It’s a fairly tried and tested rule that movies based on video games just aren’t good. Actually, more often than not, they’re awful, and while I hold a certain love for cheesy adaptations such as Resident Evil and Tomb Raider, I’ll be the first to point out that they may remind one of the games they’re based on, but they’re nowhere the same quality.
This used to be the case with comic book movies too, until about 1979 when Richard Donner’s take on Superman became the first great ‘comic book movie’. And superhero comic books had been around for nearly forty years before Donner’s Superman — would we have to wait that long for a truly good video game movie, one that captured the fun and excitement of playing the game, and also conveyed the cool stories they now often tell? It sure seemed that way, and it was getting harder and harder to believe that we’d ever see a good video game movie.
Of course, if, back in 2003, you told me that somebody would make a fantastic movie based on a theme park ride, I wouldn’t have believed you either. That theme park ride was called Pirates of the Caribbean, and the producer who brought it to the big screen (Jerry Bruckheimer) and the studio (Disney) are the people behind this adaptation of Jordan Mechner’s classic sword and sandal action adventures.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time mixes plot points and themes from almost all of the half-dozen PoP games that have come out since 1989, but mostly from the 2003 game that it shares a title and subtitle with (the screen story is credited to the games’ creator, Jordan Mechner).
The Prince in this case is Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), an orphan adopted by the king of Persia (Ronald Pickup) as his own son, and raised as an equal to the princes Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell). As the movie begins the three brothers are about to start their assault on a holy city, under the assumption that it is providing weapons to Persia’s enemies (gee, I wonder what that idea reminds me of?).
All is not how it seems, however, and soon the king is dead, Dastan is accused of his murder, and he must flee with the holy city’s captured princess, Tamina (Gemma Arterton). He quickly learns that the dagger in his possession is no simple blade — it has the power to turn back time itself, and to let its wielder change the outcome of events. Hotly pursued by his own brother and others, with danger at every turn, he must find out who set him up and why.
It’s a good, old fashioned fable mixed with slightly-less-old pulp movie tropes, and if you’re not expecting it to reinvent the wheel then it does entertain. Needless to say there are double crosses and friends revealed as foes, foes who turn into friends, and plenty of friction and romance between the Prince and Princess. There’s banter and swordplay and acrobatics aplenty, with rarely a dull moment, and a sufficiently epic scale to the proceedings.
When Jake Gyllenhaal was announced as the man who would be playing the Prince, I (and most other fans of the game) were very skeptical. Talented though he may be, Gyllenhaal just didn’t seem like the right fit for the smug royal. I’m happy to report that Gyllenhaal is indeed good. Prince Dastan is as roguish and witty as the games’ hero, but it is the certain raw innocence Gyllenhaal brings to the role that makes him believable. It is not the kind of astonishing, polished gem of a work that Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow was, but as do-gooder young hero types go, Gyllenhaal does fine.
Gemma Arterton, meanwhile, is pretty and fiesty, but also a bit bland. Tamina is a fairly generic spunky princess, and while I believe there is an interesting actress somewhere in Arterton, this is not the best showcase for it. The supporting cast is strong and like the Pirates films given a fair amount of quick characterisation; from the other Princes to the outlaws led by Alfred Molina (who has the funniest lines in the film by far), it shapes up to a nicely rounded crew, and the movie is stronger for it. Ben Kingsley disappointingly underplays his role, when one wishes he chewed up the scene as we all expected him to.
Prince of Persia is, like the games, set in a breathtakingly beautiful fantasy world, a wild collage of Middle Eastern and Indian influences from across history amped up to the max. Every location is gorgeous to look at, the costumes are sumptuous and reminiscent of the wild, heady days of fantasy movie-making before Lord of the Rings made everything grey and boring.
Indeed, Prince of Persia shares more DNA with the Conan and Ray Harryhausen sword-and-sorcery epics than the dead-serious fantasy movies of the 2000s, and as a huge fan of those old films it is a truly welcome treat.
That isn’t to say that it’s brilliant, though. There is, especially in the first half, a tangible lack of assuredness to the movie. The camera rarely stays still enough to let us take in the grand locations and larger-than-life characters, and seems to be hunting and pecking rather than showing. It does get better in the second half, and for all its quick-cut madness there isn’t a sequence that is confusing, but it’s hardly as confident as, say, the Bourne films.
Harry Gregson-Williams’s score is a bit too brash and generically ‘Arabian’ sounding, lacking the subtle atmosphere and strong themes that the game’s score had. But the main problem is the dialogue. It’s verbose and grandiose — this fits into the heightened fantasy setting — but when spoken it doesn’t come off as clear or as memorable as it should. It’s taken for granted that a big Disney fantasy romp isn’t going to be subtle, but it would have helped immeasurably if the filmmakers had at least tried a bit more to be.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is nowhere as sublime as that last Bruckheimer/Disney adaptation of odd source material. Perhaps Pirates of the Caribbean set the bar too high (even its own sequels couldn’t fully live up). It is, however, the first video game adaptation to really get it, to be both a faithful adaptation of the game and a movie that stands on its own two feet.
It is a solid, exciting, very pretty fantasy romp the way they used to make them in the 70s and 80s — a bit rough round the edges, but the kind of film you’ll come back to again and again, if only because it puts a child-like smile upon your face.