Desert movies should be as sprawling and epic as the never ending sand dunes on which they take place. But Prince of Persia, despite epic aspirations, feels slight, small, empty, and worst of all forgettable. It’s the kind of movie that just doesn’t leave an impression. It passes in front of your eyes but never gets past the retinas. Like a camel crossing the sand, its tracks are erased by the wind almost as soon as it passes, eliminating any sign of its presence, as if it were never there. The best thing I can say about The Sands of Time is that, to quote the late, great Douglas Adams, it’s mostly harmless.
Prince of Persia comes closest to grabbing your attention early on. In the movie’s opening sequences we’re introduced to Dastan, a prince of the ancient Persia. Before an act of kindness brought him to the royal family, Dastan lived as a street urchin. It was there, in the dusty markets, that he learned amazing skills of agility, which back then he used to stay alive, and now uses to protect the Persian empire. Though Great Britain won’t be populated for centuries, as played by Jake Gyllenhaal (who even with a Hollywood tan may still be the palest man in the Middle East), Prince Dastaan (and everyone else in the movie for that matter) has an inexplicable British accent. Fortunately, Jake’s footwork is better than his Alec Guinness impression.
Much of the movie’s early scenes send Gyllenhaal leaping and climbing and clamoring around ancient buildings in what amounts to a cinematically dazzling Parkour demonstration. Parkour is a method of overcoming obstacles by adapting one’s movements to the environment. In practice that means the fastest way to get past a parked camel might be to go over it, rather than around it, and the best way to get off a roof might be to jump down onto an awning, leap over to an overhang, and swing down to the ground using a bit of rope. Even though some of it’s computer enhanced, Prince of Persia’s great fun as long as Jake’s jumping and diving and slithering past obstacles, until that is, the plot kicks in.
There’s a murder and Dastan is falsely accused. There’s some confusion as to who the story’s villain is, but only to the people in the film, not the audience, since this is a movie which contains Ben Kinglsey. There’s a girl whom Dastan must take with him on his journey to clear his name. And there’s a dagger which, when you push a button on its hilt, rewinds time to give you another shot at whatever it is you’ve just screwed up. The dagger’s a neat little device, unfortunately it can only be used once or twice and only to rewind brief periods of time. Use it more and Prince of Persia could have become a sandier version of The Matrix and by extension a lot more fun. But since the dagger’s uses are limited what we’re left with instead is the kind of movie in which the hero stops, far too often, in the middle of trying to keep from being killed, to kiss the girl. Worse we’re told early on that by the end of the movie Dastan will find a bigger time rewinder which can reset everything, making everything we watch him do, basically irrelevant.
Gemma Arterton is the girl and the chemistry between she and Gyllenhaal is as forced as the chemistry between her and Sam Worthington, back when she sucked just as much in Clash of the Titans. She’s not helped any by the movie’s dialogue, which is clunky and contrived, or its editing, which seems to have been accomplished by applying to razorblade to the film whenever the director’s kids got bored.
It’s that editing which keeps the movie from feeling big, the way any massive, desert adventure should. A sandstorm is reduced to a dust devil, since we cut away to see Dastan sitting inside a homemade tent (which we never seem him build) before the wind gets really impressive. A journey across a massive desert between cities is reduced to the ancient world equivalent of a fifteen minute drive from Manhattan to the Bronx. Just hop on a horse and you’ll arrive at the next plot point, the desert’s not so much a place as a convenient backdrop.
There’s no sense of wonder in Prince of Persia and that’s a shame because it’s a film which should be built almost entirely on wonder. The dagger’s a lot of fun, on the rare occasions it’s used; Dastan’s Parkour skills are attention getting, and despite his bad accent Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t all that bad as Dastan. But Prince of Persia feels listless and far too often lazy. It doesn’t earn any of the excitement and romance it tries to create and so the audience is never really invested in any of it. It saved in spots by Alfred Molina, who seems to be acting in brownface, but also applies a toothy grin as he channels every adventure movie con man you’ve ever imagined all at once, and makes a character out of it.
Prince of Persia really is mostly harmless. It’s based on a video game and in a world where video game adaptations are consistently awful, maybe mostly harmless is a step up. Maybe mostly harmless is good enough, if you’re a gamer starved for games which have been successfully turned into Hollywood blockbusters. Somehow I doubt such a moviegoer exits, real gamers are at home holding Xbox controllers, which leaves Prince of Persia no good reason to be where it is, taking up space in your local movie theater.