Jun 2 2010

Prince of Persia

I remember pretty vividly the days when the approach of summer meant my favorite time of year for films.  I’d pull out the Calendar Summer Sneaks section of the Los Angeles Times and look through every movie that was on deck.  I even recall making a list of the things I just “had” to see that summer.  I wouldn’t say the appeal of summer blockbusters has gone away completely, an exciting, fun, action packed summer flick is still one of the most enjoyable things in the world for me.  But, I have become a bit more discerning, because just because a film is trying to be “fun,” doesn’t mean it can’t be well executed, have an interesting story, and feature engaging characters.  When I recently made my list of anticipated movies for this summer, I considered expanding it to 10 or featuring some honorable mentions, but when it came down to it, most of the movies beyond the first five were wild cards.  I hoped they’d be good but I had no amount of certainty that they were.  Amongst these considerations was Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the newest video game adaptation from producer Jerry Bruckheimer (reigning king of the summer blockbuster?)  Video game adaptations have never been good, it’s simply a fact.  But I’ll admit I’m a fan of Jerry Bruckheimer, having liked even some of his films that most have not, and I have fond memories of playing the original Prince of Persia on my first PC, so I had cautious hopes that I’d have a good time watching this movie.  So what’s the verdict? Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is watchable.  At best.

The plot here is pretty simple, as it should be.  There’s an important MaGuffin that needs to be brought from point A to point B by Jake Gyllenhaal’s Dastan, who after being adopted by the local king became a “prince of Persia.”  Oddly enough, after a brief prologue, the plot gets going with a premature invasion of another civilization because they are wrongly suspected of possessing weapons.  Sound familiar?  Throw in the Middle Eastern setting and the allegory becomes none-too-subtle.  Dastan carries guilt over not stopping the invasion when he knew better, just as many of the audience members might carry a similar guilt as Americans who willingly or unwillingly participated in an unjust war.  The message is that the truly noble would speak their mind, and those in charge should listen to advise but follow their heart.  Is it good that this summer blockbuster has something to say, even if it is a bit simplistic?  I suppose so, but the characters seem to get swept away by the political leanings of the film, instead of dictating the plot for their own reasons.

Speaking of plot, the script for this film is not structured as well as it could be.  There are some interesting ideas, but they’re put forth in a manner that is far too episodic for my tastes.  While this is common for “Road Movies,” which this film is structurally, the movie does aspire to have a grander narrative thread.  Because of this it would be far more fitting if the many different plot threads were introduced quicker so that they could be woven together more naturally.  Instead we have these plotlines, such as the entrepreneurial camel racers, that are designed to open up action set pieces and then fade away completely.  On the other hand, the Hassansins, who become one of the primary threats in the last act, aren’t introduced until late in act two.  This makes them feel like they come out of nowhere, doesn’t give them proper time to be set up as the dangerous entities that they should be, and perhaps more importantly, leaves Prince Dastan and his love interest without a proper villain to run from.  I was glad to see that Alfred Molina’s appearance as the sleazy camel racer was not a cameo, but there’s a way to make the plotlines build to something rather than take them on one at a time and then move to the next one.  I’ll give the script this, though, once it entered its final act I was finally able to move my mind outside of the architecture of the film and just become involved in the story that was going on.  It had finally built to a place where I was invested in the action, and could enjoy the movie for what it was.

Many have complained about the casting of the film, primarily due to the fact that it does not feature actors of Middle Eastern descent.  I would’ve loved to see a genuine Middle Eastern cast, but with a movie of this budget, you do need people who can put asses in seats.  So let’s put that complaint aside for a moment.  I thought that if you just look at the actors for their performances, they weren’t bad.  I actually really liked Gyllenhaal as Dastan, he was charming, a bit roguish, and I though he fit in with epic nature of a summer blockbuster much more than I would’ve expected.  His British accent wasn’t bad either, if you’re willing to accept that Persians sound like Brits.  A quick note on this common aspect of movie making: I do believe that if characters aren’t going to speak the actual language, what’s important is that they sound foreign or exotic in a natural way, and this can be better than using another accent that is technically a mishandling of English pronunciation.  I give similar props to Gemma Arterton.  While she’s a bit fair skinned to play a character like this, I actually liked the feistiness she gave to her performance, and enjoyed what she did overall.  Ben Kingsley is always good, and with his goatee, he seemed to fit in with the classic concept of the Middle Eastern advisor, be that a stereotype or not.  I did hope that the role would be more of a departure for him than it turned out to be, but had no problems with his execution.  Alfred Molina is the one actor who feels instantly natural in his character, and is a highlight of the film, but I don’t think he’s alone in giving a good performance.  I think the actors that played Gyllenhaal’s brothers were the weak point.  Not only did they look out of place, but they played their characters weak when they should be strong, and mostly walked around looking confused as to what to do or where they were.  The characters here are all archetypes or modeled after familiar cinematic figures, primarily from the Lucas/Spielberg brand of moviemaking, but let’s face it, these characters work.

From a technical standpoint, editing is what ruined the movie for me.  This occurred on the micro and macro level, and everything in between.  The excitement of the action scenes was often destroyed by quick cutting.  This is something that should give a grand sense of space and location within its action scenes, but was constantly ruined by too many close ups and cutting through pieces of choreography.  The parkour-like movements weren’t even completed in one flow, and really seeing them executed entirely is what makes them impressive.  This goes for scenes of dialogue as well, as an unnatural amount of close-ups somehow kept me as a viewer off my game in understanding how the characters were interacting with each other.  The flow from shot to shot was terrible, as if they had not at all been designed to go together, and didn’t know exactly what frame to transition on.  The pacing from scene to scene, and of the plot in general always felt very off as well, almost as if nobody on set understood how the movie was going to be put together.  It’s too bad because the sets and cinematography are actually quite beautiful to look at, and I remember several occasions where I wanted a chance to take in a gorgeous shot and had it stolen away from me before its time.

One final quibble, and for this one I have Avatar to blame.  When the first posters came out for this film, I marveled at their modern minimalistic typography (Helvetica I assume, but haven’t examined too closely).  I liked that they seemed to be admitting to the glossiness of what they were doing, and chose the fonts to match.  So it was to my horror when the location superscripts appeared in the Papyrus font, (much as Avatar’s subtitles did).  This font looks cheap, is unclear, and ugly.  It feigns culture where there is none.  When you’re putting words on a movie screen you need them primarily to be legible, and secondarily to set tone.  Papyrus unclear and it’s tone—to me—is elementary school class project.  For a movie of this budget I believe they could’ve done something much better, the movies titles certainly didn’t look bad.  This is a trend I hope stops as quickly as possible.

Let’s break this down as simply as possible.  Should you see Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in theaters?  No, I barely felt I got my money’s worth at the matinee price, and at full price would’ve been severely disappointed.  Could it be a fun rental?  If you have a bunch of friends and want a movie that won’t hurt to talk over, I think there’s some fun moments and some enjoyable aspects, including an awesome knife-throwing fight.  For the most part, if you don’t watch the sheer quantity of movies that I do, I think there are likely better movies that you can spend your time on.

One Response to “Prince of Persia”

  • Seanjay Says:

    “Prince of Persia, The Sands of Time” was probably one of the movies which turned my disappointment other way around. To be honest when I entered the cinema I was expecting crappy story and not a lot of action. Those expectations were destroyed when the movie started to with back story to prince and then a battle scene. The battle scene was made in really awesome way and I was left pleased. Through out the whole story it was just ups and downs, they didn’t leave the watcher waiting for action or any other events for long, since the action scene just kept on coming on and on. The ending was pretty interesting and it wasn’t another misleading and disappointing story. I just loved it.

Leave a Reply