Saturday, May 29, 2010

PRINCE OF PERSIA - A Review and Lament For a Great Franchise Turned Epic Fail


- It pains me to say it, but Prince of Persia falls just shy of being a truly epic fail. The movie is just broken on so many levels, and it sort of symbolizes exactly how a big budget blockbuster can go wrong. It's such a frustrating film, because you've got a seemingly talented director at the helm, some A-list actors in the cast, and a can't-miss concept derived from one of the most influential game series of all time. What the hell? How does such a promising movie end up in the proverbial toliet?

First of all, part of the reason why POP is so disappointing is that it looked like, finally, Hollywood was going to make a videogame adaptation that didn't completely suck. For those that don't know, Prince of Persia is one of the truly groundbreaking videogame series. The original game forever changed the sidescrolling genre in the early days of gaming, introducing a more methodical, cerebral pace and featuring then-unprecedented animation and fluidity. Later, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time became a game-changing hit during the era of the early days of the Playstation 2. It was one of the best 3D adventures to hit consoles yet - brimming with evocative atmosphere, and featuring a great new gameplay mechanic in the ability to turn back time and give yourself a do-over upon making a critical mistake. Still, all that the movie needed to do was to capture the game's striking ambiance and mood, and create a story that took advantage of the game's captivating setting.

So ... why is Prince of Persia an ultra-generic, C-grade action movie with no real style to speak of? Instead of being an atmospheric mind-bender like the game, the movie recycles every blockbuster cliche in the book, and just happens to be set in ancient Persia. The story here is so by-the-numbers it hurts. There's not a single shocking twist or jaw-dropping reveal. The "surprise" villain is obvious from the first five minutes of the film. Not a single character pops. Great actors like Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina are stuck playing absolutely generic and boring characters. Something went very, very wrong here.

Visually, Prince of Persia is a shoddy presentation, and I expected much better. This was marketed as the next Pirates of the Carribean. Well, I have seen Pirates of the Carribean. I am a big fan of Pirates of the Carribean. And Prince of Persia, well, it ain't no Pirates of the Carribean. Not by a longshot. Those movies had character. They had imagination. They looked visually spectacular thanks to the still-underrated Gore Verbinski. Prince of Persia is total weaksauce in comparison. Most scenes seem to take place on hastily-assembled backlot sets. The CGI is messy and unfinished-looking. The costuming is bland. And everything feels far too small-scale for a would-be epic movie. There are lots of sweeping establishing shots randomly inserted into the film as if to reassure us "no, see, this IS an epic movie!" Not really. Meanwhile, the editing feels ultra-sloppy. The movie jumps from one scene to another with reckless abandon, and the effect is that we're often left feeling disoriented and taken out of the already-confusing story. There are one or two decently inventive action scenes, but the editing is choppy-as-hell on those too. There are only a few directors who can totally pull off the super-quick-cut action style - Ridley Scott, Paul Greengrass ... Well, Mike Newell tries to (or was forced to) emulate the oh-so-in-vogue rapid-fire action stylings of those directors, and stumbles pretty badly. I mean, the plot of this movie is tiresome enough - without compelling action scenes to give the movie a jolt, it's basically got nothin'.

I'll give Newell and his team SOME credit. There are a couple of cool touches, mostly early on in the film, that evoke the game's inventive platforming mechanics. But these are only fleeting moments in the movie, and most of the time, the film's attempts to mimic the game just seem stupid. Ugh. Hey, movie producers: when adapting a videogame, you don't need to make characters in the film version adhere to videogame physics and other such crap! We don't need movie characters double-jumping or pressing "reset" buttons or other nonsense. Just make a movie that captures the world and setting and atmosphere of a game! Is that so hard? Emulate the art-style, the MUSIC! Games are not movies. The story in games is there to serve the needs of the gamesplay, as are the play mechanics. Did Jake Gyllenhaal in this movie really need to jump around like a roided-up ape? Did that help the movie in any way? Again: ugh.

Speaking of Gyllenhaal, I'm sorry, but he was totally miscast in this movie. I'm a fan of his - he's great at playing quirky, introspective characters, and that's been his bread and butter ever since Donnie Darko. But he just looks goofy-as-all-hell as a would-be action movie hero. Gyllenhaal's quirkiness makes way too many scenes in Prince of Persia feel unintentionally funny. You never buy him for a second as a prince of ancient Persia. And he just looks wonky - he has the body of a pro-wrestler but the face of a smirking hipster. And he speaks with a totally random English accent, as does everyone in the film, although his is easily the goofiest.

It doesn't help that the movie is written in an over-the-top style that tries to be cute and quippy but is mostly just groan-inducing. Despite the ancient-Persia setting, characters make all-too-modern jokes and references that make you want to reach through the screen and punch someone. Even worse, there are lots of OVERT references to the Iraq war and current politics that are so lame, so heavy-handed, that they make the movie's plot even stupider and more laughable than it already is. I seriously felt bad for guys like Alfred Molina though, who, playing a cliched, greedy merchant, is saddled with some of the lamest "dialogue" one could imagine. A couple of kids in the audience chuckled at his funny facial expresions and comedic timing, but that was all Molina trying desperately to make the material work.

And that again speaks to just how generic the characters are. I didn't care about a single one. Even the titular Prince is just sort of there. We get that he's supposed to be a bit roguish and a bit more sensitive than his war-mongering brothers, but that's about it. Gyllenhaal's prince will certainly not go down as the next iconic movie hero, that's for sure. Like I said, Kingsley and Molina give it the ol' college try, but it's not enough - they have nothing to work with. Gemma Arterton might actually be the one real standout, as a stunning princess tasked with protecting the mystical dagger that can control time. Arterton is actually one of the few in the film who seems to get the sort of movie she's in, and she does a nice job. It's funny though, because she was just in Clash of the Titans, and the similarities between that and Prince of Persia are pretty widespread. Both suffer from choppy editing, generic characters, and nonsensical plotlines. The difference was that CLASH had some real visual pop, with a couple of kickass action scenes to its credit. At the least, Clash felt a little grittier, a little more hardcore. Prince of Persia is almost disturbing in the way it handles violence. It's all Disney-fied, very little blood or gore. And yet, people are getting killed by swords and arrows left and right. It's almost comical when you think of the standards and practices this movie was likely subjected to. The prince kills dozens of random dudes with no remorse or regret? Cool, go for it. But, god forbid there's any blood or graphic violence - we wouldn't want to harm the children in the audience!

It's hard to believe that a big-budget action movie like this could be so boring and bland. I was expecting something at least on the level of The Mummy, but no, not even close. At least there, Stephen Sommers infuses his films with manic energy, imaginative visuals, and nonstop, over-the-top action. Everyone in this movie just seems lost or bored. There's not a single memorable action scene or visual, except for one or two sort-of-fun nods to the source material. The story is barely-there and makes little sense. The characters are so lazily-constructed it physically hurts. There are a couple of fun touches, but the movie never goes far enough into camp so as to be a good time. It actually wants us to take its lameness seriously, but we can't. The hero is weak, goofy, and miscast. The villains are blah - Jafar from Aladdin needs to come in and kick all their asses and show them how it's done. Maybe Hollywood will get it right one of these times. Maybe when screenwriters and directors from my generation break in, when people who actually get games and games culture and what makes a franchise like Prince of Persia great start making these movies, maybe that's when they'll actually get good. Until then, don't get your hopes up. Then again, on second thought, maybe we should just take a moment and look at the reality of pop-culture in 2010. Games are the new blockbusters anyways. In a lackluster summer filled with crappy movies, maybe it's time we stopped supporting box-office junk and turned our attention to a medium that continues to deliver new experiences and innovative entertainment. For years, games were trying to catch up to Hollywood production values and storytelling. Now, as this movie clearly illustrates, more often than not it's the other way around.

My Grade: C-

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