Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is an exceedingly simply story told amidst a wealth of complicated stunt work and impressive special effects, which is basically a fancy way of saying that it’s thin on premise but an absolute pleasure to look at. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad movie, although it does prevent me from appreciating it as anything more than an action spectacle – exempting a few weak references to recent political events, which I’m sure the intended family audiences will not pick up on. To be fair, it is based on a video game, and video games generally don’t go above and beyond the razzle-dazzle of their graphics or the cool maneuvers players use for the characters. And I admit that, as video game adaptations go, it’s quite entertaining. A bit derivative perhaps, and certainly slow in gaining momentum, but in the end, it’s still entertaining.
The setting is a fantastical representation of the sixth century Persian Empire, where vast stretches of desert separate kingdoms of flat rooftops and ornate palaces towering sky high. The protagonist is Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), drawn from elements of every Arabian archetype from Abu the Thief to Aladdin to Sinbad to Ali Baba; he was an orphaned street urchin before being adopted by King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), who was impressed by his display of courage in the face of certain death. After fifteen years of loyalty and bravery, Dastan is framed by his wicked uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) for an exceptionally heinous crime, forcing him to make an acrobatic escape from the city. You know the kind of escape I’m talking about; it involves impossible stunts and a generous donation from the special effects department.
Why was Dastan framed? Here enters Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), whose peaceful kingdom was invaded by Sharaman’s army on the belief that dangerous weapons were being concealed for sinister purposes. (Do I sense a connection to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the fruitless search for WMDs?) Tamina is the keeper of the film’s MacGuffin: The Dagger of Time, an ancient knife with magical sand swirling in its glass hilt. If the jewel atop the dagger is pressed, the person holding it has the power to travel back a full minute in time, which is apparently just long enough for key characters to reverse fateful decisions and change the course of history. Were such a thing real, I’d probably have lots of fun with it.
But for Tamina, it’s serious business. The sand in the hilt is linked to a massive underground crystal that, if cracked open, could unleash a destructive force the likes of which no one has ever experienced. It’s up to Tamina and Dastan to return the dagger to its rightful place, restore peace between their respective kingdoms, and stop Nizam before he has the chance to alter the past.
Perhaps it’s the mystical nature of the dagger that gives me pause, especially in relation to the underground crystal with which it’s linked. This dagger, shiny and exotic, manipulates time under rules that seemed straightforward enough until they were obscured by events near the end of the film, events that shock us into believing they were clever when it fact they were merely the result of a narrative copout. Something within me is intrinsically resistant to stories involving time travel, for they can be anything at any time with no regard for structure, sequence, or even basic applications of logic. What we get from the end of Prince of Persia is not the tying of loose ends so much as an exercise in trickery, which is to say that, given what had gone on before, it cheats.
Perhaps I have reservations about the characters, who are decent enough within the context of the story but are hardly memorable in the grand scheme of things. That could have more to do with the actors. Gyllenhaal, despite being ripped and in command of a convincing British accent, plays Dastan so generically that the role could have been given to any leading male. Arterton is certainly beautiful, although it takes her too long to develop Tamina into anything worthwhile; for the first forty-five minutes of the film, I found her incredibly annoying, always with the smart aleck dialogue. And then there’s Alfred Molina as the obligatory yet distracting comedy relief – a money-grubber who created an isolationist community to avoid paying taxes. Who knew Objectivism stretched all the way back to the sixth century?
Seriously though, what does all this amount to? Like so many summer popcorn flicks that have come before it, it amounts to a superficial but enjoyable experience at the movies. While Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time lacks any real importance, it does hold its own as a showcase of visual delights, so yes, I’m going to recommend it for sheer cinematic escapism. You want CGI? You’ve got CGI. You want stunts? You’ve got stunts. You want Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ve got Jake Gyllenhaal. Perhaps it was too much to hope for a masterpiece, although I do find myself thinking of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which proved that supernatural artifacts, exotic locations, heroes, villains, and plenty of action all in the same movie can be both preposterous and brilliant. I have reservations, but I can’t deny that I liked what I saw.