Faint praise: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is probably the best video game adaptation to date. Not that there’s been much competition; up next there’s Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Max Payne, Hitman, and so on. Like the others, Prince of Persia is not a great movie; it rises to the top of the heap, perhaps, because of the amount of money Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer threw at it in search of another Pirates of the Caribbean.
I’ve played some of the platforming Prince of Persia video games, which were created by Jordan Mechner and released on every system from the Apple II to the PS3: they had little story but lots of running up walls and across rooftops, swinging from poles and ropes, hanging on ledges, the occasional bit of swordplay. These elements, set against the backdrop of ancient Persia, could make for some exciting action sequences in a feature film.
But not in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, because director Mike Newell has little idea of how to shoot an effective action sequence: they’re distractingly over-edited, have no rhythm, composed of too many close-ups and medium shots: we have almost no sense of where the characters are in relation to their surroundings or each other or what, exactly, is going on. This drains the action scenes of any suspense (let alone comprehension), and since they occur so frequently, the midsection of the film becomes a real slog to sit through.
Ironically, a 2-dimensional platforming video game has a better grasp of physical dimension and how that relates to audience interaction. A single long shot with the main character in the center, no editing because any split-second the player takes to re-adjust would render the game unplayable. We’re not “playing” the movie, so it’s like the filmmakers decide it’s not all that important if we can’t tell exactly what’s happening.
Quick side-note: I recently saw Green Zone, from director Paul Greengrass, who popularized the shaky-cam, hyper-editing style in his Bourne films. The action scenes in Green Zone work because, back to the basic tenets of editing, the damn shots match: when he cuts, the movement of the camera from the previous cut transitions into the next one, and the screen composition matches as closely as possible too. And the shots are wide enough to give us perspective. This helps us adjust as smoothly as possible. It can be done.
So what works in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time? Would you believe the story? I, too, was shocked at just how much I appreciated the lighthearted tone and the characters and the plot, which is, admittedly, a whole lotta nonsense.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Dastan, an orphan who was adopted by the king after committing an act of bravery. He and his brothers Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) lead the Persian army into the city of Alamut, which they believe to be hoarding weapons. They capture the city, and brother Tus proposes marriage to the beautiful Queen Tamina.
Things seem to be going well, but through a series of unfortunate events Dastan finds himself hunted as a traitor and takes it on the lam with the princess. Now he has to prove his innocence, and, this is key: he has come into the possession of a magical dagger that can turn back time. I wonder if he’ll get some use out of it.
The first forty-five and the last ten minutes of the Prince of Persia are worthwhile; that’s half a good movie. You may be able to guess the ending of a movie that centers on an object that can turn back time, but I found the denouement wholly satisfactory. If you can make it through the mindless action scenes and a sluggish midsection, you’ll have some fun here.