Film & TV

Assassin’s Creed: a film confused by its Gnostic roots

Part of my occasional series on mystical and gnostic themes in Film & TV. The film adaptation of the Ubisoft game Assassin’s Creed had some intriguing possibilities in its mythology so I checked it out. There’s a lot of hoo-ha around the problem of video games making bad movies and many people were optimistic about this film breaking that streak. I don’t care about that – I’m not a gamer and haven’t played the game. Unfortunately, the film might have made more sense if I had.

The games use the same set up as the film but with a different protagonist and various storylines that explore different historical eras. So you get to run around killing people while you learn about history. Violent and educational!

Aguila and Maria
Aguila and Maria of the Assassins

Assassin’s Creed is enjoyably kinetic and dynamic – bouncing back and forth between the present day and 15th century Spain. The protagonist is violent murderer, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), who is saved from execution by scientist, Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), who works for Abstergo Industries at their research facility in Madrid.

Abstergo is a front for the Templars – a Masonic-style organisation dedicated to the ‘perfection of humankind,’ which they intend to achieve by controlling humanity’s free will. To do this, they need to find an ancient magical artefact called the Apple of Eden which holds the genetic key to free will. The Templar organisation have long been at war with another group called the Assassins, who fight to protect humanity from the Templars and their zany schemes.

(I know – it’s silly, but stay with me…)

Cal wakes up at Abstergo with Sophia
Cal wakes up at Abstergo with Sophia

Sophia has discovered a way to extract memories from an individual’s DNA using a machine called the Animus which allows a person to relive moments from the lives of their ancestors. Sophia intends to use Callum’s memories to find the Apple of Eden because his ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha, was the last Assassin known to have had the Apple.

The Apple of Eden is, of course, a MacGuffin.

So Callum is plugged into the Animus – and the fun starts. I could go into vast and excruciating detail about how the Animus works – the regressions, the brain synchronisation, and so on, but it doesn’t really matter. All you need to know is that the Animus is a kind of prehensile robotic arm that supports the ‘regressee’ and allows them to move around, climb the walls, spin, jump and fight. It’s pretty cool.

cal-rides-the-animus
Cal rides the Animus
*From this point on, expect SPOILERS!*

The emotional core of the film is Cal’s journey from an angry, violent loner who doesn’t believe in anything, to finding his place within a Brotherhood of shared belief and meaning. He grew up without a family after his father killed his mother. The murder was committed to protect the Creed – Cal’s parents were also Assassins – but his mother chose to die rather than fall into the hands of the Templars.

This highlights the key themes of the film – aggression and free will – and is where things begin to unravel, philosophically speaking.

The Assassin’s Creed iteration of the Templar organisation isn’t religious – the Catholic faith may have worked as a tool for control back in the Middle Ages, but the world has moved on. These days, consumerism works better. However, Ellen Kaye (Charlotte Rampling), a high-ranking Templar, admits people don’t really want freedom, they seem content just buying stuff. The real problem is violence, and to eliminate that and bring peace to earth, they need to control free will. If they succeed, they’ll reduce humanity to docile, obedient creatures (and destroy the Assassins, their only opposition) and then rule the world like gods.

alan-rikkin-holds-the-apple
Alan Rikkin has delusions of grandeur – probably

The Templar plan is incoherent for two reasons. First, it’s not clear how free will is connected to aggression. Human beings are inherently violent, it’s part of our natural animal inheritance. But we also have the capacity to think and rationalise our behaviour, and the free will to choose to change that behaviour. Surely, if you eliminated our free will, we’d be even more violent.

It seems what the Templars are really after is a lobotomised humanity. In the film, we’re shown the after-effects of what can happen when a person fails to synchronise with the Animus: they’re blank and listless, eyes clouded – perhaps blind. We’ll return to this idea later because it has gnostic implications.

cal-doesnt-get-religion
Cal doesn’t hold with all that religious stuff, thank you very much

Second, the problem of genetic memories and inheritance. It’s an interesting idea and a useful plot device, but it undermines the premise of the film. Cal is a violent individual, haunted by images that he obsessively draws in his room at the facility. He doesn’t understand why his life has been so blighted by violence – it’s suggested that he only kills people who “deserve it” because he killed a pimp – but it starts to make sense when he meets his ancestor and relives the violent memories of his past.

According to Sophia, Cal is living proof that violence is hereditary. Not only is this bad (old) science, it underscores how much he isn’t free. Cal isn’t choosing to be violent through the force of his free will. He has no apparent control over his violent tendencies. He’s a weapon that just needs a reason to be wielded – and the Templars give him that reason by re-introducing him to the Assassins.

Sophia tells Cal he’s not a prisoner at the facility, so he could leave (doubtful, in fact, because he has to fight his way out in the end). He chooses to stay because he wants to understand who he is. And according to the science in the film, he’s a slave to his violent genes.

Genetics isn’t that deterministic but, you know, Hollywood…

aguilar-joins-the-assassins
Aguilar joins the Assassins

This linking of free will and aggression causes a deeper problem – it guts the film of meaning and leaves it feeling a bit hollow because of the effect it has on the Creed of the title:

“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”

This statement is the Assassin’s creed – their motto. In the games it takes on multiple meanings and acts as a reminder that we can’t know everything – life is inherently mysterious and uncertain so we must exercise wisdom and discernment in order to think for ourselves, rather than blindly follow the rules.

The film ties free will to aggression and genetics rather than thinking for yourself, which reduces the Assassin’s motto to fighting for the right to fight. There’s no indication of what they’re fight for in the long run so it begins to look and sound like anarchy and nihilism.

This is a shame because it’s unnecessary. In the games, the Apple is a magical artefact that confers god-like powers on whoever possesses it and allows them to control the minds of others, taking away their free will. In the game Assassin’s Creed 2 this is framed within the context of Catholicism and the Inquisition, who persecuted anybody who disagreed with them.

the-inquisitor-claims-the-apple
The Inquisitor claims the Apple

The film strips the religious ideas out and tries to ‘modernise’ the concept by making it about science instead, but it falls on its face because it makes no sense.

The Assassin’s noble cause is reduced to mindless fisticuffs – yes, they’re trying to stop the Templars, but to what end? In the games, it’s to preserve humanity’s right to think for themselves and discover who they really are, rather than have it dictated by the people in power over them.

In the film, it’s anybody’s guess. If the premise of the film made sense, the emotional core would carry more weight.

(Aside: perhaps this need to sidestep religion is more about avoiding the potential to cause offence to both Christianity and Islam. It’s hard to talk about the Crusades without people getting upset. There are already people who think the games are anti-Christian.)

Ultimately, the film isn’t about nihilism and mindless violence (despite there being plenty of it). Through his regressions in the Animus, Cal discovers that he’s bound to the Assassins by an oath. His nihilism and lack of faith in anything other than himself is transformed in his encounter with Aguilar. Perhaps there is something worth fighting for.

fassbender-fights
Aguila in action – Aaaghrrr! What am I fighting for?!

The real question is: who or what do your actions serve – yourself or something larger than yourself?

The Templars only seem interested in perpetuating their own power. They couldn’t care less about humanity. The Assassins claim to:

“Work in the dark to serve the light.”

What is the light they serve?

It isn’t the “Do what thou wilt” of the Thelemites (although that’s often misinterpreted too), but the “Love and do what you will” of St Augustine. But to understand that, we have to dig deeper into the gnostic context of the Assassins which is missing from the film, unless you know where to look.

aguilar-at-abstergo
Aguilar bleeds through into Abstergo

The Assassins of the game are a heavily fictionalised version of the Ismaili Hashshāshīn order that’s more philosophical than religious. The creed’s motto was supposedly said by Hassan i Sabbah, the founder of the Assassins, on his death bed.

In real life, Ismaili is one of the esoteric traditions within Islam, and was influenced by Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. It seeks gnosis (knowledge) and oneness of the human soul with God, which is achieved by using the mind to penetrate the mystery of the unknown through the symbolic language of analogy and metaphor which illuminate the truth. Human history is seen as cyclical and to discern the truth is to transcend time.

This is a long way from the film, but let’s see if we can find some gnostic symbolism in Assassin’s Creed.

First we need to tackle the Apple of Eden, which is presented with very little explanation. It’s clearly a high tech object, but where does it come from? I didn’t know until I looked it up in the game wiki.

behold-the-apple-of-eden
Behold! The Apple of Eden!

The Apple is one of several artefacts left behind by an ancient civilisation that controlled humanity and were seen as gods. They were overthrown and died out, leaving behind the Pieces of Eden artefacts that contain their power. Many of the artefacts are Christian symbols but the games give them a gnostic spin and subvert their meaning.

So the Apple of Eden is a symbol of humanity’s first transgression against the gods – not a sinful fall from grace, but the first act of disobedience (free will) that brought independence and freedom from the gods.

The Gnostics saw the God of the Old Testament as a kind of demonic being – a false god or Demiurge. So when Eve took the apple she was seeking gnosis, to free herself from enslavement to false gods.

I don’t know how the ultimate truth is presented in the games, but in gnosticism it’s the truth of humanity’s true nature as divine. So the Assassins work in the dark (killing) to serve the light (the spark of divinity in humanity).

Continuing the gnostic theme, the Templars are the Archons who serve the fake god and seek to impose order on humanity using the Apple to deny the truth. The Assassins want humanity to be free to discover the truth for themselves and are willing to die for that cause.

Cal’s father tells him that his blood doesn’t belong to him – his life is not his own. He’s bound to his fate, and his personal feelings and free will as an individual are secondary to the aims of the group to which he belongs – as seen when Cal’s mother chooses to die to protect the Creed. It’s mirrored again by Aguilar’s partner in the Assassins, Maria, who chooses to die rather than allow the Apple to fall into the hands of the Inquisition.

maria-and-aguila
Bound by more than the Creed?

Although the film says that “love makes us weak,” it shows characters forgoing personal love to serve a higher love: for the Brotherhood and humanity. The creed put themselves to one side to serve the light, and so transcend ego.

This is the real meaning of freedom and free will. Only when your actions are guided by the divine spark within are you truly free.

If you say, “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted” from the level of ego, you’ll have a world of trouble, karma and consequences – like Cal before he meets his ancestor, Aguila.

A big feature of the games is the Leap of Faith where the protagonist takes a dive from a high vantage point. This represents an existential crisis, a leap into the unknown in search of gnosis. In the film, Sophia encourages Cal to jump, and he eventually breaks free of the Animus. To escape the facility, he climbs up the arm of the Animus to the glass dome above his head and punches his way out, reminding me of the Flammarion engraving and the quest to escape the crystal sphere.

cal-lands-in-the-animus
In the grip of matter

The Gnostics saw reality as illusory and felt trapped in a soulless world devoid of meaning. The quest to escape and break free of the death grip of matter is the quest for gnosis. To fail in this quest is to remain blind to the truth and lost in the world, like the Assassins who were broken by the Animus in the film.

nothing-is-true-everything-is-permittedThe games also feature an eagle and we see one in the film several times. This represents the mind and imagination soaring over the world, free from the constraints of matter and death.

Finally, in the name of the scientist, Sophia, we have a link to the Gnostic representation of wisdom. She’s one of the Aeons, an emanation of God, who accidentally created the Demiurge, who then went on to create the world and believes himself to be the one and only God.

In one tradition, it was Sophia’s desire to know the unknowable that caused her fall into matter and create the ignorant Demiurge. But the original spark of spirit (the pneuma) is still present in everything he creates. So Sophia is the divine spark in every human soul.

sophia-and-her-father
Sophia and her father, Alan Rikkin

In the film, there’s some tension between Sophia and her father. She appears more interested in gaining knowledge than in the Templar plan to dominate the world. In a sense, the world is Sophia and she’s lost in her own dream, trying to wake up by seeking knowledge through the human mind.

At the end of the film, when her father is killed by Cal, she says, “I did this” – connecting her with Eve’s original temptation to seek knowledge, and its cost. But perhaps it also expresses her culpability for causing the world to come into being in the first place – the endless battle over gnosis is her doing, but only her wisdom can stop it.

Well, I enjoyed the film despite the philosophical wrinkles. Having never played the games, the visuals were new to me, the leap of faith was impressive, and the costumes and music were great. The dialogue could have been better, but the parkour was fantastic.

Watch the end of Assassin’s Creed 2 here: the Apple makes its appearance at around 12 mins and then Ezio beats up the Pope (!) before finding out what the real power behind the Apple is. If you want to watch the whole game from the start: begin here!

Images: 20th Century Fox

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3 thoughts on “Assassin’s Creed: a film confused by its Gnostic roots

  1. I enjoyed reading this post very much. I was familiar with the games but hadn’t played any of it; I liked the movie quite a bit in terms of entertainment and….Jeremy Irons. I hadn’t bothered to think about the film critically, though, so I appreciate what you’ve brought up here.

    Liked by 1 person

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