With 'Assassins Creed', Ubisoft Made a Video Game Movie That Doesn't Suck

With 'Assassins Creed', Ubisoft Made a Video Game Movie That Doesn't Suck

Ubisoft Motion Pictures' Assassins Creed stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cottilard Ubisoft Motion Pictures

The parkour-meets-time-traveling adventure is the first of a series of films from the Ubisoft Motion Pictures studio

The parkour-meets-time-traveling adventure is the first of a series of films from the Ubisoft Motion Pictures studio

Yves Guillemot is nervous. We're sitting in a conference room in a Hilton towering above a Madam Tussauds and a McDonald's on a dreary day in Times Square, about a week away from the theatrical release of Assassin's Creed. Billboards and taxi ads for the film are starting to pop up around the city, and stars like Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are gearing up for the red carpet later tonight. As Ubisoft's CEO, Guillemot has nurtured Assassin's Creed from an unproven intellectual property to one of the most dependable yearly franchises on the planet. No matter what happens next week, it's probably safe to say that the series will continue on, but this is still a pretty ballsy moment for one of the biggest companies in gaming.

The good news is that the Assassin's Creed movie doesn't suck. There's a long tradition of terrible video game film adaptations, from the stodgy, incomprehensible Final Fantasy feature animations, to 10-years-in-the-making failures like Warcraft, to the throwaway, sub-10 percent Rotten Tomatoes league of Dungeon Siege, Far Cry, House of the Dead, and anything else Uwe Boll has ever put his hands on. From the way Ubisoft has gone about its business – hiring names like Fassbender and Cotillard, trusting a proven director like Justin Kurzel whose previous project was a very faithful version of Macbeth – it seems clear that the goal was to create a film that could be taken seriously. I'm not sure if it will succeed with film critics, but after watching Dave Foley make endless poop jokes in Postal and Zachary Quinto sleepwalk through the utterly tedious Hitman: Agent 47, Assassin's Creed is, at the very least, not embarrassing.

Michael Fassbender plays Callum Lynch, a criminal fugitive on death row haunted by the murder of his mother. On the day of his apparent execution, he's transported to the complex of a shadowy multinational organization called Abstergo Industries. It's there he meets Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) who has the unenviable task of explaining all the core tenets of the Assassin's Creed franchise. There's an endless war between the Templars and the Assassins over a collection of biblical artifacts that hold the secret to the nature of good, evil, and humanity. Abstergo wants to find The Apple of Eden, a golden orb that contains the genetic code of free will. Lynch is a descendent of Aguilar de Nehra, an assassin during the height of the Spanish Inquisition who is believed to be the last person who knew the location of the Apple. By plugging into a futuristic machine called the Animus, Lynch can relive the bygone memories of Aguilar, and hopefully uncover some of the buried secrets of the past.

If the Assassin's Creed film was going to work, the high-concept framework of the series would need to be translated as lucidly as possible. To the credit of director Justin Kurzel, it gets pretty close. The Animus is reimagined as a fully immersive holodeck (instead of the coma-inducing MRI machine from the games.) When Lynch is plugged in, he falls into a trance and seamlessly mirrors Aguilar's actions as he relives him. It's a simple, tasteful way to translate the franchise's core conceit to a general audience. One of the themes of the Assassin's Creed series is the marriage between the modern lineage of Assassins and their forebearers, which is a lot easier to understand when we're watching Aguilar physically teach Lynch 500 years later.

Cotillard's talents are reduced to a morally-troubled, exposition-spouting scientist, and Jeremy Irons cashes the easiest check of his life as corporate profligate Alan Rikkin, a role that appears to have taken about an afternoon and a half to film. But Fassbender seems fully committed to the project. In a group interview before the red carpet, he spoke effusively about the bizarre plausibility of genetic memory, and the big (if slightly reductive) questions the series asks about human nature. In the film, he makes Callum Lynch likable, curious, and sympathetic – pretty much the exact opposite of Desmond Miles, who's still probably one of the blandest central characters to ever get a starring role in a video game franchise. When the film gets wordy, and the blurred allegiances and ideologies of the Templars and Assassins threaten to swallow any semblance of clarity, we fall back on Fassbender's reliable geniality.

This, of course, is all coming from someone with a cursory understanding of the Assassin's Creed fiction. The payoffs are predictable to anyone who's spent time with the first few games of the series, and I'm sure that knowledge allowed me to give some of the film's introductory world-building the benefit of the doubt. There's a decent chance that the audience going in without context will be immediately turned off by the grave, self-serious tone, especially when it only adds up to cheap rewards. "We must chase down the Apple of Eden and provoke heady conversations about the nature of free will, but we can only do so through lengthy medieval action sequences." You had to include the "game" part of the game somewhere, and it remains to be seen how well that will sit for audiences skeptical of the honesty of Xbox storytelling.

It's hard to know exactly what Ubisoft expects out of Assassin's Creed. This isn't quite The First Great Video Game Film, and I'm not sure if the series has rabid enough fan base to push it over the top. But no matter what happens, they've at least created something that can be critiqued like an actual movie. You will not leave Assassin's Creed wondering if game adaptations are impossible. This has real ideas, authentic characters, a sense of style, and a decent hook. It will succeed or fail in the way that all movies succeed or fail. Given the film's pedigree, that's a pretty big step forward.

"I'm anxious, but at the same time I'm very proud with the result. I'm... waiting," Guillemot says with a heavy sigh. "Tonight will be very important for me to get some more feedback from people. What they like, what they don't like, what we can improve. All those elements will be important for me."

In 2011, Ubisoft broke ground on Ubisoft Motion Pictures, a business division held under their overarching corporate brand. In the five years since, they've announced a ton of ambitious projects and high-profile partnerships. Tom Hardy is attached to a feature-length Splinter Cell film, Jessica Chastain and Jake Gyllenhaal are producing (and starring in) an adaptation of The Division, there's a Netflix Watch_Dogs series in the works, as well as a Warner Bros. backed Ghost Recon movie under the peerless auteurship of Michael Bay. Ubisoft has talked a big game, and it's clear they dream of morphing into a multimedia, investor-friendly titan like Sony. With a $200 million budget, Assassin's Creed is their first major test. You can understand why Guillemot is holding his breath.

"The most important is that gamers like it, because we're gamers first. After that, if we can show and explain the universe to more people, the more the better," says Guillemot. "Ubisoft Motion Pictures is working on so many things. The goal is to not to stop here."