With seven games released in the last eleven years, and an eighth due out later this month, the Prince of Persia series is one of the most active franchises in video games today. The series has proven so popular, Disney decided to make a movie based on the Sands of Time trilogy. Film adaptations of video games aren’t typically known for being memorable or, at the very least, even very good. Of course, none of those previous films had Jerry Bruckheimer or Jake Gyllenhaal attached. Whether or not those two factors will help Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time be more than just another mediocre video game movie remains to be seen.
There have been some great strides in recent years in video game storytelling. Every year, a handful of games, like Uncharted or Mass Effect, are released that manage to engage the player with both innovative or interesting gameplay and a compelling story. Sadly, the same can’t be said for video game movies. I can’t remember the last time I watched a movie based on a game that didn’t have me cringing in my seat. Well, yes I can. It was Mortal Kombat, but that was fifteen years ago. Recent adaptations of Resident Evil and Street Fighter left bad tastes in just about everyone’s mouths, and there was no sign things were going to get any better. Then Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney teamed up to bring Prince of Persia to the silver screen. This was the creative partnership that turned an amusement park ride into one of the highest-grossing franchises of all time. They had to be able to bring out the best in a wonderful action series like Prince of Persia. Didn’t they?
Unfortunately, even though it’s actually a fun movie to watch, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time ends up being a fairly mindless affair. The reason? There’s no heart or charm in the script. Screenwriters Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro, and Carlo Bernard craft a script that borrows just enough of the video game that it will feel familiar to those of you who played it, but they also create enough new content to make the film more accessible to newcomers. In doing so though, they’ve also created a film that doesn’t stray to far from the formula in any aspect. The prince is a bit roguish, and is trying to avenge his father’s death. He doesn’t really get a long with the princess because she’s spoiled and stubborn, but he can’t help falling for her. She sees him as a rude brute, but there’s a softer side only she can bring out. The two overcome several obstacles in trying to set things right, end up falling for one another, and everybody gets lots of sand in their pants. You’ve seen this movie a dozen times, and for some reason, the writers think you’re not going to notice there’s not much going on in the plot thanks to all the game-inspired action. They’re wrong.
What made the Pirates of the Caribbean so entertaining was the characters, and how they interacted on the journey they were on. There have been few film pirates as charismatic as Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, and because he’s written so blandly, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Dastan has no opportunity to become nearly as engaging for his audience. That’s not necessarily a condemnation of Gyllenhaal, but Johnny (and to a lesser extent, Geoffrey Rush) carried the Pirates movies on his back. Here, Jake struggles to fit himself into a mainstream role. He never truly lets loose, and the performance he’s keeping bottled up is visible at times, but never breaks free of restraint. It’s a shame because he has so much screen time with which to captivate the audience, yet he never really does. Oh sure, you’ll see him flash that smile in an effort to charm the skirt of the gorgeous Gemma Arterton, but you never believe him. It always feels like he’s acting.
Ms. Arterton herself plays the role of pampered princess Tamina with a mission very well, and she looks good doing it too. Again, there’s just no meat to her character, and it makes it awfully difficult to care about what’s happening to her. The only reason you’ll be pulling for Dastan and Tamina is because the movie is telling you to. Though she is slightly more believable in her performance than Jake is, she still doesn’t carry much weight on screen. Despite not having incredibly strong dialogue to work with, Jake, Alfred Molina, and Ben Kingsley all outshine her when they share the screen. It would have helped if for one minute the relationship between Tamina and Dastan ever began sparking, but there’s no real chemistry between the two.
Ben Kingsley is no stranger to video game movies. Fortunately for all of us, he actually hand delivers his performance instead of merely mailing it in from overseas. He doesn’t get much time to act save for the last third of the film, but even in such a limited role, he’s able to school nearly everyone else in the cast. It’s a shame is role wasn’t expanded a bit more, as he could have made a noteworthy performance a memorable one with another twenty minutes of screen time. Alfred Molina does his best to emulate Jack Sparrow, which is odd considering he’s not nearly as charming or clever, yet he manages to be even more eccentric. Clearly in place as the comedy relief of the film, he actually gets the exact amount of time devoted to his character he needs before viewers get sick of him. It’s likely he’ll be back for the eventual sequel, and it’s also likely that it will be in a more expanded role a la Joe Pesci in the Lethal Weapon series, and I’m not looking forward to that day. None of the other cast members get very much to work with either. Both of the prince’s brothers are one-note characters (an utter waste of Tony Kebbell), which has me wondering why they were included at all. The Hassansin’s leader was evil looking, but the only acting he was allowed to do was look at people funny.
The action and the effects are the best part of the film, and actually do follow the game fairly closely. There are more than few sequences of rooftop running/parkour maneuvers seemingly stripped straight from the game itself. The movie truly shines in these moments as these are the few times when the inspiration from the video game breaks through. Yes, obviously there is the whole dagger that turns back time from the game, but it’s used sparingly, to much greater effect. Combat sequences are a little frantic for my taste, and they’re never really given room to breathe. I like to see the combat happen, not just a dozen quick cuts between punches to make it look like more is happening than there actually is. Getting to see the dagger in motion is really cool, and the effects team did a fantastic job showing off the power of the Sands of Time. There’s a great moment towards the end of the film where Dastan uses the Sands to prevent an attack in the middle of the night, which really shows off the power of the dagger to great effect. It’s not often that video game movies can showcase the things that made the game they’re based on unique (powers in Street Fighter always looked silly, and the less said about Super Mario Bros. the better), but Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is able to do it quite easily.
It’s been a long time since there’s been a video game movie worth seeing, and though Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time isn’t going to be winning any awards anytime soon, it’s a mildly enjoyable experience. There’s not a lot of character development, and the action is a bit too frantic at times, but it’s a pretty decent adaptation of the source material, and it’s a step up from the likes of Resident Evil and Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li. While I won’t go so far as to say you need to see this movie opening weekend, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is definitely worth checking out. Whether or not you wait until it’s out on DVD is up to you.