The Assassin’s Creed film has finally arrived to the sounds of boos from critics and fans alike. It currently sits with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 17% as the latest in a long line of video game to movie flops. A few reviewers whom I watch on a regular basis placed it in their top ten worst film lists. I decided to avoid the film and wait for the Netflix premier, but a few impassioned Youtube fans encouraged me to make-up my own mind and see it. As someone who has been writing about the philosophy behind the Assassin’s Creed games for over six years now, for me – personally – this was one of the best films of 2016. So, what did I see that the critics and fans missed?
First -- a quick disclaimer. What I’m writing here is not a review of the film, but really the same sort of analysis that I apply to the Assassin’s Creed games in my other articles. So, yes…spoilers.
The critics all praised the acting, the directing, and the action sequences in the film, but collectively criticised the unlikable, boring characters and the baffling storyline. It could be argued that the critics simply did not understand the film as it was told in the language of the game with concepts like the Assassins, Templars, artefacts of Eden, and the animus being alien to them and not fully elaborated on in the film, however fans turned their backs on it as well.
As for the fan reaction, I have noticed three types of Assassin’s Creed fans. The ones who are into gameplay and enjoy jumping off rooftops and stabbing people in the face, those who are into the story and the lore, and finally those who are into the philosophical messages and themes behind it all. Of course you can enjoy more than one element, so there is overlap, but most people would fall primarily into one category or another.
For those fans of the gameplay, the film delivers through the historical sequences, but they complained that this is only a small fraction of the film. They were given a taste of the film they wanted but never got. Fans primarily of the story and lore got their service too in the form of Easter eggs scattered throughout the film. What no one expected from Assassin’s Creed was a film made for that minority third type of fan in the form of a psychological drama with socio-political overtones.
Fans expected Assassin’s Creed to be an action-based historical romance, the same genre as the games, where the modern story serves as a frame for the real historical story that the game-makers wanted to tell. The “protagonist” of the first five games is Desmond Miles, but he just sits in the animus the whole time with all of the action happening in the past. That said, we do see Desmond grow throughout these games with the expectation that the series would eventually shift gears to give us a modern Assassin’s tale with Desmond as the hero, but this promise was never fulfilled and ended with Desmond’s shoehorned death.
The film takes a different approach by telling the modern story the games never delivered. The relationship between past and present is reversed with the past serving to inform and move the present day story. Many fans were disappointed with this change in perspective, especially since it reduced the Assassins of the Spanish Inquisition to action sequences and did not fully developed characters.
Why did the filmmakers shift the genre from historical romance to a modern psychological drama? It was a risky decision that did not pay off for them. I see two reasons. The first is that it is easy to view history as fiction simply because it is the past. By setting the game primarily in the modern, that wall is broken down and strengthens the Templar and Assassins metaphor in terms of the films socio-political message and call to action. The second reason has to do with how the filmmakers re-thought the animus.
In the games Sean, Rebecca, and Lucy all speak of the dangers of the animus and the harmful toll it can take on the psyche, but we never really see it. We see that Clay Kaczmarek, Subject 16, drew crazy shit on the walls and we are told that he lost his mind, but that is about it. Lucy speaks of the dangers of the bleeding effect, but this plot line is completely dropped. I had thought while playing the game that eventually Desmond would learn to use the bleeding effect to his advantage and summon the power of his ancestors when outside the animus, but this never happened. However, it does happen in the film.
The film explores how experiencing the animus would affect a person’s mind. Imagine if such a device existed. The subject would experience the thoughts and feelings of another person. No big deal right? Fact is that a person’s entire psycho-emotional grasps on reality would be broken down. This pairs with John Locke’s memory theory of identity. He wrote that identity exists within the context of consciousness and consciousness is connected to memory.
It is a common trope in science fiction where a person’s (or android’s) identity is called into question when it is discovered that their memories are false. What the animus does by visceral exposure to another’s memories is create a psychological blending that undermines an individual’s sense of identity. Basically, the person no longer knows where their identity stops and the other person’s starts. There is a scene where one of the animus subjects introduces himself to Calum by the name of his ancestor as if he could not distinguish the two identities. Other subjects were not so fortunate as the experience caused a complete psychological breakdown rendering them psychotic.
This is compounded by the bleeding effect, which became a key concept in the film. Adding to the problem of merging memories, and therefore identity, there is a manifestation of these memories as real time visions. The result is that exposure to the animus causes both an identity breakdown and a collapse in the perception of reality.
What we have here is a forced Existential Crisis where the character realizes that everything that he believed to be true, himself and the reality in which he operates, to be a construct that can collapse. We have two choices in these situations. We can either fight that realisation and become psychotic or accept it to become empowered, which is what Calum Lynch does when he successfully achieves the leap of faith with full synchronisation with his ancestor Aguilar.
This is the main character’s psychological journey. A story is a person with a problem and how that problem is resolved. Once the problem is no longer a problem, the story ends. The person with a problem in Assassin’s Creed is Calum Lynch. As a young boy, he entered his home to find his mother’s throat cut. In his shocked state, his father suddenly appears wearing the trademark Assassin’s hood. He tells Calum, “your blood is not your own” and orders him to flee just as several police vehicles arrive on the scene. Calum’s problem is that he does not understanding what happened. His world suddenly fell apart -- again an existential crisis. Why did his father suddenly murder his mother? The problem is resolved not when he learns why, but when he truly understands why on a psycho-emotional level.
Both of Calum’s parents were secretly Assassins. We see this quite often in the games, such as with Ezio Auditore and Haytham Kenway who were both ignorant of their parent’s hidden life. The police vehicles that arrived were actually Templars, the ancient enemies of the Assassins, and Calum’s father killed his mother at her requests to spare her being captured and experimented on at the Abstergo labs. So for Calum to reach resolution, he must first come to understand the Assassin’s, their devotion to the Creed, and why they were willing to sacrifice everything they loved for it. Every event in the film works to this end. The conclusion comes when Calum finally reaches that state of acceptance.
This brings us to the central theme of the film. The Templars and the Assassins represent two groups in society which can be conveniently split politically between right and left, or the establishment and the anti-establishment. The establishment believes that the wise should rule. Today, the establishment takes two opposing forms. One that defines wisdom primarily by success and the other primarily by intelligence. In both cases, they believe that the populations needs to be controlled and they do so with the consent of the people who want to be ruled by “the good king” who will make everything better. The games and the film both depict these good and bad Templars. The bad Templars who simply want power over others and the good Templars do the exact same thing, but sincerely believe that they do so to help others.
The anti-establishment rejects both positions. They believe that every individual person is free to make their own choices without force or coercion. A person cannot be made to be good. Goodness is a choice. They also believe that every person is accountable for their actions. Traditionally, this would have been the position of the Left. However, since the turn of the 20th Century the “good Templars” have moved themselves into that position in the minds of the people. What most people think of as the Right or the Left today are just the two forms of the establishment – the two types of Templars. The true anti-establishment is more like the libertarians politically.
In the film, the Templars want to end violence by destroying free will. There is a critical scene where the Templar Master and the head of Abstergo are discussing tactics. The Master wants to abandon the search for the means of destroying free will because they have already accomplished their goal. First they tried religion, then politics, and now consumerism and this has worked. People care more about preserving their lifestyle than they do about civil liberties. This is the core message of the film. The Templars have won because you – the viewer – have chosen not to make sacrifices to fight for freedom.
I noticed a few critics missed the importance of this scene. They approached the film as a traditional macguffin plot seeing who will get the Apple of Eden, but the chief baddie says straight-out that they do not need it. All the Apple is to the Templar leadership is a vanity project that is costing too much money.
The Creed is mentioned a few times in the film, but there is no scene going into its deeper meaning. I first thought this was an omission that created confusion for the first-time viewers, then I realised that the film is not preaching the Creed. It is preaching the concept of freedom and is using the Creed as a metaphor. When the Assassins say things like, the Creed comes first or the Creed is more important than love, what is really being said here is that freedom comes first and is more important than love. To be more specific, it is more important than the things we love.
This addresses the control by consumerism mentioned before. We love our things: our cars, homes, electronics, etc. We love the things that comprise our lifestyles. The film is telling us that our freedom is more important than these things that we love and we must be willing to sacrifice them if we want to be free as they are the instrument of our slavery.
Seeing as this is the core message of the film, we are presented with two different layers. Calum through his ancestor Aguilar learns the lesson of sacrifice for the Creed. In this he understands why his father sacrificed his mother and points him to the sacrifices he must make going forward. We the audience learn through Calum’s journey the lesson of sacrifice for freedom and the sacrifices we must make going forward.
There is a scene where a guard tells Calum the origin of the word Assassin. He tells him that the word is derived from the Hashashin meaning outcasts. This is generally accepted. The word hashashin literally means hash user, but the connotation of the word was outcast or low-life. The more modern and academically accepted theory is that the word is derived from Assasyun, meaning “those faithful to the foundation”.
Consider then that the Templars have created a means of controlling people through consumerism. There is the basic human need for food, shelter, and clothing, security, and entertainment (mental, emotional, and physical stimulation), but once those needs are fulfilled, then what comes next? Abraham Mazlow suggests in his hierarchy of values that we then move on to higher values like self-actualisation, but the real world shows us that people who have all they need want more and better of the same. Better food, nicer shelter, fashionable clothing, safe spaces, and more entertainment. We become consumers. By rejecting this the individual has no hope of being one of the cool kids. His values are completely at odds with the social norm. He could not care less about the latest Kardassian. He becomes an outcast -- a hashashin.
The Templar plan comes crashing down in regards to the Apple of Eden in the form of the greatest threat to all central planners. The spectre of unintended consequences. Central planners think that they know best so their plan is perfect, but the unintended consequences reveal themselves showing that the “wise ones” are not all that wise. One classic example of unintended consequences comes from the days of British India when the government placed a bounty on cobras in an effort to decrease the snake population. The enterprising Indians took advantages of this and started cobra farms. When the government learned of this the bounty was discontinued and the Indians released their worthless cobras into the wild. The unintended consequence of the policy was more cobras than when they had started. In their arrogance they forget that the best laid plans of mice and men most oft go awry.
The Templars in their quest to learn the secrets of the Assassins force normal average men and women into the animus, but in the process actually creates (or more precisely re-creates) the Assassins. As one guard warns the villain, “you are feeding the beast”. By the end of the film, those individuals who survived their experience in the animus relatively intact psychologically have fully integrated their ancestor. Abstergo has unleashed some of the greatest Assassins in history onto the modern world as the unintended consequence of their desire to control that which should not, or cannot, be controlled.
There is one final criticism that I have yet to address and that is characterisation. Critics found the characters to be boring and unrelatable. What Calum Lynch suffers from is the lack of a sidekick. Batman has his Robin, Sherlock his Watson, and the Castaway his Wilson. These sidekicks exist to give us, the audience, a glimpse into the character’s psyche through the interactions of the two characters. The only alternative is a voice over narration from the character as an inner monologue or a character who talks to himself. Either way, the audience needs this kind of access in order to care about the character.
Calum has no sidekick, no inner monologue, and does not talk to himself. He is completely alone in a crazy place, thus robbing the audience of any true insight into his thoughts, feelings, and motivations. What we see are his interactions with his captors and his fellow inmates, both of whom he holds in contempt and distrust for understandable reasons. Is it any wonder that he comes across as unlikable? We are left to interpret his actions as outsiders. In a sense, this is consistent with the Creed in that we the audience are left to come to our own conclusion without being told how to feel about him. Likewise, we do not get into the minds of the historic Assassins because their purpose in the story is simply to drive Calum to his resolution.
I also noticed that the portrayal of the Assassins seemed a bit more intense than in the games. The Assassin’s Creed games, to their credit, do not shy from insinuating that the Assassins are not always “the good guys”. Fact is that evil companies provide desired products and services. Evil Empires provide economic and political stability. These desired things come at the cost of freedom. The vast majority of people are willing to pay this price. As the punk band, The Dead Kennedys put it, “Give me convenience or give me death”. The Assassins reject this sacrifice. They subscribe to a Nietzschean form of radical freedom demonstrated by a willingness to let the world burn for the sake of freedom. The film shows this through the Assassin’s intense devotion the Creed, thus making them appear far more radical than their game counterparts. This is possibly due to the film’s central theme of advocating personal sacrifice for the sake of the Creed (aka freedom).
Ultimately, the film Assassin’s Creed is an origin story. it is about how Calum Lynch through the machinations of the Templars, became an Assassin. The film ends when Calum reaches this state and the scenes after are only there to wrap things-up. This confused critics who thought that the film was about stopping the Templars and getting the Apple of Eden, but the film already established that this was irrelevant as they did not need the apple anyways.
When people ask me what I thought of of the Assassin’s Creed movie, I always give them a disclaimer. For me it was one of the best films of 2016, but as the author Anais Nin said, “We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.” What I have shared here is the film that I saw. You will see the same film differently and your film may not be as good as mine.