You’re dashing up walls, swinging between rooftops, and performing all kinds of death-defying acrobatics. The experience is something new altogether and you wonder why nothing like it has come before. It’s also got this cool dagger that turns back time. Plus, you’ve got the bonus of a charming protagonist you can root for. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is just good goddamn fun.
Oh, just to be clear: I’m talking about the video game. The movie is awful and doesn’t have one redeeming aspect. It’s Pirates of the Caribbean if Pirates of the Caribbean was dull, moronic, lazy, and starred characters you hated. Oh, and also had a nice smattering of racism thrown in for flavor. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time honors not Pirates of the Caribbean or the game that inspired it, but the tradition of video game movies being terrible.
Dastan is a street kid who impressed the King of Persia one day through his mixture of heroics and crazy parkour skills for a ten year old. The King adopts Dastan and fifteen years later he’s now a prince of Persia and is played by Jake Gyllenhaal. The conceit of having the King adopt the clearly non-Persian Gyllenhaal would be a nice way of dodging the racism problem except no one in the Persian royal family is played by an Iranian actor. I can understand (if not agree with) the decision to cast a name like Ben Kingsley as the antagonist, but the King and his two sons aren’t name actors, but they’re white anyway (don’t let Toby Kebbell’s brown-face fool you). In Prince of Persia, Persian means British.
So Dastan doesn’t have royal blood but it’s okay because he’s got crazy parkour skills and uses his can-do attitude, wits, and winning smile to take over an entire city while his dumb brothers are trying a direct assault. During the battle, Dastan acquires a sacred dagger that Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) is sworn to protect (she’s not good at her job). Then Dastan’s uncle Nizam (Kinsley) has the prince inadvertently murder the King, and Dastan goes on the run with Tamina in tow for some reason. He learns the dagger runs on special sand that can turn back time for a full minute, but then has to run the dagger back to Tamina’s city before Nizam can unleash its true power and accidentally destroy the world. So to be fair, Prince of Persia has a plot. It’s one that goes from plodding to mean to outright stupid as the film progresses, but you can follow it from point A to point B.
The only other minor victory (and the fact that I’m counting a cohesive story for this film as a “victory” is beyond sad) is the parkour scenes. They’re fun to watch, but why watch them when you can play them at home? There’s an interactive thrill the games provide that the movie can’t match. Play the game or one like it and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll still be impressed by what you see in the movie, but I think gamers will be anxious to get home and switch on Assassin’s Creed II.
Granted, the video game—like most action-adventure titles—doesn’t do much in the way of characters. It’s charming the way the Prince (who goes nameless in the game) frames the narrative as if he were telling it as a story so that when you “die” he can go “No, that’s not how it happened.” Gyllenhaal lacks even a fraction of that charm. A grin, an occasional witticism, and a British accent do not a charming leading man make. Prince of Persia wants Dastan to be like Jack Sparrow, but it fails to understand why Sparrow is charming. In Pirates of the Caribbean, everyone underestimates Sparrow, he has genuine flaws, his behavior hides a sharp intellect, and Depp created a character that no one had ever seen before. Gyllenhaal’s Dastan, by comparison, is Generic Adventure Hero #56893.
Far worse is his relationship with Princess Tamina. There is no chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Arteron. Their characters are just shitty to one another throughout the first half, either betraying or humiliating the other. Then they spend the second-half making big doe-eyes at each other and that’s how you know they’ve fallen in love. They never share anything personal with each other or take a moment that would make them seem like people worth caring instead of spoiled, selfish brats.
So the first half of the movie we spend time getting to know these repulsive characters (and everyone in the flick is unlikable, not just Dastan and Tamina), and then the film goes outright stupid. But here’s the thing: the audience I saw it with loved the movie. They applauded multiple times throughout. And not ironically. They were genuinely swept up in what I found to be one of the most dull, unimaginative, bland “adventure” movies I’ve seen in quite some time. Perhaps it’s because I’m a critic and I’ve seen more movies so it’s harder to please me. But I honestly don’t know what merited such a positive response. I know there’s a disconnect at times between general audiences and film critics where the general opinions of one are wildly divergent with the opinions of the other. So maybe you’ll come back here and tell me I’m stupid because you thought the movie was awesome. Go ahead. I’ll be off having fun rather than cheering on a movie that needs cheat codes for excitement, people worth caring about, fun dialogue, and joy. Maybe instead of unlocking a magic dagger, the characters should have sought out a Game Genie.