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Monday, August 15, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

Director: Mike Newell
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton
Domestic Gross: $90,759,676

$90 million is nothing to sneeze at. If I had $90 million, that would probably be all I ever talked about. But for a movie that's supposed to be a summer tentpole, $90 million is nothing. In 2010, $90 million wasn't even enough to be included in the top 10 domestic grossing films of the summer and Prince of Persia had to settle for being the 15th highest grossing film of its season, putting it $5 million behind Sex and the City 2, which seems appropriate given that the two films have similarly problematic issues vis a vis their depiction of the Middle East. Now, if Prince of Persia had cost $30 million, this would be a win regardless. If it had cost $60 million, you could still call it profitable once you factored in the worldwide gross. Hell, if it had cost $90 million, you could at least say that it broke even, even though that wouldn't actually true once you factored in the marketing costs which aren't publicized. But Prince of Persia cost an absolutely insane $200 million to make. $200 million. Pumped into a film helmed by the director of the sweeping action adventure picture Four Weddings and a Funeral (and, okay, one of the Harry Potter movies) and headlined by an actor who, to date, has only ever starred in one film that grossed over $100 million (2004's The Day After Tomorrow). I would love to tell you that, at the very least, you can see that $200 million on screen, but alas you cannot. Money well spent, Hollywood.

Based on a video game of the same name (which is always a great start for a film), the eponymous Prince of Persia is Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a street urchin who, as a child, was spotted in the marketplace by King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), who liked his moxie so much that he decided to adopt him and raise him alongside his biological sons Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell). As the story proper begins, the three Princes are leading the Persian army towards the city of Alamut as Nizam (Ben Kingsley), Sharaman's brother, has received intelligence that the city is supplying weapons to Persia's enemies. Tus, the heir to the throne, makes the decision to sack the city and even though Dastan doesn't see the wisdom of doing so, he does his part and is the one to be able to breach Alamut's walls, allowing the Persians to seize the city as well as Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), who is desperate to smuggle a special dagger out before it can be taken by the Persians. Dastan ends up in possession of it, however, and before Tamina can make a move to get it back, Dastan is framed for the murder of Sharaman and in the chaos that ensues, he and Tamina slip out of Alamut and go on the run together. From there they have several small, connected adventures during which Dastan learns that the dagger is powered by the "sands of time," and he and Tamina must race to both prove Dastan's innocence and expose the real killer and stop that person from destroying the world by trying to manipulate the sands of time.

If it were announced as a project today, there's a chance that Prince of Persia wouldn't even get off the ground as a film because the outcry against its casting would be so deafening as to make it not worth pursuing. This isn't to say that whitewash casting wasn't something seen as a problem in 2010, because it was (and this film attracted some controversy for that), but more that the push back against such a narrow and homogeneous view of the world seems louder and better organized now and more difficult for Hollywood and its marketing teams to ignore. As these things go, Prince of Persia isn't an overly egregious example of the practice and is more just a typical example of the way that Hollywood has long tried to play with the allure of the unknown/different while making it as non-threatening as possible. It's a strategy that depends on two elements working against each other in order to produce something that is as middle of the road as possible so that the film can have its cake and eat it, too. In a case like this, the film gets to spice up the images of white actors by making them look "exotic" while tempering that otherness by making it as familiar and "mainstream" as possible, and thus you end up with a long haired Gyllenhaal, swarthily tinted just enough to look golden while still being recognizable as white, and speaking in that particular English accent that indicates olden times, no matter where in the world the story takes place.

But what of the film, you might ask. Well, let me say this: as a film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time seems like it made for a somewhat interesting video game. The way that the narrative is broken up feels like chapters in a game, with scenes of exposition that set up a task that needs to be accomplished, followed by the action sequence in which that accomplishment takes place, followed by the exposition that sets up the next task until the story has finally advanced to the final level with the big battle, and then it ends by hitting the reset button and undoing everything that just unfolded. All things being equal, it's not that interesting as a film, particularly since it can't find a way to comfortably incorporate the "selling point" of its premise (that the protagonist possesses a dagger that allows him to turn back time) into the storytelling. The dagger and the time travel ultimately play a pretty small part in the narrative (by my recollection, the film only actually uses it as a device three times, one of which is for its deus ex machina resolution), which is just as well since the film seems to be at a loss with respect to how to dramatize sand induced time travel, settling for depicting it in a series of blurry images that move at an otherworldly pace.

Prince of Persia is a misfire on pretty much every level. While Gyllenhaal is a great actor, he never seems particularly comfortable in this role, which requires him to do little more than alternate between flexing his muscles, engaging in some CGI assisted parkour, and trading chastely smoldering looks with Arterton, who gets even less to do as the film can't seem to decide whether her character should be a damsel in distress or a mouthy trouble maker, and so switches back and forth depending on the needs of any given scene. Additionally, the film never really settles on a tone, alternating between scenes that play as light, swashbuckling adventure, and ones that depend on the pathos of betrayal and the agony of family bonds being severed, which might work better if the characters weren't so shallowly rendered and if it weren't immediately apparent who the architect of the chaos is going to turn out to be (if you want the audience to be surprised that Ben Kingsley is the bad guy, don't go so far out of your way to make him seem like the bad guy); and the effects look pretty bad in the light of 2016 (and I have a hard time believing that they looked great in 2010). How something like this could cost $200 million (not to mention how anyone in their right mind could greenlight a budget of that size for a film that was as far from a sure thing as this one) is a total mystery.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: No, it's pretty terrible


Wendell Ottley said...

Agreed. This is a completely underwhelming movie. And the effects didn't look too hot in 2010, either.

Norma Desmond said...

I suspected as much about the effects. The way it looks, you would think they just decided to fall back on the fact that the effects involve sand so that they could say that it looks blurry on purpose. Which begs the question: why $200 million?