It is a truth universally acknowledged, that all game-based movies are bobbins. The reasons aren’t always clear cut. Sometimes beloved series are saddled with a script that sort of fits the bill for the sake of name recognition (see: House Of The Dead) but not spirit, the film-makers trusted to adapt games for the screen often aren’t up to scratch, and games are rarely treated with the same respect as comics or novels by Hollywood. How else do you explain the risible Super Mario Bros movie?
The Assassin's Creed film is going to be different. In fact, we’d put good money on it being the first great movie based on a video game (or the second if Duncan Jones can make good with Warcraft). There are several reasons why. First and foremost is its star Michael Fassbender. He’s among the most talented and in-demand actors in the world; the kind who doesn’t need to work simply for the paycheque, and makes interesting, worthwhile choices. Take oddball drama Frank, where The Fass dons a giant Frank Sidebottom mask for the entire film, or Shame, where he’s constantly getting his wanger out for his art. Not only is Fassbender starring in the Assassin’s Creed movie, he’s also producing for the first time – a huge vote of confidence in the series.
“I think it’s a really fascinating concept, just the idea of DNA memory alone,” Fassbender says, even though he admits he’s played the game “only a few times, badly”. Fassbender is taking on double duties as 15th Century Spanish Assassin Aguilar and his modern day descendant Callum Lynch – the latter rumoured to be a death row inmate before he’s saved from a lethal cocktail by Abstergo Industries and strapped to the Animus. Expect the usual mix of Assassin’s vs Templars on the hunt for a First Civilisation artefact – and a tale modelled closely on the first game’s journey of discovery. Fassbender also convinced his Oscar-winning Macbeth co-star Marion Cotillard to join him (as the ‘main antagonist’) even though she had little idea what she was getting herself in for. “Is the game violent? I don’t like to shoot people!” With Brendan Gleeson and Jeremy Irons also signed up the film isn’t short of acting heavyweights. A great start.
Creating entirely new characters rather than adapting an existing tale is absolutely the right choice. Doing so allows the film to be set in the same universe as the games without the risk of contradicting established events, and doesn’t rule out a crowd-pleasing Ezio cameo (technically he is stabbing his way around the continent at about the same time…). And as ‘cinematic’ as the games aspire to be, the film needs to do something different if it hopes to succeed.
With Ubisoft establishing its own motion picture division to oversee Assassin’s Creed (along with in-development flicks Splinter Cell, Ghost Recon and Watch Dogs), expect the film to remain faithful to the games. But crucially Ubisoft Motion Pictures CEO Jean Julien Baronnet recognises that the movie needs to blaze its own trail. In particular Baronnet has hinted that there will be a more even split between historical and present day sections. “Assassin’s was complicated to develop, because you’re working with two time periods, one contemporary and one historical,” Baronnet says. “Generally in a film, you only have one hero. And with the link between the past and the present, you can’t have one of the stories taking precedence over the other.”
Instead of smothering film-makers with its vision, Ubisoft is giving Fassbender and co the autonomy to do their jobs. “We told [Fassbender] that we were going to build the project together,” Barronet says, “That we have an enormous brand and we want to make a film modelled on features like Batman Begins or Blade Runner. We promised him that he could work with the scriptwriters, that we were going to bring him into all the key creative choices.”
Batman Begins is an apt film to invoke in relation to ‘Creed’s director, Justin Kurzel who - like Christopher Nolan before he took on the Dark Knight - is a critical darling one blockbuster away from a place among the biggest film-makers on the planet. Kurzel helmed exceptional indie drama Snowtown before going on to direct the superb, recently released adaptation of Macbeth. Among many other qualities, Macbeth has gorgeous, earthy cinematography. If Assassin’s Creed looks even half as good as Macbeth (quite likely given that Kurzel brought his cinematographer Adam Arkapaw with him) then it’ll be visually spectacular at the very least. Fassbender enlisted Kurzel after their experience working together on the Scottish Pla... er, film.
“It’s a genre I never thought I’d be involved in – it scares the bejeesus out of me! – but it’s really interesting,” Kurzel says. “The last six months have been all about story, creating really engaging characters and taking interesting things from the game. We’re trying to make a film that’s not only going to connect with the fanbase but also with people who are not familiar with the game.”
This is an important point – Assassin’s Creed is being made to appeal to the series’ legion of fans, but it also has to work for an audience that hasn’t swan-dived into a cart full of hay countless times over the last eight years. This is partly driven by the film’s budget, with Baronnet indicating that 20th Century Fox are spending an eye-watering $150-200 million making it – as much as the average mega-budget superhero movie. “Our big gamble is that it works for three audiences,” Barronet says. “Fans of our games, which there are some 95 million of; fans of mainstream cinema who are going to see Star Wars and Spider-Man; and in parallel, we’re also aiming it at people who would never think of going to see an Assassin’s film... people who like independent films.”
Hollywood isn’t in the business of taking risks, so for 20th Century Fox to be investing ‘Avengers bucks’ is a clear sign of confidence. The film also boasts an important industry veteran behind the scenes in Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg’s long time producing partner who most recently worked on Jurassic World. In other words, forget the discount adaptations of Hitman and Max Payne, Assassin’s Creed is a proper tentpole blockbuster, with the globetrotting shoot travelling to locations in Malta, Spain and London (hello, Syndicate).
They’re taking their time to get it right too. Assassin’s Creed was originally due to be released in summer 2015, but was pushed back over a year rather than rush to meet a release date. The fact that the film is coming out in the kind of slot typically reserved for only the biggest blockbusters (think Star Wars, Avatar, and Lord Of The Rings) is another sign that the studio expects big things from it.
The series’ trademark free-running should make an elegant transition to the screen. “There’s parkour and free running; it’s not superhero; it’s action that’s accessible, relatable,” says Kurzel. And he’s right. Creed’s action could be captured almost entirely in-camera, with little need to resort to illusion-shattering CG doubles, offering the same visceral thrills as the parkour sequence in Casino Royale. If the phenomenal success of Mad Max: Fury Road proved anything it’s that audiences are craving blockbusters with a tangible sense of danger, so don’t be surprised to see at least one leap of faith from a frighteningly high vantage point.
With little other than a picture of Fassbender in costume as Aguilar to go off (as marvellous as it is), some weapons, and a few pap shots floating around online, it’s hard to tell exactly how the film will turn out, but every sign points towards it being not only a good game adaptation but a great film regardless of its origins. And with franchises the biggest things on the planet right now, you know the makers have at least a time-hopping trilogy planned if it makes a killing at the box office.