The Curse of the Video Game Adaptation. It would make a good game itself: a questing role-player in which you control an idealistic film-maker trying to turn a popular shoot-’em-up into a movie. Challenges include purgatorial board meetings, battles for creative control, the coaxing of above-it-all actors, salvaging your terrible-looking special effects. And when you’ve amassed enough budget points, you face the fearsome final-level adversary: the two-headed Beast of Audience. If “pedantic gamer” doesn’t get you, “confused civilian who thinks it’s nonsense” will.
Many have tried to break the curse. None have been worthy. Last year saw fresh victims such as Warcraft and Angry Birds added to the pyre, joining Mortal Kombat, Prince Of Persia, Hitman, Doom and Street Fighter. But, flush with more cash than they know what to do with, the games companies continue to send their ill-prepared adaptations on to the merciless multiplex battlefield. Meanwhile, the curse is working in the other direction: infecting modern blockbusters to the extent that they’re starting to resemble CGI-heavy video games. Can no one restore balance to the cinema universe?
Now comes a new contender: Assassin’s Creed, spun off from Ubisoft’s huge-selling game series, with a top-notch cast and lavish budget, and telling a complex, action-packed film that darts between the near future and medieval Spain. In his valiant campaign, Australian director Justin Kurzel deployed a revolutionary strategy to attempt to break the curse: don’t make it look like a video game.
“We went very old school with it,” he explains. “We shot in real locations [Malta and southern Spain], we got the best parkour guys, slackliners, martial arts guys in the world to actually do all of it for real. We wanted to get exhausted and dirty with it.” Rather than 21st-century gameplay, the action feels like a classic swashbuckler, with a touch of Mad Max. There are sword fights, fist fights, horseback chases, rooftop chases, even the game’s signature move: the “leap of faith” – a 125ft-high dive off a building, with no ropes or cables. “The stunt guys hadn’t been in a film for so long where they were allowed to do stunts,” says Kurzel. These days, they’re usually in air-conditioned studios in front of a green screen.
It has been a dizzying ascent for Kurzel. Five years ago he turned heads and stomachs with his debut, Snowtown, the story of a real-life Australian serial killer that made Silence Of The Lambs look like The Sound Of Music. After that came a visceral Macbeth, led by Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, his two leads on Assassin’s Creed. In the short space of three films, the 42-year-old finds himself at the wheel of a reportedly $200m juggernaut. “My career is so odd,” he admits.
Fassbender was instrumental to Kurzel’s progress. The two first met for a beer around the time of Snowtown, almost like a blind date. They clearly hit it off. “I knew as soon as we sat down that he was someone I really wanted to work with,” Kurzel says. “We had 101 questions for each other, similar passions for performance and editing.” This sort of thing doesn’t usually happen in the movie world, he stresses.
A year later, Kurzel was offered Macbeth and, when he heard Fassbender was involved, he said yes. Fassbender was then recruited by Ubisoft for Assassin’s Creed, as lead actor and co-producer. He again approached Kurzel, who again agreed, despite his unfamiliarity with the source material. “The last video game I played was Double Dragon as a kid, in an arcade, trying to pick up a girl.” (The 1994 movie of Double Dragon, incidentally, is next-level atrocious).
Kurzel had his reservations. His career was on a pretty respectable trajectory, he had his own stories to tell, plus there was The Curse. But Fassbender made the movie sound less like Mario Brothers and more like Brazil or The Matrix.
“I got hooked on it,” Kurzel says. “The way he started talking about it – in terms of genetic memory, the notion that we are informed by the experiences of our ancestors, whether violence is learned or innate, the nature of free will – was much deeper than I was expecting. The discussions we had on this film were so much broader and richer than the ones I had on Macbeth. Really!”
The premise of Assassin’s Creed, movie and game, is that human DNA is a sort of ancestral browsing history, through which it’s possible to access the experiences of your forebears in real time, almost like time travel. Fassbender’s character is descended from one of the original 15th-century Assassins, who fight for free will. Their enemies, the Templars, seek control and order. This secret battle has played out across history, hence the numerous, sequel-friendly editions of the game. So, in the movie’s 15th-century timeline, the Templars are leading the Spanish Inquisition. In its modern-day setting, they’re funding medical research to identify the gene for violence, and thus “cure” humanity. To this aim, they send Fassbender back into his ancestor’s consciousness in a Matrix-like contraption named the Animus, to locate some all-important artefact called the Apple Of Eden.
Of course it’s far-fetched, Kurzel admits. “You’re in an entertaining world and you’re dreaming big, but there’s a plausibility there I can get my head round.” Scientists claim to have identified “warrior” genes linked to human violence, for example, he says. He talks of deja vu, instinct, evolution, people being able to pick up a violin for the first time and play it fluently.
Brutality and heredity seem to have been recurring themes in Kurzel’s work. “I’ve become quite self-conscious about the darkness of the films I’ve done,” he says. Snowtown’s psychopath was a father figure to his teen accomplice – a nature v nurture experiment, you could say. Macbeth deals with predestination, inheritance and tribal violence.
In person, though, there’s nothing sinister about Kurzel. He’s charming and thoughtful. He describes his childhood as “pretty fantastic” but admits, “I had a very fractured relationship with my father where I spent the whole time trying desperately to understand who the fuck he was.” He’d love to go back in his own Animus and find out.
Yet he’s wary of the possibilities presented in his film. Ideas of genetic “predisposition” can be used to malevolent means, he agrees, such as labelling people as potential criminals before they’ve committed a crime. “If suddenly we can see our future laid out in front of us then that becomes very bland and very dangerous. I love the opposite: I love the idea of having a closer connection with your past – to lead you towards some kind of destiny. I think the mystery of the future and the uncertainty of fate is what drives us as humans.”
Is it Kurzel’s destiny to break the video game curse? The answer lies not in his genes or his ancestors but how well he’s played the game. He’s got this far. Now it’s up to the two-headed Beast of Audience.
Assassin’s Creed is out on New Year’s Day
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010