It would be easy to go into “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” believing cinema to be dead. And easier still to maintain that belief coming out of it.
Bear in mind, this is one of those movies in which time flows backwards on occasion, in just such a way as to foster some hope that even the deadest of beloved things might be restored to life and to reassuring permanence. Also bear in mind that it is a very stupid example of one of those movies, not least because it was based on a video game.
So of course the knee-jerk cinema purist will feel threatened and aggrieved. Well, he needn’t. By inference, at least, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” is a fine example of cinematic vitality. It reminds us of something that movies do very well, which is avoid being adapted from video games, on account of turning dumb otherwise.
See? Here we are, with a hairy, hunky Jake Gyllenhaal and a pretty, pouty Gemma Arterton, in an epic adventure about a dagger that is also a time machine. Indeed, in this case, the sands of time are not metaphorical. They are actual grains of sand, without which the dagger can’t do its thing. This seems important for the baseline level of subtlety it establishes, by which supporting performances from Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina may charitably be measured. For that matter, with so many Brits around, including director Mike Newell, perhaps it was perfectly fair for Gyllenhaal to redress his not seeming very Persian by affecting the official adventure-movie British accent.
And perhaps somebody is sensitive to the whole turning-dumb problem. With its plotty implications of royal-family fratricide and unwarranted war, “Prince of Persia” does also contain allusions to Shakespeare and to current events. Less pretentiously, it contains concessions to old-fashioned movie storytelling of yore. Clumsily but sincerely, it harkens back to those romantic adventure serials that influenced George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to then influence a generation of video-game enthusiasts to be able to shrug off the cultural dilution on display here.
Thus, stock scenes of agile, impish street urchins scampering around Middle-Eastern bazaars evolve into stock scenes of agile, impish warriors doing battle among computer-generated Middle-Eastern rooftops, right before our jaundiced eyes.
Speaking of jaundiced, everything and everyone in “Prince of Persia” has a disconcerting golden glow. Has there been an epidemic of hepatitis? Is that what all this hostility really is about? If the protagonists seem too hesitant to kiss each other, coming close more times than is charming, maybe it’s because they have real health concerns. Anyway, it can’t be easy to make these two beautiful people seem sometimes hard to look at, but Newell somehow has done it. And if his camera folk and editors tried to help, they didn’t much succeed: the movie’s chock full of weird framings and awkward cuts.
Which goes to show, paradoxically, that cinema can’t be dead. Not while other media, like video games, continue trying so hard to become cinema — in this case, by actually scripting in all those dull explanatory parts you’d normally push your controller button to skip over. Sure, “Prince of Persia” is watchable, but only as a game that’s been rendered unplayable.