So I took the family to see Assassin’s Creed last night and almost from the get go I was doing that thing so many writers do, thinking how I could make it better. This is actually a piece of advice given to budding screenwriters – if you don’t like something you’re watching, ask yourself why and what can I do to make it better? The idea is that you can develop your skills in specifics this way and it teaches you to connect what you see on the screen with the elements of writing structure (act breaks, scene structure, action changes etc.)
However, from the second scene last night I couldn’t stop myself, and it spoiled my enjoyment of the film, because it is no arrogance on my part to say, I could write a much better Assassin’s Creed movie than the one I saw last night. It’s not that the one last night was bad, I just feel like they missed so many opportunities and wasted narrative energy on stuff that didn’t matter. Let me also say up front, I’m a fan of the game series and have played at least four of the games all the way to completion (AC2, AC: Brotherhood, AC Revelations & AC: Black Flag). So now, here are my ideas for making a better film, based on a single viewing. From here on there will be spoilers.
Cut the 1986 intro. This whole scene is long and pointless. We see young Cal riding a bmx bike, which is irrelevant to the rest of the movie. We see him trying and failing to do a jumping stunt on his bike, which is irrelevant to the rest of the movie. We see him come home to find his mother dead at his dad’s hand, which is relevant, but is ruined by the rest of the scene, as I will explain. Cal’s dad tells him he killed Cal’s mother and claims he did it to keep her blood out of the hands of the people arriving in the bad guy black 4WD’s, which completely kills the mystery about Cal’s mother’s death. We know that the bad guys are real now and there’s no uncertainty for the audience, no mystery.
Mystery is story builder – the more questions you answer in a scene, without asking new ones, the fewer reasons you leave for the audience to keep watching. Now that we’ve seen the huge, heavily armed overkill show up, we know they’re not the good guys, so even though Cal’s dad did something horrible, we’re already thinking maybe he was right. Young Cal runs away into a thirty year forward jump in the story, making the whole scene irrelevant. There is only one factoid of the whole scene that matters to the story – that Cal’s dad murdered his mum – and we could have learned that in a single line of dialogue. A performer like Michael Fassbender could have carried the whole drama of that story point with one line so much better than the scene we were given.
The “not really” executed man: Cal in prison is fine, but the convicted murderer thing, complete with the execution on his birthday, what does all that matter? Why should the audience care? It’s a whole scene that smacks of a producer somewhere saying “wouldn’t it be cool if…” This story idea comes originally from the French film La Femme Nikita, which handles the whole concept much better, since it’s a central story element. The main character being officially dead makes her utterly vulnerable. In Assassin’s Creed, Cal never acts vulnerable and the scientist in charge of him insists that she’s doing everything for his good. Except we know that her organisation is the guys in the black 4WD’s from the earlier scenes. We know they’re the bad guys already. They have enough power to have faked Cal’s execution and transport from Texas to Spain – they are the conspiracy behind the story we can see that.
Again, no mystery, the only questions raised are about the plot, not the story.The story would have worked just as well if Cal had been an ordinary prisoner who volunteered for an experimental program run by Abstergo, to shorten his sentence. It would have given him a strong motivation to cooperate with the program (working towards his freedom) and it would have kept a mystery around the Abstergo program (they could have good motives, even if they are backed by the evil conspiracy).
Assassin’s are masters of stealth and cunning, not super-warriors: This point actually arises out of my experience with the games as well as my sense of dramatic story building. In the AC games the main character is a great fighter, but he’s not Conan or Thor. The point of the game is stealth and cunning, not wading through enemies with superpower hand-to-hand fighting. This is something the movie completely fails to capture. Every fight scene is a set piece where the assassin’s appear, attack the bad guys and run away until they can find something to fall/jump off. None of the cunning of the games, finding vantage points, merging with the crowd, cleverly deceiving guards – all of which make for great drama – was effectively used in the film. Yes the parkour was there, but that was about it. The assassins in the movie just aren’t subtle; they’re direct and unimaginative. It’s a huge missed opportunity.
Why have the other assassin descendants waited for Cal: It’s clear from the final scenes that the other assassin descendants have acquired the skills of their ancestors, just like Cal, but if that’s the case, what have they been waiting for? They could tear down Abstergo at any time, so why haven’t they? At one level this is just a classic plot hole, but it’s also a huge missed opportunity. Rather than telling us so much of the story up front, the mystery could be maintained and the other experiment subjects could be Cal’s guides through what he is experiencing, helping him to master his ancestral abilities while wising him up to the evil of Abstergo. Thus the inciting incident for the experiment subjects’ uprising could be the loss/death of a trusted mentor in the experiments and thus a more concrete character development moment for Cal. Also, it would make the reveal of the assassins’ ability to seize control more significant.
Cal’s dad is one of his ancestors: There’s no reason for Abstergo to have Cal’s dad and it makes no point in them keeping him and then offering him as a sacrifice to Cal. Cal hates his dad and Abstergo’s boss Rikkin(played by Jeremy Irons) gives Cal an assassin blade and offers Cal the chance to kill his dad, supposedly because the Templar hierarchy are threatening to close down Abstergo for want of results. What’s not clear is how Rikkin thinks Cal killing his dad will motivate Cal to do anything with the animus. None of this makes a lick of sense in the movie. It seems to me that the only reason for Cal’s dad to be present is to give Cal a “becoming his own man” moment, resolving the internal pain of his mother’s death. But if that is what they need, why not have Cal meet his dad in the animus?
After all, he meets all his past assassin ancestors in the final scene, it would have been much more significant if his dad had been one of them, the encounter thus signifying the moment of Cal’s acceptance of his heritage by underlining the moment with an acceptance of his dad killing her. Or better yet, imagine how powerful it would be as drama if Cal, who has throughout the film asserted his hatred for his dad for killing his mother, synchronises with his dad’s memory of her murder, fighting over her wounded body as a horde of Abstergo thugs try to kill him, until at last he holds her in his arms and, as Rikkin enters like Darth Vader to gloat over capturing her living DNA for himself, takes her life to save her from the imprisonment he now finds himself in. Imagine the rage he breaks out of the animus with after a scene like that? Then, as the descendants all burn down Abstergo, Cal hunts Rikkin through the fire/building destruction.
We should never have seen the Templar hierarchy: When discussing how to write horror, Stephen King (who I think we can all agree knows a bit about the subject), famously said, never show them the monster because, to paraphrase, the audience’s first thought is “My God, it’s ten feet tall!” & their second thought is “Phew, at least it wasn’t fifteen feet tall!” As soon as you see the monster, it begins to become familiar, the limits of its power begin to be known and you can begin to stop being scared of it. The Templars in the games are a shadowy brotherhood, much like Hydra in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). We the players/audience can never be sure that the conspiracy is defeated because we never know its full parameters.
But, in the AC movie, we know who the elders are; we see them all in their robes, as well as their representative. And they’re not very scary. They are just a bunch of old people. They look weak and act weak and fearful. The minute Cal shows up in their moment-of -triumph-ceremony they all run away screaming – why? Don’t they have security? Aren’t they the shadow government, secretly ruling the world? Three guys with centuries-old weaponry terrify them? Why? Why? Why?For that matter, why do the assassins bother to infiltrate the ultra-secret meeting of the Templar hierarchy, in its moment of triumph, and then just kill one man and run away? They could target the whole council (I think it was a called the council) and kill them all in one go! War over. One of the descendants was a poisoner, surely he could have suggested that they just gas the whole lot of the Templars and be done with it.
Too much narrative energy sent in wrong directions: For me this problem is best encapsulated in the movie’s portrayal of the animus, the whole moving arm of mystery and hallucination. In the games, the animus just plugs into the nervous system as a computer while the subject lies down on a couch and the genetic memories play out in the subject’s mind. I get that visually the moving arm is cooler looking, but that’s the whole problem with the film. Too many things are in the film because they look or sound cool, not because they advance the story. Time, energy and money could have been better spent tightening the narrative and crafting a coherent focus.
There are other problems with the movie, but this sums up what held the whole thing back, as far as I’m concerned. Some call backs to the games directly would have been nice as well – we could have seen little passing references to the famous assassins from the game, like Altair or Ezio. Cal could have been described as having American Indian heritage, pointing to maybe Connor in his ancestry. These things don’t cripple the film like the stuff I mentioned above, but they would have been nice.
Ultimately the Assassin’s Creed movie isn’t bad, it just isn’t anywhere near as good as it could easily have been.
Picture 1: By Onomatomedia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7133139Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4394289
Picture 2: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4394289