Assassin’s Creed and the Promise of the First Great Video Game Movie

By  · Published on August 28th, 2015

With a first look at the Peter O’Toole-esque Michael Fassbender playing Callum Lynch for Assassin’s Creed, the production announced that it’s rolling cameras on Monday. It also reminded us that we should remain hopeful for the possibility of finally seeing a great movie based off a video game.

That’s a promise that hasn’t been fulfilled even after dozens and dozens of video game movies. Even for those dedicated fans of pop vomit like the Resident Evil franchise or the near miss Silent Hill, it’s difficult to point to any video game movie as being good, let alone great.

There’s also no shortage of video game movies at various stages of development. From Angry Birds to the ever-doomed Uncharted to the high concept emptiness of Temple Run, every flavor of video game is attempting to break into cinema with something worthy of the multiplex. Not that the variety is surprising. Styles, genres and delivery methods for video gaming have all exploded in recent years, leading inexorably to “P.T.,” the mini-game teaser/advertisement from Guillermo del Toro and Hideo Kojima that was more like a scrollable movie where you controlled the runtime. You’re only actions were looking and choosing what to look at, offering slightly more interactive power than the typical theater patron gets. Leave it to del Toro to help blur the lines between media.

But when it comes to outright adaptation, studios and creators still haven’t figured out how to make them work on fundamental narrative levels.

Everyone has a theory as to why they don’t work. Maybe it’s because twisting something interactive into something passive always alters it for the negative. Maybe it’s because the subject matter studios cling to is juvenile, or maybe it’s because creators can’t help but treat video game properties as worthy only of the respect of a childish pastime. Maybe figuring out why a video game works isn’t even a helpful pursuit when trying to convert it into a movie.

Whatever the reason, this particular subsection of adaptations is, almost exclusively, a giant pile of garbage with thousands of copies of Atari’s E.T. game buried underneath.

Most of the projects in development offer the same old brand of stupidity, but Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed both have the potential to finally break the curse.

For Warcraft, it will be a matter of harnessing everything that makes epic fantasy films great. Myth and legend and conquest bolstered by human characters that may just happen to be nine feet tall and ogreish. After Moon and the slight thrill of Source Code, the mantra is “In Duncan Jones We Trust,” and while this is undoubtedly the largest seat he’s ever sat in, hopefully he and co-writer Charles Leavitt produce something that amazes. After all, when you carve away all the personal inches from how millions of players have dynamically responded to the game, Warcraft has the DNA of all big fantasies, as if “Lord of the Rings” started as something playable on your computer.

For Assassin’s Creed, it’s all about Fassbender. If anyone can help shoulder a decent/good/great video game movie into this world, it’s the man who carries McQueen-aided indie cred next to Magneto’s paycheck in his back pocket. He’s a powerful actor with a strong sense of story.

The director, Justin Kurzel, is more of an unknown quantity, but he paired with Fassbender for Macbeth, meaning that he’s the rarest of animals: a Palme d’Or seeker tapped for an action adventure video game movie. You get the sense that his Assassin’s Creed wouldn’t even be considered the same species as Brett Ratner’s.

Plus, the game itself holds a lot of potential for breaking out of the typical moron mold. It’s historical and cares deeply about weaving real people and stories into the fabric of the game play, and the plot is multi-layered, which makes it a strong candidate for adaptation.

Then there’s Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, a veritable How Not To Guide on making an adventure film with dramatic depth. It’s my sincere hope that it failed so that Assassin’s Creed won’t have to. It’s not enough to show your buff hero doing parkour and being sweaty.

Beyond the horrible history of video game movies, the only thing that’s really worrisome about Assassin’s Creed is what we can call The Hitman Problem. Undercutting a video game’s nature isn’t automatically a recipe for a bad movie, but there are limitations to what you can and should change. “Assassin’s Creed” has the same cautious, lurking, don’t-get-caught mindset of “Hitman,” but the latter’s two movies have all been about blasting your gun as loud and often as you possibly can.

It might bewilder some producers that crouching behind a corner waiting for a guard to walk around to the other side of a hay cart can be tense and fun, but it works in the game for a reason, and cinema has more than enough tools to imbue the audience with every manner of emotion, regardless of those who assume wrongly that every living person has A.D.D. Would I want Hitchcock’s version of Assassin’s Creed? Hell yes, I would.

That, again, is where Fassbender comes in. He’s a steward and watchdog who has been in enough successfully entertaining blockbuster movies to recognize that “Add more things blowing up” and “Ten minutes without a chase scene?” aren’t legitimate story notes.

As you can see, success for Warcraft and success for Assassin’s Creed are very different things. That’s because “video game movies” isn’t a genre, despite being treated largely the same from studios on down. They can and should be as complicated, engaging and diverse as video games themselves. One adaptation has to find ways to work as a fantasy while the other has to work as an action drama (and one simply has to work at making children laugh by throwing big yellow birds at pig construction crews).

Warcraft is out next summer, and Assassin’s Creed is scheduled for late next year, so I’ve got my fingers crossed for 2016 to be the year that everyone started taking video game movies seriously. Most of all, the people who make them.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.