Prince of Persia Movie Review: The Gamer's Perspective

by Matt Miller on May 28, 2010 at 12:00 PM

Video game movies have a bad reputation. With few exceptions, the adaptations that have made it to the big screen are low on budget, talent, and faithfulness to the source material. That’s why Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has gotten so much attention in recent months. Big stars like Jake Gyllenhaal and Ben Kingsley, major production money that only someone like Bruckheimer can bring to the table, and the inclusion of series-creator Jordan Mechner in the equation have helped to assure that the film doesn’t suffer the same fate as its predecessors. With opening day upon us, do gamers finally have a film worth getting behind?

The short answer is yes. Prince of Persia is a summer popcorn movie through and through, with the kind of constantly churning action and melodrama that can put moviegoers in the seats and keep them there. It also shows a reverence for its source material, but stays free to do its own thing and tell its own tale. It’s rollicking, predictable, and more than a little silly. And it’s fun – always a priority for the gaming crowd.

The long answer has to start with the declaration that The Sands of Time is not the “change everything you thought you knew about video game movies” movie. But it’s a step in the right direction.

Bruckheimer’s trademark over-the-top craziness is in full effect throughout, accompanied by some smart directing from Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Like the Pirates of the Caribbean films, there’s a fantastical exaggeration and magic to the world. The high seas are replaced by rolling deserts, and dueling Persian scimitars replace dueling pirate rapiers. But both films shoot for the same aesthetic – effects-driven storytelling starring familiar character archetypes exhibiting such big emotions that you can’t miss them amid the carnage. Warm, yellowed light washes over the film’s grand Persian palaces and sweeping sand dunes, perfectly echoing the original games. The constant chase scenes are fun, and the free running does honor to the platforming excellence that made the game series so much fun in the first place. Even the audio has something that game fans should be excited about; Harry Gregson-Williams has garnered a fine discography of movie soundtracks, but he’s also the chief musician behind the Metal Gear Solid and Call of Duty 4 scores. The same soaring, heroic melodic style that filled those games drives the Prince of Persia movie.

Gyllenhaal’s Prince Dastan isn’t really a prince. At least he’s not at first. As the movie opens, a young Dastan is running and jumping his way through the streets of the Persian capital, apparently having picked up several of the more complicated tenets of parkour free running in his free time as an urchin. He stands up to a mean guard, which garners the attention of the king. In what is surely the most profound change of living situation imaginable, Dastan’s bravery nets him a declaration as the new prince, joining two natural-born sons of the king as a new brother. If that opening gives you an inkling that we may be playing around with a theme about making one’s own destiny, well, who am I to ruin the surprise?

Cut to a couple decades later, and grown-up Gyllenhaal and his brothers are ready to invade a holy city on some flimsy evidence that its inhabitants are into weapon smuggling. Their stoic uncle (Ben Kingsley), brother and advisor to the king, seems to be on board with the attack, so off they go. So begins a chain of events that has Dastan meeting up with the disagreeable but ravishing princess of the invaded city (Gemma Arterton), a secret time-altering dagger, and some internal family plots that send the two hapless leads on the run. If you haven’t guessed the big secret villain by the first time the character shows up on screen, you’re not paying attention.

Predictable yarn notwithstanding, the plot stands apart from recent big-budget properties with a coherent storyline that rockets through events at the same speed Dastan jumps between buildings. Despite the breakneck pace, game-playing fans of the franchise will pick up on the constant nods to the games that have been dropped in for our entertainment. Outfits echo familiar apparel from the games. The dagger works the way you remember, turning back time in a suitably impressive VFX sequence that even has familiar cords of orange energy curling up the prince’s arm. Dastan and Tamina snap at each other with the same witless will-they-won’t-they banter that characterized Prince and Farah’s relationship in the original Ubisoft game.

In the brief moments between fight and chase scenes, Gyllenhaal and Arterton turn in emotionally overwrought performances that are about as good as one can hope for amid such frenzied action. If the chemistry between the two doesn’t ever hit fevered pitch, at least they both look beautiful along the way. Gyllenhaal’s athleticism makes Dastan’s constant action scenes believable; great free running scenes frequently echo the exact animations from the games, and the result is equally thrilling. Arterton’s wide-eyed and breathless excitement as Tamina channels Princess Leia; it’s disappointing that the character is so helpless most of the time.

The rest of the cast is pushed to the periphery through most of the film. Kingsley seems as surprised as his character at the ridiculous action scenes into which he’s thrown. In one particularly amusing Bruckheimer moment, Kingsley’s Nizam character must walk across a courtyard. Loathe to break from the action, the scene’s simple crossing maneuver is accompanied by a slow motion dodge of throwing daggers. There is apparently a limit on how long one can go in this movie without one of the main characters having a near-brush with death.

Alfred Molina is on comedic detail in a decidedly un-funny role as the money-grubbing small businessman. His Sheikh Amar runs an ostrich-racing ring that is just as goofy as you think it would be. Somehow, he gets caught up in the world-saving adventure, but is promptly dropped out of the action as soon as the real gravitas kicks in near the end. His buddy, Seso, played by Steve Toussaint, is more charismatic and likeable as the knife-throwing bodyguard, and he inexplicably gets one of the film’s most exciting combat scenes.

Canny game players will chuckle to themselves at the appearance of Ubisoft’s other recent action franchise in a guest appearance. The Hassansin killers of the film are clearly based on the same historical group as those seen in Assassin’s Creed. Equally organized and deadly in both incarnations, they are decidedly villainous in this film. Their viper-powered throwdowns against Dastan and friends provides the muscle of the movie’s middle act, and most of the combat encounters that result are a blast.

The Sands of Time game trilogy had a poetic arc and beauty to them that is at times lacking in the movie adaptation. Those games had an elegant solution to communicating the narrative through the storytelling of one of the main characters, a device that could have made an interesting transfer to the big screen. Some viewers will no doubt declaim the use of the dagger and the sands of time in the film as an easy out from emotional consequences to big events. The conceit of rewinding time didn’t bother me, possibly because I’m so conditioned to the concept in the gaming world. But the story breaks down without this one major supernatural concept. Admittedly, the filmmakers could have gone with an entirely different tale, but then lost out on what made the franchise so intriguing in the first place. As it is, the time-shifting powers on display make up for whatever is lost in emotional weight simply through the coolness of having them present in the story.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time succeeds as a fun romp with all the bells and whistles the public is looking for out of a summer hit. For gamers, the film deserves a little more attention. For the first time in years, Hollywood has thrown some huge money and talent at a faithful treatment of an existing game property. The reaction that Prince of Persia receives could shape the budgets and attention heaped on all the many gaming properties whose films rights have been exercised. The fates of the BioShock, World of Warcraft, Dead Space, Heavy Rain, Mass Effect, Lost Planet, and Infamous films hang in the balance, as Prince of Persia is the latest litmus test for Hollywood. As a consequence, gamers may wish to vote with their wallets one way or another. If you’re in the camp that would like to see a few of these properties find some success, you have an added reason to check out what is already a worthwhile and exciting summer movie. If you’re one of the gamers that would like to see the trend die before it begins, well, you don’t need me to tell you to stay away.