In storytelling terms, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – the game, not the film of the same name – is quite possibly the most elegant game I’ve had the pleasure to play. It’s not deep, it’s neither Ulysses nor Shakespearean tragedy nor Moby Dick, but within the medium it tells a story, tells it well and does certain things that would be difficult to pull off as nicely in any other medium. Differently from the film, it also knows throughout that it’s basically a tale from the Arabian Nights. It doesn’t try to complicate things. It’s straightforward, and in that straightforwardness it finds a grace the film can only dream of.
There’s something ironic in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – the film this time – being more video game-like than the game that spawned it. It features a dagger with a big red button (okay, it’s a ruby, but it’s basically a button on a sharp, pointy gamepad) without even a sense of self-awareness. It does the whole slow-motion thing just to look cool. It has big-name actors called in to do very little of interest, but in grandiose RP accents.
What it mainly has, though, is a director who doesn’t know how to direct action in an interesting way, who doesn’t even seem to be interested in action scenes – which is fine, if you’re directing, say, Donnie Brasco (which I still like a lot), but I already thought that Mike Newell was the wrong man for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Funnily enough, that film felt like a video game to me: in this level, you need to retrieve the golden egg, in that level you must free your friends from the mermaids’ realm, and in the final level you must navigate the hedge maze and face the boss enemy. (Thing is, levels are okay in games, but in movies they make for clumsy, mechanical structure.)
There are many action setpieces in Prince of Persia: The Subtitle of Subtitles – but they’re largely handled in a clumsy way that breaks the flow when that is the last thing you want to do. Have a main character whose talent is for parkour? Don’t film and edit the scenes in a way that makes it hard to believe the guy is actually doing all those tricks. Tighly controlled continuity is key in such scenes (Casino Royale did this pretty well in its Madagascar sequence), but Newell insists of cutting after an acrobatic movement’s already begun and/or before it finishes, so what we get is disjointed staccato scenes that have as much flow as mud.
What is just as sad: the film aims for charming banter between its two main leads, but much of the time I found myself thinking, “The game had better banter.” Disregarding the plot differences between film and game (and there are many), if a computer game has banter that is better written than that of its big screen adaptation, you need to get a better script. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Prince of Persia: The Thingamy of Doodah featured horrible writing – it was serviceable for most of the time, but it was oh so plodding. It was clunky. And whoever okayed Ben Kingsley’s lines and then decided to give him the direction, “Act as if you want the audience to find out you’re actually the villain five seconds into the movie”… Well, as I said: I don’t think that Mike Newell was the right man for the job. He wasn’t even the right man for the non-action scenes. And I’m starting to think that Donnie Brasco was a fugazi. Fuggedaboutit.
P.S.: One of my favourite parts of the game – the story is told in retrospect, by the Prince who has already lived through the adventure and is trying to convince the Princess of his tale. (Great reverse Sheherazade move, that one.) When his tale comes to the point where he falls to his death, is impaled by spikes or cut in half by a spinning blade (due to player carelessness), he stops himself and goes, “No, that’s not right. I didn’t die. Let me retell this part.” He basically retells those bits until he gets the storytelling (and the player the moves) right. Lovely touch of meta.