Game movie review: Prince of Persia The Sands of Time

by: Sean Colleli -
More On: Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
Regular readers know I’m a big Prince of Persia fan, so going to see the Sands of Time movie last Friday was kind of an obligation for me. Overall I thought it was pretty good, but I think there were several missed opportunities to make it as memorable and compelling as the game. Movie reviews aren’t my normal territory, but I’ve taken a shot at evaluating the film. Hit the jump for my full review, but be warned: SPOILERS abound, but if you’re a fan of the game series you probably saw a lot of it coming anyway.

Reviewing video game movies is usually a difficult thing to tackle, considering the typical lower standards of game movies and the inevitable comparisons between the source material and the film. However in the most general sense, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a decent movie. Not a great movie, not a bad movie, but an okay one.

In terms of content it reminded me a lot of the first Resident Evil film. Here is a movie that has almost no ties to the game it was based on, save for the title and a few basic elements. And that’s fine—you can make a great film with just a handful of core ideas, and most game plots are brimming with tired clichés that would make for rotten movies anyway. That doesn’t change the fact that the Prince of Persia movie would have been a lot better if it had included just a bit more of what made the game a modern masterpiece.

First, a quick recap. Prince Dastan is a street urchin, adopted into the royal Persian family by king Sharaman who, incidentally, is the only character in the film to retain his name from the game. Dastan is sent on a journey to the holy city of Alamut, which his two adopted brothers, the princes by blood, are convinced by their uncle Nizam to invade. Supposedly Alamut has been selling weapons to Persia’s enemies, although the evidence is suspect and you get a pretty obvious Iraq WMD allegory here. Dastan’s acrobatic talents secure a swift victory for the Persia army, and Dastan himself secures a strange gilded dagger during the battle.

The city’s monarch, Princess Tamina, is captured and obviously knows more is going on than any of the princes understand. After being framed for the death of the king, Dastan escapes with Tamina into the desert, beginning a long series of adventures to return the sacred Dagger of Time to its rightful place, and prevent it from falling into the wrong hands in the process.

So the plot has almost nothing in common with the game, but the game itself had an admittedly simple plot that wouldn’t flesh out a major motion picture. It’s just strange that the script, co-written by Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner himself, doesn’t include what little the game had to offer, which was admittedly really good. Most of the game’s charm came from the interplay between the Prince and the Princess, and while that chemistry is well represented in the film between Jake Gyllenhaal’s Dastan and Gemma Arterton’s Tamina, most of its thematic anchors are gone, leaving their relationship somewhat ungrounded.

As Dastan and Tamina journey from an ostrich race to the king’s funeral and eventually back to Alamut, the Disney-mandated wacky humor is ever present but the game’s central ideas are not. The game was all about an arrogant young prince getting a tough lesson in humility; the important concepts like responsibility, wisdom and loyalty don’t show up too often, and when they do they’re so weakened by the convoluted plot that they lack most of the punch they had in the game. It’s the same problem you saw in the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, and considering Jerry Bruckheimer produced Prince of Persia, I expected this to happen. Thankfully Prince isn’t a plodding, self-indulgent mess like Pirates 2 and 3, but it isn’t nearly as snappy or evocative as it could have been.

From a purely technical level, the plot’s brazen inaccuracies will disappoint longtime fans of the series, and this is where you get the fanboy/casual movie audience split. That said, the game’s driving plot elements would have been a lot more compelling than the clumsily implemented Iraq war allegory and Nizam’s confusing conspiracy. The Sands of Time are never unleashed in the movie—the core crisis in the first game—so the movie is a wild goose chase through the desert instead of the Prince’s fight for survival during a catastrophe he created. This also means no sand monsters, so all of the combat happens with humans and none of it involves the Dagger of Time.

The Dagger itself is the one game element that is reproduced pretty well. The time rewind effect is awesome, placing a sand cloud copy of the holder as the outside observer and neatly explaining how they can see themselves moving backwards in time, whereas the player was the observer in the game. However it is used for a few “gee whiz” moments and a rather superficial scene toward the end, so there aren’t any thrilling “oh crap!” rewinds from acrobatic missteps into a bottomless pit.

In fact most of the free running scenes are brief snippets, with one marketplace sequence coming close to a few of the stunts in the game. You definitely see that Dastan has some parkour prowess, but there isn’t anything as beautifully choreographed or lengthy as the thrilling chase at the beginning of Casino Royale. Near-impossible acrobatics is one of the Prince character’s defining skills, and considering parkour inventor David Belle worked on the film, it’s disappointing that there isn’t a huge insane parkour scene.

It’s also strange that Nizam, the film’s counterpart to the game’s villainous Vizier, has such comparatively low ambitions for the Dagger. In the movie he wants to travel back in time and enable his brother Sharaman’s death, thus giving him the throne, but in the game the Vizier wanted the Dagger for nothing short of eternal life. Ben Kingsly does his best with the role, but I wanted to see such a great actor get more meaty villainous scenes.

The film’s climax is probably the one aspect that borrows the most from the game. It ends with the same “reset button” super rewind, immediately after Dastan has to let Tamina fall to her death, much like the Prince and Farah at the end of the game. However, the emotional gravity just isn’t there and the stakes aren’t as high. In the game the Prince had hit rock bottom at that point, whereas Dastan knows full well he can reverse everything. The game’s bittersweet ending, where the Prince remembers his adventure with Princess Farah but she doesn’t even recognize him, is replaced by a much more generic happy ending. Nizam is unmasked and killed, Tamina hooks up with Dastan despite the rewind erasing their time together, and everyone lives happily ever after. Disney flicks are infamous blatant sequel hooks, but I’m left wondering how they’ll ever attach a second installment to such a cut and dried conclusion.

In the end, Sands of Time isn’t all that bad of a movie. It’s just disorganized, and lacks the most meaningful aspects of the game. That’s too bad because most of these things didn’t need the game’s plot to work at all—they were more like compelling story devices, themes and character moments rather than specific plot details. Even the Prince’s memorable monologue about the nature of time, which would have fit into the movie perfectly, is replaced by a forgettable saying about destiny and fate. What we get is a somewhat cumbersome film that replicates some of the game’s trappings, a bit of its charm, and a couple of its messages but with half the emotional impact. It has the right idea but spreads itself too thin, with one too many superfluous action set pieces and a political allegory that feels a little tacked on. As an early summer blockbuster it’s serviceable and entertaining, but Prince of Persia fans shouldn’t go in expecting a masterful interpretation of their favorite game, in neither substance nor heart.

I enjoyed it for what it was, and I give it a generous B-.
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