Street Fighter. Super Mario Bros. Mortal Kombat. Movies adapted from videogames are, almost without exception, utterly terrible. It’s one of those unchanging laws of the universe, like the laws of relativity or cause and effect.
Against this backdrop of horrible mediocrity stands Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time, a production that has clearly had more money and effort thrown in its direction than most game adaptations. There’s Jerry Bruckheimer producing, a $150 million budget and a moderately starry cast headed up by leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton, with ample support from British character actors including Sir Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina.
Set in an alternate medieval Persia where the inhabitants are Caucasian and speak in crisp, RADA-approved British accents, Sands Of Time introduces Dastan (a toned and perma-tanned Gyllenhaal), the athletic Prince of the title who, while leading an invasion of a neighbouring city, encounters the beautiful princess Tamina, guardian of a mysterious dagger invested with the power to reverse the flow of time.
When it becomes clear that certain members of the cast want to use the dagger for their own dastardly ends, it falls to Dastan and Tamina to save the Earth from the weapon’s potentially lethal energy.
Writers Jordan Mechner and Boaz Yakin have wisely chosen to create a new story rather than slavishly follow the plot of the original videogame, and the initial set-up, where Dastan finds himself in the centre of a deadly plot involving a corrosive cloak, is deftly handled.
From then on, however, events become steadily more predictable (working out the identity of the film’s villain is not a tricky job at all), and the film’s twists and turns become bogged down in clichéd character exchanges and unnecessary exposition.
The time-altering properties of the dagger, where the person holding the weapon is the only person aware of its effect, is related at least two or three times, and new plot developments are constantly explained via tiresomely lengthy dialogue.
Allusions to modern wars in the Middle East are also heavy handed, and will most likely leave adults rolling their eyes and younger audience members completely mystified.
The unevenness of the script could also account for the film’s similarly varied performances. Gyllenhaal and Arterton make a handsome screen couple, but lack the requisite chemistry to make their bickering dialogue sparkle. Ben Kingsley, meanwhile, coasts through a role that could have benefited from some of the venom and brio he brought to Sexy Beast.
Director Mike (Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire) Newell stages the numerous action scenes competently enough, and fans of the Sands Of Time game will recognise many nods to its digital inspiration.
Gyllenhaal makes for a convincing action hero though, capable of everything from free-running to sword fighting to hand-to-hand combat. But the huge amounts of CGI and often staid camera work strip these moments of their necessary impact and visceral immediacy. Death stalked the player at every twitch of the joypad in the original game, and the lack of tension in Mike Newell’s adaptation is sorely felt.
Sands Of Time attempts valiantly to channel the good-natured spirit of family blockbusters such as Indiana Jones or The Mummy, and Jerry Bruckheimer is clearly trying to repeat the colossal success of the Pirates Of The Caribbean series. But, while it’s not up to the calibre of the films it apes, there’s still much to enjoy.
Alfred Molina deserves a mention for his entertaining performance as ostrich racing impresario Sheik Amar, while Persia’s medieval cities are depicted with an often surprising richness of detail. The sinister Hashshashin also make for a creepily effective set of opponents, and invest the film with a sense of menace lacking in its central antagonist.
The saying goes that laws are made to be broken, and against numerous odds, Newell has crafted a film that, while no cinematic triumph, succeeds in being less abysmal than the dozens of other videogame adaptations that have gone before it.
I left the cinema with the feeling that Sands Of Time could have been better, but quietly relieved that it wasn’t far, far worse.
Footnote: In his desperation to get to the loo at the start of the Prince Of Persia screening, Ryan hurriedly sidled past a very tall man and an extremely short man standing right by the door. It was only when the tall man and the short man took to the stage ten minutes later that he realised they were in fact Alex Zane and Jerry Bruckheimer. Ryan, therefore, wishes he could acquire a magical time reversing dagger of his own.