Prince of Persia
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a movie based on Jordan Mechner’s videogame series. The movie was directed by Mike Newell and written by Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard. In the film, Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes the titled prince when he is picked off the street and adopted by King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup). Dastan’s fiery defense of another boy and his athletic ability get him the royal nod. He is raised as an equal to the king’s biological sons Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and Tus (Richard Coyle).
The real action begins as Dastan and his brothers are tricked into conquering the Holy City of Alamut. Their evil Uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) convinces the brothers the city hides deadly and prolific weapon forges. In reality, Nizam is after a magic dagger that can turn back time and give him unlimited power. The lovely Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) is the dagger’s guardian. She has a sharp tongue and a sassy spirit. After a grand adventure together chasing and/or protecting the dagger, Dastan’s and Tamina’s bickering results, as expected, in the two falling in love.
Although the film has a cast of thousands, a vast sweeping visual canvas of deserts and palaces, and the actors gamely give their swashbuckling all, the movie has several object lessons on pitfalls to avoid in an action adventure (or any other) movie:
1. The stakes should remain high. The fact that the magic dagger can undo any death or restore any sacrifice undercuts the urgency of the story and the ultimate vulnerability of the characters. This magical “do-over” is like rebooting a videogame to have endless lives. This option may be useful to extend the playability of a game but it is a major problem in a movie where the audience must believe a “life or death” struggle is actually that critical.
2. Chase scenes should build. The free-running athletic discipline of Pakour is amazing the first time we see Prince Dastan dash along the roof-tops, bound across rafters and vault through windows. The next several times we see a variation on the same moves, these sequences blend into an endless loop of more of the same. Those chasing Dastan, we are told, become progressively more dangerous– ending with pursuit by the magical death-dealing Hassassin clan. The prince’s own abilities don’t progress or change much from his impressive show as a street urchin. Dastan just uses the adult version of basically the same moves over and over.
3. The hero should build on his character. Dastan makes no personal or emotional progress over the course of the film. From the start, he is a good and true soul. He is accepted by his brothers and loved by his adoptive father. He is a bit wild and rough around the edges, but he can be counted on as a warrior, as a brother and as a man. True, he doesn’t speak up against the invasion of the Holy City soon enough, but his silence is motivated more by youthful uncertainty and respect for his Uncle than any personal character flaw. It’s just not very interesting to see a really good man become a slightly better man. His quest doesn’t require him to overcome any formidable personal flaws or transcend any deeper fears.
4. A love story subplot should result in an exchange of gifts. Princess Tamina has no crucial qualities that Dastan lacks. Dastan has no key personal qualities that Tamina needs. There is no emotional reason that makes their partnership crucial to the success of their mission (or the eventual success of their lives). At heart, she is as good and true as he is. Two imperfect halves do not combine to make a more perfect whole. The two lovers don’t desperately need each other except as a plot device. Neither lover has the personal flaws that make a character human– a bit of youthful arrogance, some misunderstandings and sassy banter aren’t enough to craft a compelling love story.
5. A good villain destroys a character from within. Uncle Nizam is a caricature of seething resentment. His physical appearance– slick slightly oily bald head and dark eyeliner rimmed eyes– telegraphs that he is up to no good. It’s no surprise he is the one behind King Sharaman’s death. The only surprise is that Dastan is the only person to notice or question Nizam’s burned hands (caused by handling the toxic robes that burst into flames and kills the king). Nizam is a poor foe because he only relies on external forces to defeat Dastan. He never activates Dastan’s own fear or uncertainty to destroy him from within. It is far easier to fight any external obstacle than it is to deal with crippling force of inner personal dread, deficiency or self-doubt. Dastan seems to fear little and is quite sure and very satisfied with himself.
6. Use character development minutes wisely. The roller-coaster thrill ride of an action adventure movie leaves very little time for character development. No harm in that. These films are not meant to be complex character studies. But each precious minute of character development time should push the main characters forward emotionally in some way. When a film’s character development is squandered on repetitive or uninspired moments those minutes are wasted and movie suffers. We need to care about the characters and feel that they are truly at risk and personally vulnerable. That is simply not the case on any level in Prince of Persia
It’s not surprising the film earned a paltry 25 point Rotten Rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Prince of Persia is a harmless romp but ultimately empty of the crucial character moments that lift the best action/adventure films into the category of a classic. . This movie never strays from its rock em sock em videogame roots and never makes a successful transition to a compelling film.