Video game movies are notoriously bad. For some reason, they almost always seem to fail, and I can’t actually bother myself to get excited for the upcoming Tomb Raider movie (2018, Roar Uthaug), even though it is based on a game I really enjoyed and Alicia Vikander, taking up the role of Lara Croft (an icon in video game culture), is a terrific actress. YouTuber The Closer Look made a video essay about video game movies, suggesting a couple of reasons why they tend to fall flat and disappoint:
I’m currently playing through the so far excellent Assassin’s Creed Origins (2017, Ubisoft). The setting is magnificent, the story is exciting and the move to a more RPG-based gameplay system works really well. The fact that you can hear people shouting in ancient Greek in the streets of Alexandria is an incredibly satisfying bonus. I think I’ve spent over 13 hours playing it, and due to its vast array of entertaining side quests, bonus missions and unlockable locations I’m nowhere near half of the main quest’s story.
Playing through Origins got me thinking about the Assassin’s Creed film (2016, Justin Kurzel) a while back. The movie has an 18% Tomatometer score and a 43% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics consensus stating that “Assassin’s Creed is arguably better made (and certainly better cast) than most video game adaptations; unfortunately, the CGI-fueled end result is still a joylessly overplotted slog.” And true, the cast for the film is impressive: with Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons and, most significantly, Michael Fassbender as both the present-day protagonist Callum and the historical assassin Aguilar, the movie presents strong actors with an impressive history in both popular and art house media. Nevertheless, almost everything else was disappointingly lackluster, despite the movie being based on a very successful Triple-A video game franchise. Why is that?
In his video essay, The Closer Look talks about video game movies failing due to the fact that they can’t recreate the feeling of gameplay that’s inevitably lost in translation when adapting a video game into a movie. While I don’t think this is the main reason why Assassin’s Creed failed, I do believe that this is a general problem video game movies haven’t yet found the solution for. In the Assassin’s Creed games, the character you control contributes to such big historical events as the American or French Revolution. While every setting in the franchise has been a beautiful and most of all faithful recreation of the actual historical context, it has mostly been the gameplay that’s kept fans invested: nice settings are fun, but they’re so much more fun when we can actively engage with the setting. This is why Assassin’s Creed‘s parkour format works so well: by being able to climb, jump, ride through or even parachute over these beautiful cities, we, the players, are allowed to fully interact with the environment we see. While watching a movie, this high level of interaction is obviously lost.
In the case of the Assassin’s Creed movie, however, there’s a more important reason for the movie’s critical failure, that needs to be situated on the level of narrative. The Assassin’s Creed games work according to a ‘double’ formula: while the bulk of every game consists of the historically set assassin sequences in various time periods, each game also contains an overarching present-day narrative connecting the different Assassin’s Creed games with each other. In the early Assassin’s Creed games, up to Assassin’s Creed III (2012, Ubisoft), this story was the story of Desmond Miles, who was able to access the memories of his ancestors by using a machine called the Animus. It’s these ancestors (Altair, Ezio and Connor) that we get to play around as in various historical settings (the Holy Land, Italy, Constantinople & America). In the next entry, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013, Ubisoft), the developers introduced a present-day character played in first-person, though that formula never really worked for me. I enjoyed the Desmond storyline, but this first-person stuff came off as boring and repetitive. One of Origins’ main virtues therefore, I think, is the return to a third-person present-day story. While the Assassin’s Creed games consist of these two historically distinct yet thematically interlinked storylines, the games have always focused on the historical stuff. The present-day stories almost always come in short portions and comprise less narrative material.
And this, I think, is where the movie goes wrong. The movie, conversely, focuses on the present-day story, and only shows us short bits and pieces of the story set during the period of the Spanish Inquisition. This means that we mostly see Fassbender as Callum, instead of Aguilar. We have no motivation to feel sympathy or empathy with any of the plot elements in Spain, as we simply don’t know enough about the events or the characters. What most excites us about the Assassin’s Creed games is the historical stuff, of which the movie by comparison gives us almost nothing. Are budget reasons to blame? Creating a modern and pale looking training facility is probably easier compared to recreating a convincing medieval Spain.
It also doesn’t help that the few historical shots that we get are color graded in an inexplicably weird way. The color grading (i.e. the manipulation of colors, like applying filters on Instagram) seems to favor hues of gold and black, which admittedly gives the scenes a sepia-like ‘historical’ look but makes it sometimes hard to see what is actually going on. I remember having problems understanding the scenes when I watched Assassin’s Creed in theaters, since a lot of them were really dark and foggy. By increasing the level of fog or mist in certain scenes, the need for detailed CGI attention decreases, which means that the scenes become cheaper to produce (Game of Thrones (2011-, David Benioff & Dan Weiss) actually does the same, for example in the loot train attack sequence). From a production perspective, this is an understandable decision, but it is also one that has severe and irreversible consequences for the movie’s narrative qualities.
Now, it could be said that this tonal and thematic shift is what The Closer Look means when he says that video game movies need to be more creative instead of faithful to the source material. I, for one, don’t agree with this statement: yes, the very nature of the adaptation process implies a structural difference between the adaptation and the source material, but there should, I think, always be a tangibly similar atmosphere between the two indicating the adaptation’s status as an “adaptation” and not a product “inspired by” another product. Circling back to Assassin’s Creed, this adaptation in nature could be considered ‘creative’ in its use of the present-day storyline, but that doesn’t excuse it from being lackluster in content or failing to be engaging.
Questions of creativity aside, the Assassin’s Creed movie just couldn’t capture everything (anything?) that makes the video games great. The movie, in conclusion, largely leaves out the most exciting parts of the video games, and instead favors an uninteresting present-day narrative. A successful Assassin’s Creed movie, I think, should be a political period drama instead of a conflicted sci-fi flick. It’s sad that video game movies have this clouded and dark history, though I agree with The Closer Look that successful video game movie adaptation are not impossible. He suggests The Last of Us (2013, Naughty Dog) as a possible example of a successful adaptation, and I must concur that this is something I would like to see. Until then, we unfortunately have to make do with what we have.