Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Behold the Magnificent Ostrich: Prince of Persia, The Sands of Time

Brought to you by the same creative team responsible for the Pirates of the Caribbean series (the not-so-strange bedfellows Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer) and armed with an all-star cast including Academy Award nominees (Jake Gyllenhaal), knights of the realm (Sir Ben Kingsley), Tony Award nominees (Alfred Molina), and erstwhile Bond girls (Gemma Arterton, hubba hubba), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is the most-hyped non-sequel of the fledgling 2010 blockbuster season. In addition to the ubiquitous trailers and commercials (as expected), the marketing campaign also included a full-size poster mailed out with Friday's LA Times and gigantic ultra-billboards plastered on pretty much every available square inch of malls and shopping centers. Some places even had signage covering the banister of the escalators leading up to the theater!

As a fan of the eponymous game (and the two sequels it spawned, Warrior Within and Two Thrones), I was already aware of and excited about seeing the film without the added press coverage. Many balked at the idea of having a white guy play a Middle-Eastern, but being familiar with the video game's portrayal of the title character, I was confident that Jake G. could pull it off. Furthermore, the series is set in more of a fantastical, faraway land than any attempt at an actual representation of the ancient Persian empire. That coupled with Hollywood's penchant for using nothing more than a vague British accent to portray any kind of foreign nation or people, regardless of race, color, or creed, and Gyllenhaal's casting is pretty much par for the course.

As it turns out, I actually liked Jake Gyllenhaal's prince. He did a nice job with both the accent and the attitude, he certainly looked the part (if you're going by Warrior Within character design), and I, for one, bought the rags-to-riches storyline the writers crafted for him, despite its deviation from the game's vision of the character. Sadly, Gyllenhaal was pretty much the only thing I liked about the movie. Let's just say that I'm glad the LA Times poster is double-sided, even if the other side features Bruckheimer's upcoming release The Sorcerer's Apprentice...

Yeah. That's right. Even after being twice disappointed by the trailer, I would infinitely rather sit through two hours of Nicolas Cage/Jay Baruchel banter in Disney Digital 3D than watch any part of Prince of Persia again. Even just a compilation of all Gemma Arterton's breast-sploitation scenes. It was that bad.

Upon exiting the theater, one of my friends remarked, "I think the game had better storytelling than the movie." Oh, without a doubt! Sands of Time (the game) is a remarkably well-crafted piece of entertainment, in terms of gameplay, story, character, and overall feel. Lemme just real quick give you a rundown of the plot of the game.

"Most people think time is a river, that flows swift and sure in one direction," says a voice. "But I have seen the face of time, and I can tell you they are wrong. Time is an ocean in a storm." The voice is revealed to be that of the Prince of Persia, son of King Sharaman, who acts as the narrator/protagonist of the game. He recounts the tale of a daring attack on an Indian city, orchestrated by the city's traitorous vizier (basically Jafar from Aladdin), where the Persian army captures a mystical hourglass filled with the legendary Sands of Time. Jafar tricks the Prince into using his main piece of loot - a dagger that can rewind time - to unlock the hourglass, unleashing the sands. The only survivors are the Prince (because he has the dagger), the vizier (because of his spells or something), and a mysterious girl named Farrah, the Indian Maharajah's daughter who was captured during the battle.

Farrah and the Prince travel through the city together, overcoming obstacles and fighting evil sand monsters, in search of the vizier and the stolen hourglass. Farrah eventually wins the Prince's complete trust, and after a passionate CGI love scene, she steals the dagger and strikes out on her own in an attempt to reopen the hourglass and set all things right with the world. The Prince gives chase, only to find Farrah killed by sand monsters and no sand left in the dagger. The Prince completes the quest on his own, uses the dagger/hourglass combination to return to the start of the game so he can warn Farrah and kill the evil vizier.

It's a linear story (written by Jordan Mechner) featuring developed characters with recognizable goals and stakes. The banter between Farrah and the Prince is effective, and at times downright funny or emotional. The atmosphere is phenomenal, thanks to entrancing yet practical level design and a great score by Stuart Chatwood that's equal parts commercialized Middle Eastern rhythms and high-energy electric guitar.

In contrast to the game's streamlined action and story, here's how the movie plays out (SPOILER ALERT!)

The ruler of Persia is still King Sharaman, but now he has a brother (Ben Kingsley) and two sons. The title character (unfortunately given a name in the movie version) isn't even a true Prince of Persia, but a street rat (again, see Aladdin) who the king adopts as a child. Already these new characters make things much more complicated than they need be, but read on.

The raid on the holy city (also given a dumb name that I have fortunately forgotten) is motivated not by good old-fashioned power and glory, but because Ben Kingsley convinces the Persian army that the city's princess has been feeding weapons and supplies to Persia's enemies. To spell it out for you, they've essentially created a messy allegory for a liberal explanation of the Iraq war, with swords replacing WMDs and the Sands of Time replacing oil reserves.

The first sequence starts out extremely promisingly, with the structure and feel emulating the best parts of the video game. But after the Prince (hereafter referred to by his movie name: Dastan) retrieves the dagger, we embark on a convoluted sword-and-sandal political thriller, where the Prince goes on the run after being accused of murdering his father. For some reason, the princess (whose name was changed from Farrah to Tamina, and whose personality was changed from strong, independent, and clever to whiny and hollow) accompanies Dastan on his travels, which include a visit to a black market Ostrich race run by a surprisingly charismatic Alfred Molina and his knife-throwing lackey.

It's revealed that Ben Kingsley (the most obvious red herring bad guy since Severus Snape) wants possession of the dagger of time so he can release the sands, go back in time, and prevent his older brother from assuming the throne. Little does he know that releasing the sands will result in total destruction of the entire world! ...or so Tamina would have us believe. And we have every reason to trust her, as she's a member of a sacred order charged with protecting the sands. (I won't even get into the absolutely ludicrous mythology they tried to invent for this purpose.)

When they get to the sands (the hourglass has been replaced by a subterranean glowing rock), Tamina falls to her death, Ben Kingsley releases the sands, there is some kind of struggle that ends with Dastan holding the dagger, and we're transported back to the beginning of the movie. Dastan fixes everything and makes it so the inciting incident of the plot never happens. Everyone lives happily ever after. The End.

Why does unleashing the sands result in wrapping everything up in a neat little package rather than the end of the world? Why do they have it happen in the last minutes of the film, turning the event that kicked off the entire plot of the game into little more than an ill-conceived afterthought? And how can you introduce a plot device as awesome as the dagger of time and then have it go off just three times in the entire film?

It seemed like director Mike Newell was intent on showing us moments that could develop into interesting story points or dynamic action sequences, then taking whatever steps necessary to insure that absolutely nothing came out of them. Nothing that exemplified the strengths of the game - sand monsters, feats of superhuman acrobaticity by the Prince, a compelling prince-princess relationship - came through in the film. And don't even get me started on Harry Gregson-Williams's score, which amounted to nothing more than a bastardization of the most recognizable parts of Maurice Jarre's score for Lawrence of Arabia and the least inspired parts of Hans Zimmer's score for Gladiator.

Overall rating: 12 Congos.