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Review - Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Gyllenhaal edition)

The pool of movies which take their source material from video games is one that is stagnant, tepid, and largely disgusting. Perhaps you could better visualize the general effectiveness of these types of films by picturing said pool green with unknown fungus, smelling of decay and dead things, and perhaps bubbling revoltingly with that little “glop” noise you always hear in movies set in swamps. Throw in a few dead squirrels floating on the surface for good measure if you feel like it.

Video game movies aren’t good, is what I’m trying to say. 

By smashing together two entertainment worlds so different, and so much at odds, films such as these shoot for box office glory but inevitably end up with a mess that ends up pleasing neither movie fans nor game lovers. Whether it’s slavish devotion to the source material, abandonment of the source material, a misguided quest to bring the lowly medium of video games into the “respectable” and clearly superior realm of film, or plain old bad storytelling, these movies are destined to please no one.

And rightfully so. I can’t think of one video game movie that I would call legitimately enjoyable. The only entertainment films like these bring is the kind that comes with a couple of adult beverages and a group of friends to make fun of how terrible they are. A worthy sort of entertainment, sure, but not, I’m guessing, what the writers were hoping for.

Well, except for Dead or Alive, maybe, but that’s a different article.

Against all odds, after much waiting, countless hours of suffering in stuffy movie theaters with sticky floors, and innumerable weekly allowances blown on films that do nothing but tarnish the source material’s good name, one movie might finally have broken the mold. Using a delicate balancing act that weaves conceptual source material with originality, a script that fuses nods to its gaming roots with plenty of accessible Hollywood traditions, and a budget high enough to give the crazy idea a shot at actually working, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time might just be the best adaptation of a video game into a movie yet.

Not that the bar has been set stunningly high, mind you.

Now that my somewhat backhanded compliments have been said, let me clarify that I don’t wish to place Prince of Persia on too lofty a pedestal. This is a film so thoroughly stamped with Jerry Bruckheimer’s trademarks that you can practically smell his expensive cologne wafting through your TV set. This is a film cut from some of the most well-worn of tired Hollywood cliches. This is a movie that defines the sappy “Hollywood ending” that so many have come to loathe. 

And yet this is also a fun film. It features plenty of spectacular action sequences and great special effects. It shows off an HDTV with luscious visuals and tests your surround sound system with satisfying booms and objects whizzing past your left ear. Its dialog might have your rolling your eyes more than once, but it’ll also have you laughing and smiling. 

All of this is to say once again that Prince of Persia is not a stunning film, nor an original one. It is, however, a film that has its roots in a video game and yet manages to be legitimately enjoyable to some degree. This is, perhaps, a first. 

It works because the writers paid homage to the source material without being dragged down by it. They acknowledged in subtle ways where their tale had originated without being afraid to take these ideas to new places that have nothing to do with the games. If you come into Prince of Persia looking for a direct adaptation of the games, you will be disappointed. But then, if that’s what you’re looking for in film adaptations of games, you are doomed to eternal misery anyway. 

The Sands of Time video game trilogy relied on a number of core themes that made its tale so endearing. Love across time and social rank. A lightheartedness in even the most serious of situations. Bending the fabric of time to the will of one individual. A strong focus on agile parkour sequences. And, of course, the beautiful set pieces of ancient, mystical Persian culture brought to life.

By taking these core concepts and building an original story around them, Prince of Persia retains enough of the spirit of the games to feel genuine yet avoids being shackled by the constraints of utter faithfulness. It does all this while also not getting bogged down in too much of the ridiculous nonsense that usually plagues stories involving any amount of time travel, which is yet another amazing feat to its name.

Sometimes you don’t need originality or perfection to succeed. Sometimes all you need is a bit of fun. This is one of those times. Prince of Persia won’t go down as a classic, but it will be remembered as one of the only films to bridge that precarious gap between the interactive world of video games and the guided world of film. It does so with a smile on its face and a stylish flair for enjoyable action, which is something I can appreciate regardless of its origins. 

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