Viewed from the Olympian heights of Cinefantastique – the Online Magazine with a Sense of Wonder, which maintains a reputation for demanding dilettantism, even outright pretension, in its assessment horror, fantasy, and science fiction films – PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME seems virtually made to be derided. Its package of elements is less a brightly wrapped present than a glowing new security gadget, flashing multiple warning lights: It’s another big-budget, CGI-heavy action-fantasy flick, based on a video game no less. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal, who hardly seems cut out for action-hero theatrics. It’s directed by Mike Newell, who has two great movies to his credit (ENCHANTED APRIL and FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL) but has shown little sense of wonder when working on fantasy material (his work on HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE was anonymous at best). And it’s produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who gave us the increasingly insane PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequels and the unwatchable G-FORCE. With all this stacked against it, one may understandably wonder: What could possible go right? The answer, surprisingly, is: More than you would expect.
Make no mistake: almost everything that you would expect to be wrong with PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME is, in fact, wrong. It takes that Hollywood generic approach to costume epics, in which British accents (including one from Gyllenhaal) are used to suggest a past time and place, regardless of the actual setting. Despite its Middle Eastern setting, the cast is filled with fair-skinned American and English actors, who are obviously not Persian. The running time is overloaded with action scenes thrown in for their own sake. The screenplay features a love-hate relationship between the male and female leads that grows wearisome in its effort to recreate the chemistry of Princess Leia and Han Solo. And the dialogue is bogged down with tedious exposition.
And yet somehow it works more often than not. How?
Well, it’s all presented as an enjoyable lark, a light-hearted popcorn flick that makes few demands on the audience and expects few in return. The goofiness of the things you might hold against the film actually becomes part of the fun, like little signposts indicating not to take the proceedings seriously. As often as not, PRINCE OF PERSIA‘s mistakes are clouds with silver linings. [WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW]
For example, when we see the lone prominent black character, the knife-throwing Seso (Steve Toussaint) give up his life so that his master and the other white heroes can succeed in their mission, it’s a tired, racist cliche as old as silent cinema – you may flinch when you realize the film is going to roast this old chestnut again, but when it’s over, you have to give the sequence an exemption, because in its own cornball, melodramatic way, it’s a memorably good moment that gives a supporting character a chance to steal the show, and you’re sorry to see him go.
Likewise, the script’s uncertainty about what to do with Princess Tamina (CLASH OF THE TITAN’s Gemma Arterton) during the action set pieces is actually a stroke of good fortune. She is not allowed to sit on the sidelines like a damsel in distress, but she doesn’t really do anything, either. Sure, she is always reaching for a sword, but we see little evidence that she can actually handle one. In this day and age, the reluctance to morph her from pampered princess into the obligatory warrior-heroine feels almost as if it’s preserving the character’s integrity. (And she does finally get a good moment when she sneaks up behind a villain with a pet snake, grabbing the serpent from behind and plunging its fangs into its master’s face! Way to go, girl!)
PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME doesn’t use its popcorn pedigree as an excuse to be deliberately arch or ironic, nor is it completely empty-headed. It’s a confection but not a completely flimsy one; its attempts to add a little substance to the souffle – which should have been disastrous – actually ground the film in – if not a sense of believability, then at least a sense that we should invest enough to care about what’s happening for a couple hours instead of just hurling candy wrappers at the screen and waiting for the next fight scene.
On top of that there is a little more – just enough – to engage our interest on something more than a video game level. In fact, PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME even dares to question the underlying assumptions of the video game aesthetic, in which action is everything, suggesting that being heroic in battle is not always enough.This last element is not necessarily the most insightful stance ever taken in a feature film, but hey, you take what you can get, especially when it arrives in the form of a thinly veiled attack on Bush’s Iraq adventure.
After a brief prologue showing how Dastan, a young orphan, was adopted into the royal family, we flash-forward a couple decades to see the adult Dastan (Gyllenhaal), aiding his brothers in a battle against the holy city of Alumet – against the previously expressed order of their father, who is back home, tending the Persian kingdom. The motivation for this attack is the discovery that Alumet is supplying arms to Persia’s enemies. Unbeknownst to his older brothers, Dastan mounts a separate raid that breaches the walls of the heavily fortified city, leading to victory.
So far, so dull – or so it seems. PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME has us deep in familiar territory: we’re supposed to think the warfare is fun because our guys win, and we’re supposed to think Dastan is cool because he came up from the streets and he does things his own way – even though he doesn’t follow the rules, we expect he will be rewarded for his successful results. The first surprise comes when his adoptive father King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) praises Dastan for being a good soldier but then points out that a truly great soldier would have prevented the unnecessary battle in the first place, even if it meant defying his superior.
What? You mean there’s more to war than winning? Maybe even there are times when we should rely on discretion rather than force? What kind of commie, defeatist talk is this, anyway?
Well, it turns out that the accusations against Alumet were based on faulty intelligence; even worse, the intelligence was not merely faulty but deliberately fabricated in order to fool otherwise well-meaning people into opting for a war that was not necessary. In a delicious dig that couldn’t be more obvious if PRINCE OF PERSIA had a flashing sign pointing at it, the post-battle focus becomes an off-screen search for the alleged weapons (as in, “Weapons of Mass Destruction”) that were the casus belli for the battle. (That this plot element has not ignited a firestorm of controversy from right-wing pundits is little short of miraculous, but hey, that’s why popular entertainment is a great medium for indoctrinating the masses – right, comrade?)
DARING ESCAPES AND ANTI-TAX RHETORIC
In any case, now that the filmmakers have had their little joke at the expense of the previous White House administration, it’s on with the story, which is frankly a bit weighted down with its set-up. After being framed for murder, Prince Dastan escapes, reluctantly taking Alumet’s Princess Tamina with him as he seeks to clear his name. Of course she hates him because he helped sack her city, but they need each other – at least until they don’t. This provides opportunities for the screenplay to indulge in the sort of monotonous back-stabbing twists that muddled the Bruckheimer’s PIRATES sequels. Yawn.
The Dastan-Tamina relationship is hardly helped by PRINCE OF PERSIA‘s screenplay, which seems unsure whether to portray her as she sees herself (noble and pure) or as Dastan initially sees her (spoiled and pampered). Consequently, she emerges as not much of anything in particular. But this hardly matters, as we are safely in the land of make believe, where princess and princesses are familiar archetypes. We know we are supposed to like them, and we know they will end up liking each other, even if they bicker along the way. All that’s required is that the actors look good going through their paces and let us in on the fun they they are having while playing dress-up. Arterton struggles to imbue the character with some gravitas, and she at least manages to look like someone who should be taken seriously – not just a pretty face -even if the script offers little to support this appearance. Arterton and Gyllenhaal may not light up the screen together, but they seem to be having fun, without winking at the audience of camping it up.
Fortunately, Alfred Molina shows up as a tax-hating and rather shady entrepreneur, who sounds like a mouth-piece for anti-government Tea Bagger sentiments (gotta give credit to the film for working both sides of the aisle). Although Molina at first seems too good to be wasting his time in this sort of nonsense, he’s actually good, and the film sells his character to us in such a way that even when betrays Dastan, we know it’s all going to work out in the end – we just like him too much for him to remain a villain.
This is a key part of what makes PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME succeed in spite of everything stacked against it: it gets us to like its characters, even some who seem initially antagonistic. Instead of hating or dismissing them and tuning out, you want to see them do the right thing, and as predictable as the change-of-heart scenes may be, as much as your cynical inner self may recoil from these moments, they do indeed work.
Buoyed by this mid-film boost, the rest of PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME coasts along at a fairly painless clip, at least until the film gets around to explaining what the plot’s about. You see, Tamina is the keeper of a sacred dagger that can turn back time as long as the sand within its glass handle runs out (i.e., about a minute). Somebody wants to get their hands on that dagger and take it back to the source of the sands, in order to reset history years back, and…
Oh well, I intend to be kinder to you than the film is to is audience, which just about nods off during the exposition regarding the sands of time and how the dagger came to exist and what the catastrophic consequences will be if the villain is allowed to go through with his nefarious plan. No one really cares, yet at least one of the credited screenwriters seems to have felt the need to work overtime justifying his paycheck, sending viewers into Lotus-land. Apparently, no one realized that the dagger is just a plot device – a huge MacGuffin – and all we care about is that it gives the characters an excuse to dodge arrows, leap off buildings, and outwit the villain, whatever his ultimate goal may be.
Said villain turns out to be Nizam, played by Ben Kingsley. Revealing this is hardly a spoiler, since for mysterious reasons of their own, the studio gives this away in PRINCE OF PERSIA‘s theatrical trailer, undermining Kingsley’s achievement, which was convincing you of his sincerity until the moment when Dastan begins to suspect his duplicity, at which point some subtle little light goes off in Kingsley’s eyes, just enough to confirm your suspicion. It’s an amazing acting moment because it’s hard to see exactly what has changed in the man’s face, and yet it’s there, clear as the bright desert sun without anything obvious to explain why we haven’t seen it all along. It’s nice to see a fantasy film villain who avoids scenery chewing; Kingsley seems to be taking it all seriously, but not too seriously – he never risks overstepping into campy melodrama.
As for Gyllenhaal, his boyish charm is really his meal ticket here. Not much is demanded of him, but for someone who seemed the least likely heir to the Errol Flynn’s and Douglass Fairbanks’s, he acquits himself quite well; even if you go in dead set against the idea of him as an action hero, you have to laugh along with him and enjoy the ride. In a way, it’s a bit like watching your best friend in the high school play: you know he’s not Hamlet, but you want to see him do well, and you enjoy watching him anyway.
And ultimately, the thrill ride is what this film promised – a promise so often unfulfilled – or fulfilled only at the cost of story-telling and characterization – that one has come to regard it with innate suspicion. When a film offers nothing but fun entertainment, “fun” and “entertainment” become almost the last things expected.
Almost in spite of itself PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME earns audience goodwill, and that buys a lot of slack to get away with gambits that would otherwise fail miserably. The ending features what could have registered as ultra-lame contrivance, based around one of the worst science-fiction-fantasy cliches: turning back the clock to set things right. Yet unlike the ending of, say, SUPERMAN (1978), this sequence feels justified, partly because the entire plot is built around the time-twisting powers of the mystical dagger but mostly because the film has earned its right to hit the reset button. Consequently, instead of groaning in derision, you may be surprised to find yourself sighing in satisfied relief.
PRINCE OF PERSIA achieves its modest goal – supplying the derring-do that one expects from a glossy action-adventure – without succumbing to the pitfalls of the soulless Hollywood manufacturing process. What’s surprising is that, when the film makes the obligatory attempts at generating some genuine feeling, it actually works better than when it’s just running, jumping, and defying death at all turns. The themes are basic stuff about loyalty, bonds of brotherhood, and doing the right thing instead of mindlessly following orders; fortunately, the cast sells it with a pleasing semblance of sincerity.
This helps redeem the more unpleasant elements of PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME, which occasionally s border on misogynistic. Our hero’s noble brother at one point order Dastan to kill Tamina if she refuses to join Persia and Alumet through marriage. Dastan himself threatens to break Tamina’s arm at one point; at another he sells her into slavery to get himself out of a bad situation. These mismanaged moments turn out to be attempts to present characters who do not live up to21st century standards of behavior; these people are not automatically chivalrous or merciful toward their defeated enemies, but throughout the film we see glimpses of them evolving; they’re not perfect, but they are trying to be better. And by the end, they succeed.
Making improvements requires an admission that there is room for improvement. Too often movie heroes are a bit smug in their own self-satisfaction and deep conviction in the rightness of their cause. For what could have been a dumb summer movie to come out in favor of self-reflection and self-improvement, instead of the mindless jingo-ism of war and victory – my country, right or wrong – deserves at least a small nod of respect.
PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME (2010). Directed by Mike Newell. Written by Boaz Yakin and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard, screen story by Jordan Mchner, based on his video game series. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley, Alfred MOlina, Steve Toussaint, Toby Kebbell, Richard Coyle, Ronadl Pickup, Reece Ritchie, Gisli Orn Garoarsson.