I may be without a computer in Kelowna, but I won’t let that stop me from continuing the Summer Movie Spectacular! One of the few perks of moving here is that movies are cheaper. Less than $8.50, a full two dollars less than in Vancouver. Last night I went and saw Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time on Half-Price Tuesday for $4.20 (appropriate). For that price, I really can’t complain.
This is a matinée movie in every sense — a desert adventure light on depth and big on fun. But like riding on the back of one of the movie’s many camels, it’s a bit of a bumpy ride.
The movie begins in flashback, showing us how an orphaned street urchin, white as the sand, became a “Prince of Persia”. Young Dastan sticks his neck out for a fellow street kid, saving him from injustice, and the Persian king likes what he sees in the boy’s spirit. “And so a boy from the unlikeliest of places came to be a Prince of Persia,” a voiceover tells us.
“Okay,” I’m thinking. “They’re recognizing the fact that he’s white and making an excuse for it.” Except…they’re not. Flashforward to the present, where Dastan has grown up to be Jake Gyllenhaal, and all of his adoptive family is white, too. Everyone is, really. At least Ben Kingsley as Nizam, the King’s brother and Dastan’s uncle, looks somewhat Persian. He’s played the ethnicity before in House of Sand and Fog, and of course, he was Gandhi. But he’s the only one, in a very white-washed cast. This seems like a trivial complaint, but in a movie called Prince of Persia, it sticks out like…well, a white guy in Persia.
I will say this, however. Gyllenhaal is inspired casting, and he looks identical to the Prince of the game. Yes, this is a movie based on a series of video games. Didn’t know that? Where have you been? It’s a series that’s nearly as old as video games themselves. And it adheres extremely close to the incarnation of the game for which it is titled — almost to a fault.
The quality of the visual effects varies wildly from scene to scene. This is an occasionally beautiful film, but it also feels like watching someone play video games. Too often the action feels fake, even when it isn’t. Sometimes it’s because of obvious effects, but mostly it’s the fault of poor editing. Director Mike Newell is a bit out of his element in the action sequences, and so much of the action is marred by quick cuts that don’t allow the viewer to fully appreciate the quality of the stunts being performed. These quick edits are often more jerky and jarring than the Bourne films’ infamous shakycam, and it’s a shame, as it makes the action tough to follow. Now, don’t read this wrong: not all of the action is bad. Some sequences are very strong — the seige on Avarat in particular. But if the movie could be improved, this is the easiest place to start.
Newell’s strength as a director is in drawing sound performances from his actors, and it’s that strength that proves to be the movie’s redemptive quality. After a bit of a rough start, where it seems the movie is in a rush to get where it’s going, things settle down after Dastan is framed for a terrible crime. On the run from his brothers and the Persian army, he is aided in his quest for redemption by Tamina, the Princess of Avarat (Gemma Arterton), and the mystical blade she possesses. Once the film gets these characters alone in the desert, it really picks up. Gyllenhaal and Arterton have solid chemistry together, and watching them bicker is more entertaining than any special effect.
They’re also aided by a great supporting performance from Alfred Molina, as Amar, the leader of a gambling outpost in the middle of nowhere. Much of his anti-Empire dialogue feels like it’s pandering to the anti-government sentiment of a tea-bagger audience, but Molina is so funny in the role that I really don’t mind. He seems to pop up whenever the plot starts to sag, and his presence does wonders to pump life into the film.
I spoke earlier of the Princess’s mystic blade, and it’s as central to the plot of the film as it was to the playability of the game: Press the jewel in its hilt and the wielder of the dagger is transported 30 seconds back in time by the titular Sands of Time. In the game it gave the player a do-over in pivotal moments, though one could use it quite often if they wanted to. Fortunately the sand that powers the blade is much more scarce in the film, and its abilities are used sparingly, each time to great effect. Part of the reason the game translates so easily to the screen is that it has terrific visual elements, and the backwards motion of the brief time-travel is the best of them. They are the movie’s “wow” moments, and they really deliver.
Like the beginning, the end of the film feels a bit rushed as well. It kind of hurts the overall quality of the film, as a poor introduction makes it difficult to care much for the characters. But the actors do their damnedest with what little material there is. It’s a fun movie, enjoyable enough for what it is. It’s a definite rental, though if you can see it on a Cheap Tuesday, my ticket was even cheaper than renting the DVD.
For now, it wears the crown of the Best Video Game Movie Ever. Considering the competition, that doesn’t mean much.