Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Review
The summer blockbuster season of 2010 has so far given us three historically-themed adventures: Clash of the Titans, Robin Hood and now Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time - clearly the first in a hoped-for franchise. It has been my (dubious?) good furtune to have reviewed all three titles for this site, and if you’ve read those earlier reviews, or seen the films for yourself, you’ll know that the first two were not exactly shining examples of their genre. But I went in to Prince of Persia hoping it might be third time lucky. After all, it has a good director – Mike ”Four Weddings and a Funeral” Newell – as well as the producing muscle of Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney behind it, bankrollers of the very enjoyable first Pirates of the Caribbean movie (OK, and the wearisome sequels as well, but we’ll try and forget them).
Prince of Persia is of course based on the long-running computer game franchise. Having long been retired from the computer game scene, my only knowledge of Prince of Persia comes from playing one of its oldest incarnations from the early 90s. If memory serves me correctly, it won plaudits for its playability and slick graphics – the movement of the main character jumping from ledge to ledge was terribly lifelike (well, as lifelike as it could be back then). This new film is based on one of its later sequels, but the story is still familiar – lots of jumping around in the air searching for objects with magical powers (much like many other computer games, then).
Movies based on computer games have not had a happy history where Hollywood adaptations are concerned. And sad to say, Prince of Persia does little to buck that trend. As with most other computer game adaptations, the origins of the story are all too perceptible, and that’s a problem when the source material is as narratively flimsy as a computer game. If recreating the game experience was the intention, then the film is successful: the story stops and starts just as if you were progressing from Level 1 to Level 2, with plot exposition spouted whilst the game loads in the background. In the recent remake of Clash of the Titans, it fell to Gemma Arterton to hurriedly explain the plot inbetween action scenes. Unfortunately for her, she’s back here doing it all over again, helpfully telling the audience about the terrible spiky demon protecting the thingamajig that the Prince (Jake Gyllenhaal) needs to get to once they’ve got through the next sacred place (there are quite a few sacred places in Persia, apparently).
In common with Clash of the Titans and Robin Hood, there is strong evidence of a drawn-out editing process that has resulted in narrative confusion (suggested also by the presence of three editors in the final credits). Characters come and go quite randomly; at one point I’m pretty sure Arterton’s character had given Prince Jake the slip, yet they are re-united in the very next scene (if I missed something, do let me know). The odd line is spoken when the character’s lips aren’t moving, and the big action scenes feel uneven and rushed. The result, inevitably, is audience apathy.
Some effort has gone in to making the story more cinematic. The relationship between Princess Tamina (Arterton) and Dastan (Gyllenhaal) is of the traditional screwball variety, all bickering at first which then slowly gives way to understanding, respect, and finally love. Sadly there are no real zingers in the dialogue, and the scenes between them have the feel of treading water before the next jumping about scene comes along. Newell’s direction offers up a few good-looking shots, but the fast-paced editing gives the audience little chance to soak up any atmosphere. Oddly, though most of the special effects are fine, several scenes feel quite artificial and stagebound. Whether this was a deliberate attempt to evoke the Hollywood fantasies from the 1930s or 40s or not, I'm uncertain.
The script doesn't give the cast a great deal to do. As Tamina, Arterton isn’t too bad, looking and sounding quite like a young Rachel Weisz (no bad thing in itself). This, combined with the desert backdrop, frequently brought to mind the recent Brendan Fraser-starring Mummy films, the tone of which Prince of Persia seeks to emulate (one brief scene in a harem is even swiped from 2002 Mummy spin-off The Scorpion King) but struggles to match. Gyllenhaal is certainly not as charming as Fraser, being too blank-faced and devoid of the lantern-jawed matinee hero swagger that Fraser so easily employed. His accent is also a bit “Cor blimey, guv’nor!” which may well match the English tones of the rest of the cast, but is if anything even more distracting than a regular Hollywood accent in a production like this. Alfred Molina basically plays the comedy Arab, a role previously essayed by Omid Djalili in the 1999 Mummy film to much the same effect, but he does at least raise the odd smile. Ben Kingsley on the other hand seems pretty uninterested in the whole thing, being barely cutthroat enough to steal a school child’s lunch money, let alone convince as the villain of the piece.
In the last 30 minutes the pace finally settles down and the film becomes properly enjoyable, the indifference of before being replaced by some decent action. But the lack of spectacle and emotion preceding it has already taken its toll, and the end is quite welcome once it arrives. As with Robin Hood, and to a lesser extent Clash of the Titans, it’s not that Prince of Persia is a bad or dull film, it’s just plain mediocre. You’ll watch it and possibly even enjoy it a bit, but you’ll be hard pressed to say it was actually any good.