Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

I agree with Roger Ebert when he said he would much prefer to like a film and write a glowing review than to hate a film and write a diatribe. I think too many people think that most critics take some kind of perverse pleasure out of censuring films and filmmakers, when the truth of the matter is that such invectives are, more than anything, a consolation prize for having to sit through such dreck. With that in mind, I don’t particularly delight in writing that Prince of Persia is a bad film. Well, bad is more vague than inept; Prince of Persia is an inept film that stands as an example of how bad mindless big-budgeted blockbusters can get.

The film itself was based on a video game by the same name, and it stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Dustan, an adopted Prince of Persia and brother to Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and Tus (Richard Coyle), nephew to Nizam (Ben Kingsley) and adopted son of King Sharaman (Donald Pickup). When the brothers are informed that a local holy city is forging and selling weapons to an enemy, they stage an attack. During the attack, they uncover many spoils and take the beautiful princess, Tamina (Gemma Arterton), hostage. Amongst the spoils is a mysterious dagger that Dustan keeps. When the king is murdered by a poisoned robe given to him by Dustan (but given to Dustan by Tus), Dustan flees for his life with the dagger and Kamina at his side, eventually learning that the dagger, along with the sands within, has the power to turn back time.

Ironically, the Prince of Persia video game was one of the last ones I ever played before I sacrificed video gaming for the other arts. I remember it being such a wonderful, magical experience. While I didn’t have high expectations going into the film, I do remember thinking that, while the game was highly cinematic itself, there was too much in it that could only work in video games. The concept of the dagger turning back time is the obvious one, and it’s obvious that the screenwriters and film-makers struggled to make it work in the film. Logistically, it’s a nightmare, because you have to figure out what happens to everything when the time turns back, such as: does the user of the dagger KEEP the dagger when the time turns back, even if he didn’t have it before?

It’s no surprise then that Prince of Persia is rife with continuity errors. As I watched it I had been noting them on the way, but lost track because of how many there were. A great many are listed on IMDb’s “goofs” page if anyone wants to check them. That said, goofs and continuity errors don’t make or break a film, but such errors are indicative of the sloppiness that pervades the film. The screenplay is equally a mess; it’s rushed from the word go and there’s no sensibility shown towards pacing and character development. This is one of those films that screams that it merely exists to show off the lavish production design, special effects, and set-piece fight and battle scenes.

Film history certainly isn’t short on films that were anxious to show off such things, but the best (Gone With the Wind and Star Wars, just to name two) have always understood that the key to making such blockbuster entertainment last is anchor it with great characters, emotional potency, fine craftsmanship, and some originality. Prince of Persia displays a dearth of all of these things. The only thing that feels the least bit original is the setting itself, but even it is rendered with such a sheen production that it feels little less than cheap, digital art. It doesn’t help when even the special effects are poor; many of the painted backdrops in Gone With the Wind look more realistic than those here, and CGI inserts like the snake are about as realistic as the CGI creations in the weekly low-budget syfy channel film.

Even the action set-pieces themselves suffer from bad direction. Prince of Persia is one of those films that subscribes to the theory that more movement plus more editing equals more excitement. When I analyzed the technique as used in a Paul Greengrass film I pointed out that it’s not the technique itself, but in how it’s used. Greengrass always uses it to crystallize the drama and narrative action, while in a film like Prince of Persia it only serves to add congestion and confusion. Cuts are frequently nonsensical, and seem to only exist to try and add some kind of a cognitive overload. One example is the frequent use of in-shot cuts, which is similar to a jump cut except the perspective changes rather than the subjects within the frame (such as cutting from a mid-shot to a close-up within the same camera set-up instead of zooming in).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these techniques, but like with so many films it’s all in how they’re used, and in Prince of Persia, they are most frequently used without any regard for real craftsmanship. If the intelligence doesn’t exist on the craftsman level, it is slightly better in the production itself. The problem is, though, that the images rarely show it off. They are so busy trying to crank up the excitement and tension they never take a breath to pause and give us a sense of the location. What few landscape shots there are only stay on screen for perhaps a second. The costuming, done by Penny Rose who also worked on Pirates of the Caribbean, is quite excellent, as are the sets and, luckily, they’re omnipresent enough that the images can’t spoil them.

They always say you should save the best for last, and I will say that, despite the film’s copious flaws, the cast is quite good. They make the best out of their limited characters and it’s difficult to find a weak spot. Jake and Gemma have a wonderful chemistry, even if they do give off too much of a “Leia and Han” vibe. Ben Kingsley equally makes the best of such a limited “villain” role, but there are fewer actors that can speak such malevolence with a look as he can. But undoubtedly the highlight of the film is Alfred Molina as the lovable, selfish rogue, Sheik Amar. I guess he would, technically, be the Han Solo of the piece, but Molina brings such vigor and vitality to the part I didn’t even care that I had already seen the part done too many times.

Ultimately, Prince of Persia is a failure, and, for once, its artistic failure is matched by its commercial/box-office failure. I’m not one of those revolutionists who denounce all modern Hollywood as a superficial and artistically bankrupt trash factory, but I am aware of its tendency to rely too much on formula to the point they spoil what was originally so good. This is one of those examples of taking something that seems like a sure bet, and then executing it with such laziness that the results can’t help but speak for themselves. Luckily, I still believe the world isn’t short on great cinematic artists and films, so I don’t feel the least chained to what Hollywood releases and persuades me to like. But I can’t help but feel disappointed when they insist on taking my childhood memories and raping them until they’re left battered and bloodied in my DVD player.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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