“ASSASSIN'S CREED” — 2 stars — Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Ariane Labed; PG-13 (intense sequences of violence and action, thematic elements and brief strong language); in general release
It's surprisingly easy to make an emotional connection to fictional characters in a movie, even when you know that what you are watching isn't real. But when the movie itself goes out of its way to tell you what you are watching isn't real, you have a problem.
That's just one of many issues with "Assassin's Creed," the latest movie adaptation of a video game series and a film that strives for simplicity while tying itself up in narrative knots.
An opening crawl sets up the conflict: two warring factions are competing for something called the Apple of Eden, which supposedly holds the key to free will. The Templars want to use it to control humanity and are therefore the bad guys. The Assassins want to preserve liberty and are willing to work in the darkness to accomplish their noble goals.
This leads us to Cal (Michael Fassbender), a descendant of the Assassins and a death row inmate in modern-day Texas. Following a lethal injection that isn’t very lethal, Cal awakes in a scientific facility in Madrid, where he meets Sofia (Marion Cotillard).
Sofia explains that he has been recruited into a project that she claims is working to eradicate violence at the genetic level. By plugging into a virtual reality machine called the Animus, Cal will be able to project himself into the memory of a 15th-century ancestor. In his mind, he'll be fighting bad guys in the Spanish Inquisition, but in reality, he'll be plugged into a machine that looks like a more advanced version of the Thunderdome, working to find the Apple.
The characters in "Assassin's Creed" remind us over and over that finding the Apple is the key to everything, but this attempt to simplify things is very disconnected from the chaos of story that we see on the screen. It’s difficult to keep track of what is happening from a narrative standpoint, and sometimes it's just difficult to tell who is who, since everyone in the movie seems to be wearing the same black cloak.
By the end of the film, things start to make a little more sense, and it's likely that longtime fans of the "Assassin's Creed" games will be able to follow what’s going on, but that just underscores the point. Director Justin Kurzel is trying to cram a multi-game mythology into a single two-hour film, and as desperately as he tries to keep things simple, he still winds up with an incoherent mess.
Consider one moment Cal has in the Animus. Cal is having a standoff with one of the Templars, who is holding one of the other Assassins hostage. We don't know anything about the hostage, aside from the fact that she's female and might be a potential love interest. For Cal, or rather, his ancestor, it's a crisis, but for the audience, the moment is meaningless. For most of "Assassin's Creed," there's just no reason for the audience to care about anything that is going on.
In the end, the best thing to do is to just sit back and try to enjoy the spectacle. If "Assassin's Creed" has any strength, it is in its visual design and tone. The movie looks cool, and if you can lose yourself in the thunderous soundtrack and the various action scenes, you might be OK. But once you start trying to connect the dots, you'll probably be better off going back to the game where it all came from.
“Assassin's Creed” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, thematic elements and brief strong language; running time: 108 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.