Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Movie: Prince of Persia

Movies based on video games have, almost without fail, been pretty lousy. There are pockets of fans who staunchly believe that the first Mortal Kombat film was, in its relative faithfulness to the game, actually decent. It had its moments, but Street Fighter, Doom, and their ilk have cast such a shadow over anything related to gaming that breaking through that barrier at this point seems almost impossible. It isn't just the stigma attached to the crappy movies; there is a feeling about video games themselves that they are childish, silly, and could not possibly tell a good story. While anyone who has actually picked up a game can tell you differently, movies are not targeted just at gamers. They have to appeal to the widest possible audience, so whether or not the source material is good enough to stand on its own is often a moot point.

When I heard about the Prince of Persia movie, I said to myself, "This movie will convince people that not all game-related movies are bad, or it will destroy that possibility forever." It had a solid cast - Ben Kingsley, Jake Gyllenhaal, Alfred Molina; backing from Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer; and a good marketing campaign that seemed to minimize or even eliminate mention of its video game origins. This, I felt, was a good thing. Just mentioning its source would sour a number of people who might otherwise be interested in seeing it. And that, I think, is why the movie has failed to gross $100 million domestically a month after its release. But onto the review.

There is a lot to like here. I'm still one of those people who wonders why everybody in a movie about Persia is speaking with an English accent (imagine my surprise when Johnny Quid from RocknRolla appears as a Persian prince), but let's leave that aside. There are clever nods throughout to the games, mostly in the use of "real life platforming" which for the sake of argument we'll call parkour. The Prince, both as a child and an adult, leaves people in his wake jumping from building to building and climbing walls, but occasionally there is a sense of something being in the movie just for that purpose. For example, when in the games there are posts sticking out of walls that enable swinging from one to another, nobody questions it. It helps move the game along. In a movie, it just looks weird. Thankfully, scenes like this were not overplayed, with just enough nod to the games.

I do not know the game story for Sands of Time, so I can't comment on its accuracy. The film's story is pretty thin, with the characters generally failing to be developed with any great detail. The villain in particular is made a villain because of his appearance and because of what we are told is his lust for power - he has no background, so it's left to the viewer to take the narrative's word for it. There is a scene in which he seems to acknowledge probable consequence of his evil actions, but discounts it as any good villain does. The backstory for the Prince is almost silly, and would have been better being simply told instead of shown.

The characters, for what they're worth, do show a high degree of real relationships among each other. Even at almost 2 hours long, though, with so much of the movie centered on the Prince and the Princess, the other characters get very little time to establish themselves. Thus, whether or not the two leads can demand our attention becomes critical. In this, they are successful. I truly enjoyed the dialogue between Gyllenhaal's Prince and Gemma Arterton's Princess Tamina. It never crosses the line into silly romance story, but there is enough chemistry between the two to warrant wondering if it ever will. There is a bizarre and all-too-familiar scene of "We should kiss for the first time now when the world is about to end, instead of waiting until there isn't quite so much at stake", but it's a minor quibble.

The ending - more accurately, the last 20 minutes or so - is what brings the movie down a notch. Throughout the preceding 90 plus minutes, the viewer has been told exactly what can and should happen should a certain event occur, but when it does finally happen, a totally different outcome ensues, rendering most of the story somewhat pointless. Spoiler behind the black:

The script plays a terrible trick on the audience by first attempting to build a connection to the Prince through the death, over time, of his entire adopted family, and then exclaiming "Fingers crossed!", going back in time to when they were all still alive, and having a happy ending. What good is having people die if they get a do-over?

Alfred Molina provides very little comic relief, to the point that I didn't think he was necessary, despite how awesome he is. The Prince retains enough levity through the course of the movie by himself and via his relationship with the Princess. The CGI work is used to good effect, with some of the action scenes the better for it.

What this movie does right is fail to scream "I BEGAN LIFE AS A VIDEO GAME", and I think anyone not knowing that ahead of time wouldn't pick up on it. Taken by itself, it still has flaws, but remains a decent outing.