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

…in 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.


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