Over the last decade or so, Hollywood movies have cannibalized just about every aspect of video games, whether it’s free-roaming cameras, huge boss-battle set-pieces or over-amped, bombastic action sequences, but formulaic action flick Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time manages to jack something you wouldn’t think a movie would ever touch: The tutorial.
Tutorial levels in games are a necessary evil, of use to those few people who have literally never played a game before and don’t know you look around with the right stick and move with the left. Prince of Persia treats its audience as if it has never seen a movie before, and must be led through the watching process slowly and laboriously.
Example: The scene where Jake Gylenhaal discovers the power of the Sands of Time of the title. He’s carrying a stolen dagger with a prominent red button on the top, (it looks a little like a PlayStation Move controller, actually). In the middle of a fight, Jake/Dastan presses the button, and, wham: Time goes backwards a few seconds. The audience buys this conceit instantly. It’s not complicated. But that isn’t enough for PoP director Mike Newell. He repeats the sequence of events again. Fine. Good. We get it. Then, Jake Gylenhall explains the powers of the dagger. “Did you just see that?” he asks. “I hit this button, and Time went backwards!” Then he repeats the thought. “Time totally went backwards! Whoa!” I expected him to turn to the audience and lecture us: “Does everyone get it? I hit the button and time goes backwards.”
The time-travel-dagger itself is an interesting game mechanic in Ubisoft’s 2003 Sands of Time game, but as the Macguffin at the center of a film, it doesn’t work that well. A device that can erase events makes for a fun game when you fall off a ledge and can reverse the mistake before you hit the lava, but in a movie, it makes an already light-weight plot utterly weightless. Who cares if someone dies when characters can just hit the mystical rewind button and bring them back?
Plotwise, it’s standard issue, dumb-summer movie story time: The Prince and his Brothers rule an empire, but are suckered by the most transparent political ploy in film history. The king's brother, a shaved and goateed Ben Kingsley as Nizam, plants some weapons to cause an invasion of an innocent, spiritual city. I’m honestly not sure if the revelation of Nizam's betrayal is meant to be a surprise or not: It’s telegraphed so blatantly by the movie’s earlier scenes – Kingsley practically twirls his mustache and cackles -- that when he turns out to be evil, everyone knew it was coming, even people who didn’t understand how the dagger works. Even people in other theaters, seeing different movies. Pro-tip for leaders of empires: Don’t trust royal advisors who look like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon.
Anyway, the Persians sack the peaceful city. Gemma Arterton meets Jake Gyllenhaal. The two handsome royals hate each other, fight over the magic dagger, begin to fall in love, lose the dagger, find the dagger again and otherwise move through a threadbare adventure plot toward a workaday showdown between Dastan and Nizam.
The plot only vaguely makes sense and the characters barely exist. In a game, you can get away with plot holes and stock characters, but here, since we’re not controlling the main character, we expect a little more than avatars moving from digital set piece to digital set piece.
The acting is fine -- Jake Gylenhall tries, and Ben Kingsley chews scenery -- but the characters are so empty, there’s nothing to grab onto here. Even the expensive special effects aren’t that special. They’re spotty. In some scenes, huge, sweeping vistas are created that seem utterly real, but in other scenes, simple animal effects look cheesy and fake.
Other than the tutorial, this movie takes little from the video game. The main character’s skill at jumping around is intact, as is the setting, but Prince of Persia is more heavily indebted to the adventure epics of the 1950s than the video game. The film works, fleetingly, when it takes the anything-goes vibe of those old sword and sandal flicks and mixes in the joy of the Prince’s Persian Parkour, but the movie is so dumbed down and over-explained, that even the nutty joy that might be derived from the Prince’s frantic motion is quickly deadened by an over-reliance on digital effects, stupid and shallow characters and a boring plot.
Gamers: This is not the video game movie you are looking for. While it does nothing to actively destroy the Prince of Persia game franchise, even as mindless summer time fare, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is a failure. It's a little like The Mummy, without the heart and soul.