Sunday, May 30, 2010

Movie Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

As a rule of thumb, movies based on video games are poor in quality, as are video games based on movies.  The movie, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, may actually be the best movie based on a video game ever made, though we will certainly understand if fans of the Resident Evil franchise wish to file an objection.  But 'best' does not always equate to 'good', not that either is necessary for a movie to be enjoyable.  Prince of Persia is, at the very least, one of the best video game movies out there, and is certainly enjoyable.

It's still not all that good.

But this is far from enlightening.  What's most intriguing about this film is that, in approaching good, we have finally determined to our satisfaction why it is so difficult for movies derived from video games to cross that threshold.  We have heard it said, from time to time, that video game plots lack the substance or the complexity to be developed into good movies.  Yet the game this was based on has a far more developed plot than, say, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride that gave birth to that franchise.  And those movies - especially the original - are far better than this.

The difference between them is that the filmmakers who crafted Curse of the Black Pearl sat down and answered a single question: "What do you mean by 'based on'?"

It is the question all adaptations must confront, and it is likewise the question that tripped up Prince of Persia.  Is this adapted from the game or merely inspired by?

The video game actually has a surprisingly thoughtful story.  It's not really a complex story, but it's thoughtful nonetheless.  While the game also deserves praise for its design and action sequences, the plot is what ties it together.

However, that plot is ultimately limited to three characters: the prince, the princess, and the vizier.  While such reductionist stories may function well in game environments, it's difficult to craft an entertaining film from such a skeletal structure.

So, when transitioning from game to movie, they abandoned the story entirely, opting instead to base their film on imagery and sequences from the game.  And this is where the film floundered.  While the sets and fights were certainly amusing, there was a sense in which the movie felt shackled to its source.  If you've played the game, than you've seen these environments.  You've explored them, in fact, in more depth than the movie has time to.  You've used the Dagger of Time and have mastered it.  Watching its application in the movie is somewhat akin to seeing a child pick up the controller without learning the controls first. 

Meanwhile, the back story has been entirely changed to better appeal to a wider audience.  The original portrayed the prince as spoiled from birth: the events of the game teach him the meaning of consequences and the significance of responsibility.  Rather than deal with such complexity, the filmmakers have re-imagined him as a street thief who was adopted by a wise and benevolent king.  The arc we're left with is of a man who begins the movie as a brave and noble warrior and ends as a warrior who's learned to trust his already brave and noble heart.

In some ways, this is as much an adaptation of Disney's Aladdin as it is Sands of Time.  Ultimately, though, a live-action Aladdin starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Alfred Molina as the genie would probably have been a better film.

In addition, the princess from the game had more depth than appeared here.  It didn't help that her animosity towards the prince seemed misplaced here, as Gyllenhaal was, as previously mentioned, brave and noble from the start, and was clearly as much a victim of circumstance as she was.  As a result, her continued attempts to ditch or, on one occasion, murder him, come of as foolish, petty, and anti-productive, hardly an appropriate portrayal for the sole female character with a name.

In attempting to skirt the line between allowing themselves the freedom of being inspired by the source material and trying to faithfully adapt the game environments and ideas, the movie leaves fans of the game stranded between what we've already seen and what we miss.  There's not enough new to intrigue us and too little of what we loved about the game for us to fully enjoy as an adaptation.

Compare this with Pirates of the Caribbean, which playfully tipped its hat to its inspiration then moved on to a new story, new settings, and new characters.

This isn't to say there's nothing to enjoy.  Ironically, we actually did enjoy this film, thanks to the solid acting, amazing sets, and exciting action.  We enjoyed it throughout, but, aside from the first big battle and the flashback to the young Dastan, we never loved what we were seeing.

Perhaps, if it should manage a sequel, Prince of Persia will be able to find its own footing.  Certainly the elements are in place: Jake Gyllenhaal is a fantastic choice for the role.  Now that its dues to the game have been paid, we'd love to see an original swashbuckling adventure story in this world.

Such prospects seem unlikely, however, as the theater we went to was mostly empty.  There's little indication this will make enough to warrant another picture.

This movie clearly wants to be Pirates of the Caribbean, so it seems only appropriate to grade on that curve.  If Curse of the Black Pearl is a five star film, than Sands of Time is good for two and a half.

Ironically, if you've never played the game this is based on, you're likely to enjoy the setting and fights more than we did.  This isn't bad for an adventure movie - it manages to retain a quick pace and light tone throughout.  But, frankly, with movies like Iron Man 2 in abundance, we have higher expectations.

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