Movies and video games. Video games and movies. Over the last half-decade, the two have linked to each other in an awkward conceptual waltz, like something out of a junior high school mixer. As game developers and film studios twirl each other around, dreams about attaining cinema’s Aesthetic Legitimacy fill the head of the former. Aesthetic Legitimacy was granted to movies in some shadowy rite long ago and, ever since, no one ever questions whether celluloid creations are art anymore.
Often trumpeted as the future of storytelling, the video game medium pines away for and ofttimes thinks it deserves Aesthetic Legitimacy. Meanwhile, movie producers just want to rub up against video games’ Earning Potential. Feature films have found themselves beset by diminishing box-office returns and look longingly at the blockbuster numbers that games like “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” and “Grand Theft Auto IV” have racked up.
Both mediums rely on visual tropes and camera work to entertain, so why shouldn’t they dance? Alas, nearly every time games and movies have tried to cut a rug, the result’s been embarrassed flailing that might be initially tantalizing but ultimately fails to turn anybody on.
Games have interactivity as their north pole, where movies operate on delivering spectacle, and there’s been much debate about why concepts that start in one medium have such rough fortunes in the other. For every excellent Chronicles of Riddick game that lets players roam those movies’ bleak sci-fi corridors, there’s been the “Doom” movie or any Uwe Boll endeavor. No formula for success really exists.
So it’s a rare thing that “Prince of Persia” arrives rather successfully on both the movie and game fronts. Disney’s unleashing “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” on multiplexes nationwide after a deafening wave of hype. At a recent screening, more than a few audience members were heard to remark how they’ve played one iteration or another of the swashbuckling action games. And, this comes after last week’s release of “Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands,” a new game clearly meant to capitalize on the film’s big-budget marketing.
The “Prince of Persia” phenomenon started with a 1989 Apple II game singlehandedly written and programmed by Jordan Mechner, then 24 years old. The ingenious game design and smooth, lifelike animation immediately captivated players. The game’s plot concerns a vizier who takes control of ancient Persia while its king is away at war and gives the realm’s princess an hour to marry him or lose her life. With an hourglass progressing in the background, the player controls a visiting prince from a faraway land who’d been locked up by the vizier and must brave deathtraps and swordsmen to rescue the princess.
In an era where the motivations of most games was simply to rack up a high score or get from one end of a room to another, the original “Prince of Persia” won accolades for even having a story. In 2003, Mechner and publisher Ubisoft rebooted the game as “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” The much more powerful technology of the PS2, Xbox and GameCube didn’t change the story-centric approach. The characters were more fleshed out, and the plot was tweaked to introduce mystical elements like the titular sands, which allowed players to rewind or freeze time. “Sands of Time” — which blossomed into a trilogy — combined an “Arabian Nights” influence with Errol Flynn acrobatics, great voicework and a narrative that unfolded itself cleverly.
The film version of “Sands of Time” doesn’t have any of the crippling self-loathing possessed by so many game-adapted movies. In adapting genre source material, it’s a honeyed trap to be slavishly faithful (see Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” as exhibit A). Instead, director Mike Newell takes a game that already had a strong voice and cleverly extrapolates its themes, world and central character.
In the games, the Prince has long been nameless, but the movie dubs him Dastan. He’s a street urchin adopted by the king, who sees the spark of greatness in the orphan. When Dastan — played by a beefed-up Jake Gyllenhaal — and his two brothers grow up, rumors of warmongering send them and an army to the land of Alamut to suss out the supposed weapons massing there.
During the film’s first big action sequence, Dastan acquires the dagger that will later let him turn back time. Betrayals lead to the King’s death, and Dastan gets blamed, whereafter he goes on the run with Tamina (Gemma Atherton), Alamut’s captured princess. As he tries to figure out who framed him, Dastan learns from Tamina that a massive elemental time machine lies beneath Alamut; his uncle Nizam — a vizier stand-in portrayed with restraint and relish by Ben Kingsley — wants control of the Sands of Time to rewrite history and make himself king. Kingsley shines as the movie’s big bad, playing the Iago-like Nizam as simmering and later spiky. The former Gandhi deserves mad props for picking up a sword and going for broke with the much younger Gyllenhaal, too.