Movies based off of video games have a sour history. While there have been a few here and there that made decent money (such as Resident Evil and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) there’s yet to be one that really crosses over and is generally considered to be a good film. Some passed for a mindless entertainment at best but most were just painful. With mega producer Jerry Bruckheimer behind the scenes and Disney footing the bill Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time set out to finally break the losing streak. Did they succeed? Not really, but it’s a definite improvement.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time takes place during the height of the Persian Empire’s power. The beloved king has three sons, two biological as well as his adopted son Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal of Brothers.) Dastan had been an orphan on the street when the king had seen a special kind courage in him and taken the young ruffian in as his own. Following the sacking of the holy city of Alamut, Dastan claims an unusual dagger as his prize for helping to topple the fortified city. However his triumph is short lived when the king is murdered and Dastan is accused of being the killer. Forced to flee for his life Dastan finds himself on the run with Tamina (Gemma Arterton of Clash of the Titans) the princess of Alamut in tow. Tamina concern though is not for Dastan, but for the dagger he carries. Within the dagger are a small amount of the fabled Sands of Time which can actually turn back time. The bickering duo soon find themselves with a price on their head and deadly assassins on their trail. With the legendary weapon in hand the pair set out to uncover and foil a plot which will put the entire Persian Empire, maybe even the world at risk.
There’s been much talk of the casting of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time being rather ethnically inappropriate. While it is rather odd that the entire cast are either British or at least sporting English accents that’s not a debate I intend to tackle here. This is quite a different role for Jake Gyllenhaal, he’s usually cast in brooding or moody parts and this is a rather pleasant change of pace for him. In addition to bulking up somewhat for the athletic role he shows an impressive amount of charisma which is vital for a part like this. That charisma saves the role because the character is somewhat lacking in personality, overall just fitting a rather generic “hero” mold. Gemma Arterton doesn’t work quite as well in her role as Tamina unfortunately. While she’s undeniably beautiful there’s a hard edge to her part that doesn’t quite work. One suspects that the intention was for a Princess Leia style fiestiness but it comes off more as bratty much of the time. The cast supporting these two is fairly strong, with veteran Ben Kingsley (Shutter Island) throwing his weight around as a trusted royal adviser. Undoubtedly though it is Alfred Molina (Spider-man 2) who’s having the most fun as an unscrupulous low level criminal. Molina and his knife throwing cohort (Steve Toussaint of The Mutant Chronicles) are actually the most enjoyable aspect of the entire film, bringing a sense of light heartedness that tends to come and go whenever they aren’t on screen.
Directorial duties on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was taken up by Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.) His experience in dealing with special effects was clearly a help here as the numerous special effects manage to never overshadow the story or feel overly phony. Newell also is able to bring a nice sense of scale to the film, both of the Persian Empire as a whole and to individual action beats. Of course any Bruckheimer produced film thrives on spectacle and there is plenty on display here. The stunt work (both acrobatics and fight choreography) is impressive, though sadly not always shot in a way that it can be truly appreciated (I’ll get back to this later.) There’s definitely a sense of fun to the film overall but it’s not quite as easy to get wholly wrapped up in as it wants to be.
With Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time the team of Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney seemed very much to be trying to recapture the swashbuckling fun of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. All the pieces are there: charismatic lead, beautiful love interest, amazing stunts, top tier effects work, and an epic story. However it never quite comes together as well as it should, it’s all a little too manufactured, a little too generic. Possibly the biggest problem is the way the action is cut together. Like most modern action films the cuts come quickly and often. While it’s never so bad that the action is difficult to follow it does rather badly undermine the great stunt work on display. Looking back at old classics of this genre (such as the Douglas Fairbanks Sinbad movies) the stunts of jumping between buildings or swinging across ropes were shot wide so the whole stunt could be viewed and appreciated. When these same stunts are cut together rapidly it takes the reality of the stunt away (which is a shame because many of the stunts were done for real) and what should be a thrilling chase or fight loses its impact. There’s also a rather generic sense to the hero’s journey. Like many fantasy themed films it defaults to a vague notion of destiny rather than actually give the hero a path of his own to take. The writers seem to be using notions of destiny in place of properly motivating the characters at times.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time brings a higher level of talent than has ever been brought onto a video game movie. That talent both in front of and behind the camera does manage to raise the bar on what a video game movie can be. However while this is the new high mark it’s still lacking in many areas. This film wasn’t able to overcome the fundamental problem of adapting video games: generic characters and story. That’s not meant as a criticism of video games, most of them have somewhat generic characters and plots for a reason. What gets gamers wrapped up in a game is how it plays, the interaction they have with the world and it’s inhabitants. However once that level of interaction is removed what’s left behind isn’t usually all that special because what makes it unique (i.e. interactivity) is now gone. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is still a decent way to kill a night at the movies but it can’t overcome it’s own cliches.
Final Score: 3 out of 5