When you get a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster based on a video game, the brains at Techland start to overload. So to review this week’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time spectacular, we’ve called on both gaming geek Evan Narcisse and movie geek Steven James Snyder to hash out the particulars. Surprisingly, they sort of agreed. Behold:
When it came out about seven years ago, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time immediately made its mark as an experience that showed off how the video game medium could mature. Published by Ubisoft, it was a re-imagining of a popular character and series from the early days of computer gaming. Though essentially a reboot, the action/adventure title acknowledged the history behind Prince of Persia, some of which you can read about in my interview with creator Jordan Mechner.
In terms of plot, Sands of Time showed off both story-telling and thematic ambition with its voiceover narration and folkloric influences. The swordfights and acrobatic stunts–running along walls, nimble somersaults and scampering up poles–brought a welcome Tyrone Power derring-do vibe to the action elements, too. But, most of all, the central gameplay mechanic–being able to rewind time at will to recover from mistakes in playing the game–wowed audiences with its attendant technical wizardry. The time-rewind also wove nicely into a clever, meta-aware story about maturity and destiny. Sands of Time became kind of a beloved text and gamers’ hands were wringing when the news broke that Bruckheimer would be producing a big-screen version.
But it turns out, surprisingly, that there’s no reason to worry. In the same way that the Sands of Time game acknowledged its forerunners, the movie nods to its gaming roots. While it’s not exactly the same story as in the game of the same name, The Sands of Time mirrors enough of the plot to seem respectful. The big story elements are still there–the titular mystical sands, an acrobatic hero, a power-hungry royal, the time rewind–and director Mike Newell nests them in a lush desert backdrop that feels appropriately fantastical. The changes that the movie does make–giving the Prince the name of Dastan and adding more of a family to his backstory–add depth to the character. (More at Techland: The top 10 superhero suits of armor)
SoT was primarily an action game where players made the Prince dance across rooms full of enemies and traps, and to do anything less in a movie would feel like a cop-out. Thankfully, Jake Gyllenhaal and his stunt doubles channel the same kind of adrenaline-filled improvisatory movement that the game made its name off of. It doesn’t feel like a cheesy bit of fan service the first time Dastan pulls off that iconic wall-run; it comes across as a natural move for a character to pull off in the world in which he belongs. Likewise for the flashy sword-fighting. It feels less like a formulaic homage than evidence that it understands its source material.
Amidst all the action, PoP also sports a lot of heart. Gyllenhaal’s performance moves convincingly from devil-may-care brawler and devoted son to mourning and reluctant hero. The plummy English accent he affects for Dastan nicely evokes the work of voice actor Yuri Lowenthal in the games. As Dastan’s feisty love interest Tamina, Gemma Atherton isn’t quite as adversarial as in-game girlfriend Farah, but she’s brimming with defiance and beauty, nevertheless.
But, in terms of acting, it’s really Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina who steal every scene they’re in. It’s so entertaining to watch the false sympathy of Kingsley’s Nazam that you’re a little disappointed when his schemes get exposed. And, Molina’s turn as an ethically dubious desert opportunist starts off as comic relief but becomes a bit more than that. Kingsley even gets to go toe-to-toe with Gyllenhaal in a few swordfights.
It’s the subtle sense of connection to the game that spawned it that makes PoP work for this gamer. No doubt helped along by having Mechner write the story, Sands of Time shakes off the stigma that comes with adapting a game into a movie. While it takes control away from the player, the movie still communicates what’s so special about the Prince of Persia and his world.
It doesn’t really surprise me that Evan, like so many gamers, approaches Prince of Persia in relation to how well/poorly it builds upon the themes of the games. But for many of us film buffs, we’ll be going in with far less methodical intentions, wanting just one thing: A little bit of escapist, electric fun.
Now I’m not sure how Hollywood keeps screwing it up, but the swashbuckler is a rather simple thing to master. You need some chemistry with the cast, a certain level of punchiness with the script, inventiveness with the visuals and a sharp sense of humor. When I think of bloated adventures like Transformers 2 or Spider-Man 3 or this year’s Robin Hood, it’s the drab and dull tone of it all that strikes me most. I see so many adventure spectacles that play like chores – not just for the characters on the screen, but for the audiences in the seats. My mind races back to Clash of the Titans, with the plodding descriptions, the rambling expository dialogue, the somber tone, and it feels more like a lecture than a Kraken-Smashin’ Marathon…
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