Jun 7 2010 6:06pm

Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Gemma Arterton and Jake Gyllenhaal, making an unsuccessful attempt to escape the set.

The line between action movies and video games is getting thinner. In theory, this isn’t a bad thing; games have increasingly rich world-building and character development, and action movies are combining choreography and CGI to compete with the physically-impossible feats of their avatar muses.

In reality, when a game is made into a movie, it generally falls into the trap of attempting to recreate game play instead of bringing the world and the characters to life in a compelling or coherent narrative.

It’s easy to say that this issue is the big mistake that was made in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. However, that wouldn’t be doing justice to its actual missteps.

I’m just saying, you know a movie has been ambitious in its mistakes when its highlight is Alfred Molina giving a passionate kiss to an ostrich.

The first thing to know about Prince of Persia is that it opens with this subtitle: It Is Said Some Lives Are Linked Across Time…They Are Connected By An Ancient Calling…Destiny Papyrus.

If anything is going to give you a sense of the care and thought put into this movie, this is it. Given that the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to move past a default font for their word-salad introduction, it seems that much less surprising that its characters have the cognitive acumen of waffles, that the casting is casually racist, and that the plot feels like a psych experiment to see how long people will stay in their seats.

Adopted Persian prince Dastan helps his brothers invade the sacred city of Alamut, after some bad intel about Alamut having hidden weapons (get it?). During the celebrations, Dastan’s father is murdered and Dastan framed. He flees with Alamut’s princess Tamina, who’s only after the dagger in his pants, if you get my meaning. It’s a magical dagger that can turn back time, is my meaning.

Once out of danger, Dastan decides to immediately return to danger and restore his good name. (He’s not the sharpest bulb in the drawer.) Meanwhile, the search for weapons of one-at-a-time destruction begins in Alamut, as the power-hungry man who invented the weapons charge makes his bid for power (GET IT?).

The gymnastic Dastan (whose parkour stunts are the movie’s only interesting action moments) is played by miscast Jake Gyllenhaal, valiantly trying to eke what fun he can from a role that’s 25% stunts, 25% puppyish dolefulness, 25% labored banter, and 25% looking amazed. Tamina is miscast Gemma Arterton, whose role exists to delay big reveals by being as haranguing and ill-advised as possible. (Their bantering scenes are physically painful, both because she’s written so poorly and because Gyllenhaal’s only palpable romantic interest seems to be in his eldest brother, played by Richard Coyle.)

Black-market ostrich-lover Alfred Molina and scheming royal uncle Ben Kingsley (one of the few actors of color in the cast) spend the movie locked in a ham-off. This should be amazing (they’re both ham heavyweights) but instead gives you the same kind of vicarious embarrassment you feel when watching someone bomb at amateur improv night. And of course, it’s impossible not to point out that all this miscasting plays out in a sixth-century Persia populated almost entirely by white people. (Oh, and the helpful African knife-thrower who barely speaks; let’s not forget him. Diversity!)

The film is as meandering and ill-fitting as the bizarre casting suggests. For such a single-minded pair of people, Dastan and Tamina are pretty easily distracted, and end up with a remarkably long list of people to whom they explain the secret and holy purpose of the dagger in Jake’s pants. Still, it doesn’t seem to matter that our heroes aren’t bright, since they’re exceptionally lucky. This is the sort of movie where a dagger that turns back time for one minute is reached by everyone just before the fifty-nine-second mark.

The effect of all these little cinematic crimes piling up could have been a campy trainwreck, the sort of gonzo popcorn film that earns a place in posterity for being awesomely awful. Instead, the movie feels only deflated, a flat and lazy version of what it could have been; it’s a grindingly calculated attempt at entertainment, a series of missed opportunities by seasoned filmmakers and artists who could, at every turn, have done better.

I thought, for fleeting and hopeful moments, that maybe some of this movie’s failings could be traced to the game. Perhaps it’s the game that’s frightfully dull! For those who haven’t played Prince of Persia, it’s impossible to know whether in-game cobra attacks sound oddly like helicopters descending, or how many times you have to fight the same bosses before you can defeat them and level up. (Dastan faces the Hassansins about eight hundred times, so either he is exceptionally good at wounding-but-not-killing people, or the Hassansins are the give-uppingest bunch of assassins-for-hire we’ve seen in a while.)

Maybe this whole movie is a demonstration of how some things you can gloss over in play need to be thought about on film. Maybe this movie is just a two-hour example of why we should never go to a videogame movie ever again and just play Red Dead Redemption instead!

But that’s an easy out for a movie that doesn’t deserve one. Any movie adaptation’s measure lies in working as a piece of media without the aid of the source material. In a successful adaptation, the narrative would be a cohesive standalone and negate most game-to-screen translation issues.

This is not a successful adaptation.

Clumsily plotted, hamfistedly allegorical, miscast; everything about Prince of Persia is bad, and it’s so boring you don’t even care. [Obligatory joke about wishing the dagger had turned back time two hours so no one ever had to see this movie.]

Genevieve is just sorry that the inevitable Ben Kingsley/Alfred Molina ham-off had to happen this way. She writes more about bad movies on her blog.

1. sushisushi
I'm glad that I wasn't the only person who was groaning at the Papyrus, before the film had even properly started (I was getting some funny looks from the peanut gallery).
2. Brenda H.
As a graphic designer there's an especially loud groan from me for the Papryus and I haven't even seen the movie. Looks like a skip for sure!
Fake Name
3. ThePendragon
I want my money back. For the time I just wasted watching you prance around on your high horse, that is. I enjoyed the movie, and thought it was worth every penny.
Richard Fife
4. R.Fife
I already had a fairly long rant on the movie over at my blog (obligatory plug here), but the core summary of what I thought:

This was the seed of a good movie hidden in too much CGI and thinly veiled allegory. It is the problem with any video-game movie, and a lot of SpecFic movies, that the film-makers get so hyped on their own budget and the CGI they can make that they forget that all of the pretty is just background in the end. They didn't spent minutes looking at those fancy matte paintings, why should we stare at the CGI for so long?

As to the plot, I actually didn't mind it, barring the allegory, as mentioned above, and the rather lacking delivery. Yeah, the twists were predictable, but I like how they brought things about. Dastan and Tamina each had their own objectives and didn't just fall into the quest together, so her lack of info-sharing with him was believable. The pacing was a little slow in spots, but as far as the hero quest and plot arc in general, at least it wasn't Dungeons and Dragons. I don't feel there was any place the movie jumped the shark in particular, so perhaps the screenwriter at least had a concept of what he/she/they were doing, and it was more just a matter of the director and the actors' agents getting in the way.

In short, A step forward in some places, a step back in others.
Alex Brown
5. AlexBrown
Meh, what do you want? It's a Disney "action" flick based off a teen-rated video game. And it has at least 1 good thing going for it: it's not Sex and the City 2.
Chris Dearman
6. ChrisD
Video games and movies are both fine things but it's rare for any attempt to turn one into the other to end well.
Michael Curry
7. mcurry
I like how wanting a movie to actually be enjoyable means someone is up on their "high horse."

I'm finding some of the reviews of this movie (including this one!) to be more entertaining than the movie could ever hope to be.
Benjamin Safford
8. benjamins
The papyrus alone is enough to make me skip the movie.
9. Mithril Wisdom
The Papyrus text at the start made my giggle if nothing else. I have a different take on Prince of Persia with my review here.

Regardless of the flaws that the film has, I'd say it's likely to be one of the better video game adaptations that have been made, and though it has a distinct Disney feel that worked for Pirates of the Caribbean but not for this, it's still a fun adventure. Don't expect a whole lot and it's an enjoyable movie.
10. ironyman
Boy, you have some nerve complaining about racism! "..populated almost entirely by white people." What, we all look alike to you??? What did 6th century (before the Islamic conquest)Persians look like? How is Ben Kingsley, who is part English and part Indian, more qualified to play a 6th century Persian? Because he has a built-in tan? I guess everyone outside of Europe is supposed to conform to some kind of approved "non-white" color scheme. I happen to be Lebanese and yet I'm fairer skinned than many of my "full-blooded European" friends. Please keep your stereotypical notions of what Middle Easterners should look like out of movie reviews. I find it very offensive, even more so because you somehow think that you are championing the cause of "non-whites" (Whatever "white" and "non-white" may mean in the first place. Race isn't science, its a moving cultural target.)Does Hollywood need to feature more actors from non-European backgrounds? Sure. No argument there, but throwing any old "person of color" (to use your term) into a part that calls for an "ethnic type" is just offensive and off-base.
Leigh Butler
11. leighdb
*shrug* I kind of liked the movie, myself.

It was mostly silly, yes, but I was hardly expecting great intellectual revelations from it in the first place. It was not Pirates of the Caribbean, but it was a mostly entertaining popcorn movie that (I felt) didn't actively insult my intelligence, and that's about all I wanted out of it.
Fake Name
12. ThePendragon
@ 7 mccurry

I think leigh actually phrased my thoughts on this pretty well above. It's a high horse because she goes into this over the top analysis of what is simply supposed to be a dumb action flick. If you went in expecting anything else, you went for the wrong reason. And if your criticizing it based on any other criteria, you're just looking for reasons to be snooty and complain. It's a specific type of movie, and it pulled the off pretty well. Could it have been better? Most definitely. Is it somehow terrible because it didn't change the course of my life and make me rethink my beliefs? No.
Richard Fife
13. R.Fife
And I would also hope that anyone reading Genevieve's reviews understand that while she may be grousing abit, this is "over the top" for the sake of the humor of doing such. As @7 Mccurry says, the reviews are enjoyable, sometimes moreso than the movie itself. I mean, the whole thing about the magic dagger in Jake's pants? Comedy gold, that. Just saying.
14. goshawk
Yeah, not high expectations for this movie. At all. I'll probably end up renting it some boring weekend, but a miss for theatre viewing. Light entertainment.

I've gotta say, though, I love all the people whining about a movie critic having the sheer gall to critique a movie. The horror! Now that is some comedy gold.
15. gobind
dd cn kss my sss . .mv ws vry ntrtnn nd m s md t myslf dt wstd tym rdn r pst . . r sch lsr mn . . ppl wtch mv t hv fn nd hv gd tym . . . thnk r sm knd nrd r smthn . . bttr sty n r cnmcs r wtfvr clsss n njy d xtrrdnry clsss . .
p.s. gt lf . sk !
16. N. Mamatas
Valentine was actually giving the movie too much credit.

Also, I thought Alamut placed it in the 11th century.
Alex Brown
17. AlexBrown
Please tell me that 15 is either a wayward troll or someone trying (and failing) to be funny. If I wanted to read stuff like that I'd prowl the YouTube comments section.
18. emj195
PLAY THE GAME "Prince of Persia" -->
john mullen
19. johntheirishmongol
I am not sure what you expected out of the movie. I thought it and the game it was based on were somewhat of a throwback to the old arabian nights movies, a little silly but fun. I thought this movie was loads better than the last thing I saw Jake Gyllenhall in, which was that end of the world thing about global warming.

I do agree the actress was a bit miscast, but more because her freckles threw me off, and she really wasn't that hot, just somewhat cute.
21. Maac
Anyone can have freckles. Jamie Foxx has freckles, and he's not even light.
22. shilpi saxena
nice movie, nd prince is luking cool yar , shejadi is also luking ausum, raelly nice yar

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