Prince of Persia makes you want to stop time and escape the theater
A few years after successfully adapting a theme park ride into a summer blockbuster with Pirates of the Caribbean, producer Jerry Bruckheimer has turned his attention to video games, but unfortunately he has forgotten to include some drama. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time isn’t a particularly unpleasant way to kill one’s time, but it’s as pointless and dramatically inert as any film in memory.
The film is set in sixth-century Persia, where a street urchin named Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) is adopted into the royal family as a child after King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) sees an impressive display of Dastan’s bravery in the city square. He joins a royal family that includes the king’s two real sons, Tus (Richard Coyle), and Garsiv (Tony Kebbell), and the king’s brother, Nizam (Ben Kingsley).
Kingsley does enough sneering that it becomes obvious pretty quickly that he will be the villain of the piece. The three brothers lead an invasion of the holy city of Alamut under false pretenses after Nizam provides faulty information saying that the city was supplying Persia’s enemies with weapons (they’re looking for WMDs, get it?).
Once Alamut has been conquered, Dastan meets Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), who is the guardian of the mystical Dagger of Time. Pressing a button on the hilt of the dagger (a nod to the video game, perhaps) releases a magic sand that allows he who wields the dagger to turn back time. Dastan discovers that Nizam wants the dagger so he can erase Sharaman’s bloodline and become king himself. After the king is killed, Dastan is framed for it and goes on the run with Tamina in the hope that the two can get the dagger back to its rightful resting place before Nizam misuses it and destroys the world.
Gyllenhaal isn’t the first person that comes to mind when I envision the Prince of Persia, but he doesn’t seem out of place here, since the movie shows us that ancient Persia was chock full of white folks, mostly Brits like Kingsley and Alfred Molina who have dyed their beards black. And since British is the preferred accent in movies for any type of “foreigners,” Gyllenhaal speaks in an odd, wavering lilt that doesn’t quite reach Britain, but perhaps floats somewhere over the mid-Atlantic.
But Gyllenhaal, with his bulging biceps and greasy mop, is amiable enough as the lead. Much like the rest of the movie, Gyllenhaal’s performance is unmemorable but inoffensive. Arterton’s character, on the other hand, is more petulant and annoying than brassy and feisty, but that is more the script’s fault than her own.
The supporting characters are a little more colorful. Kingsley is exactly as nasty as we expect him to be, but the best thing about the film is Molina, a shady “entrepreneur” who hates Persia’s taxes (again with the political messages), and wants to keep all the money he makes from the ostrich races he stages. Molina gets all the movie’s best lines and manages to find the life and wit in his character that the other actors couldn’t.
Rarely have I seen a movie that was so dramatically inert. There’s nothing overtly terrible about the movie, but we’ve seen everything here—the mystical artifact that must be returned to its source, the comic-relief sidekick, the lovers who start out hating each other but grow to love one another--done before and done far better. We’ve seen so many different versions of this story that it’s virtually certain we won’t be surprised, and the film does nothing to break our expectations. These clichés just sit there on the screen, and the film feels utterly bloodless—which is appropriate, I guess, for a PG-13 Disney film that features dozens of oddly sanitary deaths by sword.
The film was directed by Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, Four Weddings and a Funeral), who has done a good job with big effects films before, turning in one of the better Harry Potter films with Goblet of Fire. Here, though, he turns everything into a brown mush. The film heavily features Dastan doing parkour, or the ancient Persian equivalent—i.e., jumping off roofs, climbing walls and overcoming other obstacles—which was one of the chief charms of the games. The stunt work is good, and the film is well photographed by cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient), but Newell cuts the action so much that you can’t really tell what’s going on. The elegance and grandeur of the stunts is turned into chop suey.
The film’s script, written by Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard, doesn’t help anything to make more sense. The movie often fails to make sense on a moment-to-moment basis, but the filmmakers hope that the constant motion will cause us to ignore any plot holes. Worse, though, is the fact that there never seem to be any dramatic stakes in the movie, and when time travel is introduced as a plot device, meaning that anything bad can merely be erased, it makes what we’re seeing all seem that much more inconsequential. And when it starts to seem that the story will hinge on large parts of the plot being erased, we start to envy the characters. They won’t have to remember all of this.
If merely not being offended is a sufficient criterion to get you to see a film, then Prince of Persia will not disappoint, because the movie is too goofy and amiable to inspire hatred. But the fact that so many people spent so much time and money to produce this dead fish is astounding. It may be a handsomely produced conglomeration of special effects, but as a piece of storytelling it has absolutely no pulse. Video games may not be high art, but they at least give you the thrill of participation.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org