Movie Review – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
by HELEN GEIB
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a big budget Arabian Nights-style adventure produced by Disney. The once-upon-a-time setting is a mythical ancient Persia. The hero is Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), adopted youngest son of the wise and noble king. Dastan is devoted to his father, who took Dastan in off the streets as a boy, and to his two older brothers. When he is framed for regicide, Dastan must uncover the truth behind the murder and the Persian invasion of the holy city of Alamut if he is to save himself and his family. His only ally is the city’s beautiful princess-priestess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), the guardian of a secret magical device that allows the holder to turn back time.
The film is based on a popular video game. This reviewer does not play video games and can’t comment on the film’s fidelity to its source. However, in a more general sense, the source is plain to see. The plot is constructed like a video game. Once past the initial set-up, the film moves Dastan through a series of stages, or levels, where he is called upon to fight his way through to the next. Each stage has its own distinct setting: a marketplace; an oasis; a mountain shrine; the gated entrance to a walled city; underground caverns. While he can always rely on his wits and innate fighting ability, he also picks up specific weapons, or makes use of the specific topography, at each stage. Although Tamina is often present and Dastan fights alongside allies in some of the stages, the camera shows little of others’ parts in the action. The tight focus on Dastan gives the film the feel of a single-player game.
The film’s kinship to a video game is further reinforced by the game-over/re-set function of the “sands of time.” Characters push the button several times (literally- the device is a dagger activated by pushing a button on the hilt), and from early on it must surely be obvious to the youngest child that the story is building to a major climactic re-set. Visually the film intermittently looks like a video game, as in the image (excerpted for the trailer) of Dastan coolly handling his twin swords before a backdrop of frame-filling flames, or blue-screen created near-crimson desert vistas.
The video game-like visuals are striking, but also stand out partly for the negative reason that the film overall is visually uninteresting. Mike Newell’s direction makes disappointingly little of either the “ah, the mysterious Orient!” sets or the real desert landscapes of Morocco. An exception is the costumes. The costume designers were clearly having fun with their assignment, even if their director and cinematographer were not.
Prince of Persia is very definitely action-oriented. The action is pleasingly old-fashioned in its happy non-realism- think old Erroll Flynn and Burt Lancaster actioners- and pleasingly new-fashioned in the heavy incorporation of free-running. Gyllenhaal is bulked up for the part (and looks very, very good in it), but more pertinently demonstrates a wholly unexpected degree of athleticism, clearly performing much of the stunt work himself. In addition, the film offers a good dose of romance as Dastan and Tamina bicker in familiar rom-com/road movie fashion on their way to bonding in common cause and acknowledging their feelings.
There is a point at which calculated to please passes into calculation, and the filmmaking behind Prince of Persia passes that point. The script is scrupulously careful to include something for every demographic. The dialogue has little wit and the exchanges between Dastan and Tamina are unnecessarily juvenile. The pacing is practically metronomic: there will be no lingering! The film plays it very, very safe, stifling any spark of spontaneity and leaving too little room for heart.
On the other hand, there’s really no reason why America shouldn’t make Disney happy and take its children- and encourage its teenagers of driving age- to see Prince of Persia. It’s not a bad film, it has likable elements, and it’s all ages appropriate. There’s (designedly) a little something for everyone. The hero is sympathetic and genuinely admirable and the story is built around sound moral lessons: observe the dictates of your own conscience; stand up for what’s right; make necessary sacrifices for the greater good; love and trust in your family.
2 1/2 stars
Prince of Persia aspires to be the next Pirates of the Caribbean. Read the Commentary Track review of the third film in that franchise here.