The good news is that Assassin's Creed is probably the most stylish video game adaptation ever, for what that's worth. As you may have heard, movies based on video games sometimes aren't very good. So the bar for Ass. Creed to stand out was in fact quite low. But still, let's not get to pissing on it right away: director Justin Kurzel and his crew have come up with some generally interesting ideas for how to stage the action and how to blur the film's two parallel chronologies.

The plot hook, you see, is that that the bad guys have a machine called Animus that allows anyone plugged into it to enter the consciousness of a direct ancestor, as long as that ancestor's DNA can be scraped up in some way. To visualize this, Kurzel & company do a few different things: one is the have all of the trips into the Animus start with a monumental CGI-aided plunge from the clouds down to the streets of a city in Granada, Spain in 1492, the camera floating around like a high-speed ghost until it arrives at the ancestor in question. Another is to have the modern-day Animus user vaguely perceive the space around him even while he's in the memory, leading to several shots of Michael Fassbender (for he is our main star, though that seems like an unsporting thing to point out) pantomiming hand-to-hand combat as he's suspended in mid-air, with wraith-like representations of the past foggily appearing and disappearing in the sleek industrial space of the Animus. It is absolutely and undoubtedly cool, and highlights some of the better visual effects of the year.

Also, it is more or less the only idea that Kurzel ever comes up with. Between Andy Nicholson's production design and Adam Arkapaw's cinematography, the best we can say about Ass. Creed is that it's somewhat banal in its visual associations: smooth lines and blue tinting in the Animus facility, chunks of brown crap shot with blown-out whites in 1492 Spain. The worst we can say is that it's profoundly ugly, coated in a layer of digital grit that gets into everything and leaves the whole movie feeling peculiarly unswept. Only the cross-cutting between past and present in the action sequences adds much of a personality to the film. Which would be fine and all, except it happens every single time, and it's the only real flourish anywhere in Christopher Tellefsen's editing or Kurzel's visual treatment of the fights, so even the thing that the film gets best of all still ends up being boring and repetitive when all is said and done.

There are undoubtedly worse video game adaptations; but why bother clarifying that point? Ass. Creed is plenty bad in its own right and hardly deserves pity points. The story is a muddled disaster ("this section may be unclear or confusing to readers", says the film's Wikipedia synopsis as of 11 January, 2017, and for no worse sin than relaying the events of the film in the order they occur), but when you straighten it out, it proves to be almost embarrassingly simple: the evil people - the Knights Templar, though it's really just a generic EvilCo given an equally generic Secret Society origin story - want a magic doohickey, and evil CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) is going to be in hot water if he can't provide it. So he lies to the only man who can acquire it, Callum Lynch (Fassbender), using his daughter Sofia (Marion Cotillard) as his increasingly unwilling cat's paw. Callum eventually figures this out, and rounds up the rest of the human lab rats in EvilCo's clutches to help him fight back. It takes much too much effort to tease this out, not least because there's a whole other secret society, which is either called the Assassins, or the Assassin's Creed, or the Creed, depending on the scene, and the Assassins stand for free will and letting humanity tear itself apart if that's what free will means, while the Templars stand for eradicating free will to attain world peace. And all of this hinges on Callum learning from his long-dead ancestor Aguilar de Nerha's (Fassbender) resurrected memories where the Assassins hid the Apple of Eden, a glowing silver ball that is apparently also the Apple of the Eden.

None of that's wrong - it's a movie based on a video game, MacGuffins and fetch quests are part of the territory - but it's awfully damn convoluted for what amounts to a sci-fi Indiana Jones film. Even the central gimmick of the movie, the whole consciousness-swapping into a 15th Century Assassin's brain, doesn't end up yielding anything of value: since Callum is an entirely passive spectator to Aguilar's actions, it is basically a movie about watching somebody watching somebody else playing a video game. The evocation of medieval Spain isn't remotely interesting enough to justify the effort required to get us there, and that's in principle the whole reason the movie exists. The video game-style action sequences are given at least some juice by the cross-cutting, but that has the negative effect of making it harder to follow the narrative of the fights, and drawing attention to the generally unlikable "built in a computer" feel to everything that happens.

Into this messy swamp, Kurzel throws a preposterously over-qualified cast: besides Fassbender and Cotillard in the lead roles, and Irons's substantial supporting part, Charlotte Rampling and Brendan Gleeson get expanded cameos, and there are some solid character actors hiding among Callum's fellow prisoners. I won't say that any of them humiliate themselves, but Rampling is the only human in the whole cast who's in any way good, playing the Queen of the Templars, or some such thing, with peremptory authoritarian cruelty. Fassbender appears to be hunting for some deep character arc involving the ghosts of the past that never materialises, and Cotillard is utterly lost with a total nothing of a role (I think she tries to make sense of it by assuming that Sofia is sexually attracted to Callum, and that's not not in the screenplay). It's all very tedious, and only a little bit exciting when Spanish Fassbender gets to swing his wrist daggers around; good enough to put it over the likes of Super Mario Bros. or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, but I can't even bring myself to believe that it's the best video game movie of 2016.