Michael Fassbender is not a big video game guy – at least not anymore.
In his younger days, the actor remembers coming home from a night job unloading boxes in a warehouse and playing one particular racing game. "I'd get obsessive about it and sit there for six hours straight," Fassbender said recently by phone from Australia, where he is currently shooting the next film in the "Alien" franchise. "I decided it wasn't the best thing for me to have around."
When the French video game developer Ubisoft approached Fassbender a few years ago about signing on to a film adaptation of its popular game series "Assassin's Creed," he knew next to nothing about the game, which blends history, parkour-style action, sci-fi, conspiracy theories and, as the title suggests, a whole lot of stealthy killing. "I hadn't played it," said the actor. "I was totally ignorant."
Suffice it to say, he's learned a lot since then.
On Dec. 21, 20th Century Fox will release its big-screen take on "Assassin's Creed," with Fassbender starring as Callum Lynch, an alienated, violent drifter who discovers that he is descended from a 15th century Spanish assassin named Aguilar. Recruited (kidnapped is more like it) by a corporation called Abstergo Industries, Lynch taps into his ancestral memories via a device called the Animus to gain the know-how to fight the Assassins' age-old nemeses, the Templars, in a battle for the future of humanity.
"Callum doesn't belong to anything, doesn't have a family," Fassbender said of the character, who is different from the original games' main protagonist, a young bartender named Desmond Miles. "We thought it would be interesting to have somebody that was disconnected be faced with what it means to join something so sacrificial."
With their rabid built-in fan bases, fast-paced action and often complex mythologies, video games have often been alluring fodder for movie adaptations. "Assassin's Creed" is one of four hitting theaters this year, along with "Ratchet and Clank," "The Angry Birds Movie" and "Warcraft," and many more are in the pipeline. (Among other projects, Ubisoft's film division is also developing an adaptation of its "Splinter Cell" game series, with actor Tom Hardy attached to star.)
Translating the interactive gaming experience into the medium of narrative film, though, is a tricky piece of business. For every commercial success like "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" or the "Resident Evil" series, there are a whole lot of forgettable duds like "Doom" and "Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li." But Ubisoft and Fox, which will release the first trailer for "Assassin's Creed" on Wednesday, are bullish on the film, and plans are already in the works for an ongoing franchise.
"Assassin's Creed," which jumps back and forth in time between the present day and the Spanish Inquisition, is attempting a tricky balancing act – simultaneously treating the game that inspired it with what Fassbender, who is also producing the film, calls "a healthy dose of respect and disrespect."
On the one hand, the movie is trying to capture what hard-core gamers have loved about the many "Assassin's Creed" games, which have sold more than 80 million copies and spawned a number of spinoff comics and novels. On the other, it's trying to tell an engrossing original story that stands on its own even if you've never even laid a finger on a game controller. (With Fassbender and costars Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons, it's safe to say the "Assassin's Creed" cast boasts more Oscar nominations and wins than any previous video game adaptation.)
Like Fassbender, director Justin Kurzel had never played the game before signing on to the project. Nor, for that matter, had the Australian filmmaker – who previously directed Fassbender and Cotillard in last year's "Macbeth" – ever made a film on this scale, with this degree of action, special effects and stunt work. "That's probably what attracted me to it – how frightening it was," he said by last week phone from London, where he is in postproduction on the film, which cost more than $150 million to produce.
Rather than try to replicate the first-person gaming experience with filmmaking gimmickry, Kurzel locked into the characters and the narrative, exploring the idea of genetic memory as well as the rich, volatile history of the Spanish Inquisition.
"I spent most of my time with the story and the real history," said Kurzel. "That was my main focus – not so much forensically going through every aspect of the game. It was: How do you make this into a piece of cinema?"
If "Assassin's Creed" works on those cinematic terms – and, of course, on box-office terms – the plan is to follow it with sequels that will roam through history like the game series, which has ventured into such periods as the Crusades, the Renaissance, the American Colonial era and the French Revolution.
"The possibilities are kind of endless," said Kurzel. "When we've been discussing where you could take it, you're not sitting around twiddling your thumbs."
"That's what's so intriguing for people who love that universe," said Fassbender, who says the arc of a potential "Assassin's Creed" trilogy has already been sketched out. "I was talking to a friend recently and he said he was talking to his 14-year-old son about going away on a long weekend together. He said, 'Where do you want to go?' and his son said, 'I want to go to Florence.' He wanted to check out the city because of the game."