced the memories of Ezio Auditore de Firenze, a heroic Italian nobleman during the Renaissance. If Kurzel & Fassbender are fashioning Aguilar more in his mould, it’s a shrewd move; much as Altair was popular, no AC protagonist has ever struck a chord like Ezio, who ended up with three games to his name in ACII, Brotherhood & Revelations, with successive descendants Connor & Haytham Kenway in ACIII and the wonderful Black Flag (for my money the franchises’ peak so far) living in his shadow.
A setting of 15th century Spain could easily tie in with the Renaissance period which proved so popular over three games, and rumours persist heavily that Aguilar will be facing the religious persecution known to history as the Inquisition, with the infamous Torquemada potentially as the villain. Should these rumours be true, it’s a move closer toward the games; AC games have covered variously the aforementioned time periods, plus the American Revolution, the pirating era, the French Revolution and Victorian London to date, though no Inquisition. What Kurzel seems to have understood is part of the games’ appeal has always been uncovering the secret history within well known time periods, often revolving around famed historical figures – games having featured people such as Leonardo da Vinci, Rodrigo Borgia or the Founding Fathers to name but a few. If he has combined these key elements alongside a fresh time period and a new, vibrant historical character, it again offers great hope his film may be doing the games justice.
Beyond the historical character and setting, what about the Assassins and Templars themselves, and their motivations? Of this we know almost nothing. Viral marketing involving leaked memorandums from Irons’ character, Alan Rikken, which fans have discovered with a little detective work, suggest he works for Abstergo and may essentially take the role Dr. Warren Vidic from the original game–the man in charge of the Animus program and Desmond’s memory extraction. Such a cold, dispassionate role would be perfect for Irons. In the games, Abstergo–the modern day front for the Templars–are looking to find the so-called ‘Pieces of Eden’, ancient artefacts which unlock the puzzle of a pre-historical, highly advanced civilisation who may have created the human race, and who may be key to a coming apocalyptic disaster. How much of this might the movie retain?
It’s hard to tell at this stage. Abstergo certainly appear to be the antagonists, with the Assassins and Templar war ripping underneath the history we know, but given how much the Pieces of Eden tip the franchise toward science-fiction, might Kurzel roll back on these elements in order to sell the concept to a wider audience? Few clues to this exist in the other announced main players; Cotillard appears to be playing Sophia Rikkin, presumably Alan Rikkin’s daughter, positioning her possibly as an antagonistic love interest in the present who may help Callum, while Gleeson is reputedly playing Callum’s father. Will they also appear in dual roles in the 15th century? It’s possible, and they may end up being key to whatever mythology Kurzel’s film does introduce.
An interesting point to note too is that the Assassin’s Creed movie has been confirmed to exist within the same universe as the other media, the video games and comics etc… which technically means Desmond Miles or Warren Vidic or Altair and Ezio exist within the fabric of the world they’re creating, and that’s quite a fascinating step to take. On the one hand it could mean Kurzel & Fassbender must fit within an established mythology millions of movie goers may not be aware of, but given all the significant changes the film is employing in terms of setting and character, it may well be the factor that quells the ire of fans worried they’re not getting a straight adaptation of the games they love.
In any case, if Kurzel manages to convey a compelling story that brings the war of the Assassins and Templars to a huge new audience, and Fassbender does a fair few stealth kills, Eagle vision ‘blends’ and tower jumps into hay bales, we may yet get a definitive Assassin’s Creed movie and the first truly great video game adaptation in one package.
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.