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May 29th, 2010

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Carolyn and I went out to see Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time: The Movie Based On The Game Based On -- No Wait, It Was A Game To Begin With. I will first mention how happy I was to see Jordan Mechner, creator of the Prince of Persia video game Way Back When, notably credited during the closing credits. He got in just after the director, if memory serves. It's nice to see the video game source credited so highly in the film.

Upon further reflection, however, I'm not quite so happy about the placement. While the credits list a lot of people responsible for the film, I am afraid that Mr. Mechner's name being featured as prominently as it is will lead people to believe that he's the one to blame for it all. The film's a mess, all right, but don't pin it all on the guy who came up with the game in the first place.

The original Prince of Persia game was a 2D platformer where you ran and leapt and climbed and narrowly avoided spikes and falling grates and so forth. It was notable for its incredibly fluid animation and fast action for the time, and let me point out that The Time we're talking about here involved 5 1/4" floppy disks and televisions with RF switches as monitors. Jordan Mechner got a lot out of the Apple and IBM PC for the game, and it showed.1

Prince of Persia went on to spawn numerous sequels in the era of 3D games, and I don't think I've ever played a single one. I do know the basic gist of Sands of Time game which the film is mostly based on, but how true the film stayed to the game I don't know. But it sure as hell feels like a video game in many places. There's scenes of incredible action interspersed with cutscenes that do nothing but provide exposition for what lies ahead next. The female lead Princess Wossname is in the film to provide mission briefings and explain just what the hell is going on, and we need her help in understanding the story.

Oh, sure, there's a story to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It involves a prince of Persia, some Sands of Time, and a dagger which can reverse time when it's got sand in it (this is one of the main points of gameplay, I reckon.) Ben Kingsley is in it and you can tell he's the villain from the moment he appears onscreen because A. he's got a Ming the Merciless mustache and goatee; B. he's wearing eyeliner, and C. he casts Meaningful Glances at the king he wishes to depose.

I am certain I am not spoiling anything for anyone here by mentioning who the bad guy is. I figure the only way this little screed could spoil the film for you is if by some fluke you're reading it in line at the cinema and your tickets are non-refundable. If this is the case, you have not only my sympathy but also my blessing to sneak next door to another theater.

The bulk of the movie involves said Prince running around with Princess Wossname trying to do something with the dagger so a giant sandstorm won't consume the world or something. There's a mystical hourglass into which the dagger must be placed, but don't expect to actually see an hourglass in the film because someone in charge (not Jordan Mechner, I presume) decided that a giant CGI shard of glowing crystal something-or-other would do just fine instead. Just take it on Princess Wossname's word that it's a mystical hourglass and you'll be all right.

What with the action/cutscene pacing, Princess Wossname explaining every upcoming challenge and the linear progression of the cool weapons that the Prince ends up using, the film is plotted out like a videogame. All it needs are load screens between locations and titles that read "Checkpoint reached" or "Acquired: Explody Bombs".

But that kind of stuff isn't unique enough to hold a film together. It ends up being another one of those action spectacles we're getting more of, such as Clash of the Titans, where nothing honestly matters except for the awesome fights. And even then they can't get the fights right, because it's all based on confusing quick cuts and illogical shifts and 3D things that fly out at you (we did not watch the 3D version, which probably only half-asses the 3D like Clash did -- that is, it's only 3D if it's exciting.)

And then there's the slow-mo. Lord, there's the slow-mo. Someone in charge (again, probably not Mr. Mechner) decided that the best way to use slow motion in action sequences is to use it, well, whenever. Just take a dart, throw it at your storyboard, and slow down whatever shot it hits. Maybe you could film throwing the dart and slow that down too, just to be safe.

The slow-mo doesn't even have to happen for something cool, like when the Prince stabs somebody. No, it can happen when he runs behind a pillar to avoid someone. Or it can happen when he dramatically unsheathes his swords (something he does a lot of in the film, only it's in slow-motion when it needs to be.) Or it can happen when he and Princess Wossname take their relationship to the next level by holding hands. I think at some points even the slow-mo went slow-mo. They couldn't even agree on a standard slow-mo speed, that's for sure.

This isn't to say that all the action sucks in the film, because there is a fair share of awesome running and rooftop jumping and grappling and rope-swinging and it's all made to look effortless on the Prince's part. You could tell which parts were inspired by the video games by how cool and inventive they looked. I'm currently playing Assassin's Creed II, the free-running gameplay of which is a direct descendant of Prince of Persia's play2 and I can tell a free-run sequence when I see it. I liked those parts, to be honest, although Carolyn took umbrage at the Prince using two camels in one parkour free-run. She laid down the law by whispering "You don't platform on camels!" and I agree to an extent. (Aladdin for the Genesis had some awesome camel-jumpin-and-spittin action going on at some parts, though.)

The real problem behind all the cool jumping and stuff is that, unlike a video game, you're not the one playing. I hope to consider this film as penance for the times I've made someone else watch while I've played. I'm honestly very sorry you had to sit through that, unless you really wanted to.

What else is there? Oh, much like Clash of the Titans, which I would've ragged on after seeing it but was too depressed to do anything, we end up with a lot of supporting characters whose names don't count. There's the Greedy Merchant Guy, the Creepy Dementor-Like Assassin, and the Badass Knife Thrower. I am sure their names were mentioned at least once in the screenplay, but damned if I could tell you what they were without the help of IMDB. (Princess Wossname is at least introduced as befits an expository character, with an off-screen voice calling her name as soon as we see her face. Yet I saw this film not more than three hours ago and I cannot remember her name. Tamarind, or something.) These are characters we connect with only on a recognition level. Trifling things such as character development are more or less tossed by the wayside except that our Prince friend turns wise at the end. I think.

I'm really not sure what to make of this recent spate of visually frenetic and intellectually devoid action films that believe themselves to be True Epics. The 3D gimmick is fine when done right, but boy has it quickly become overused. I mean, I don't think I need to see the new Shrek film in 3D -- actually, I don't think I need to see the new Shrek film at all, but hey, the theaters get to charge a few bucks extra for "the 3D experience" and I would like to think in my happy, insular world that the theaters themselves and not the studios get to benefit from the slight upcharge. But when the purpose of 3D is to enhance the action, and the action itself is jumbled and incoherent, what's the point?

This film isn't honestly a terrible, soul-sucking experience. It's not as fundamentally bad as Clash and it's not as relentless as Iron Man 2, which just brings on fight after fight without giving you a chance to collect any kind of wits or breath. And you'll probably do better at this film than with the horrid Robin Hood makeover, which believes that the Robin Hood legend, the legend we want to see when we go see a Robin Hood movie, just wasn't "deeply satisfying" enough or something.

But it isn't a very good film, either. I know damn well I could've turned my brain off and just enjoyed a Whole Buncha Fights, but you know how it is. Once the snark starts, it just don't stop, which is why I'll need to go see Robin Hood at the drive-in. And it's not like the film is wholly useless, either. We got our tickets as a rainstorm began. By the time we got out, the rain had just stopped and we walked around the square watching merchants putting stuff back out on the sidewalk. So thank you, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, for letting us enjoy a dry Saturday afternoon. Spatch Bob sez see it if there's a chance of showers in your area.

Just watch out when Princess Wossname helpfully informs no one in particular that the mountain pass they are entering is very sacred. You may find yourself whispering "So it's the Hail Mary Pass, then" to your viewing companion and getting mercilessly hit in return.

1. Jordan Mechner worked for Brøderbund, the game company so cool it had a ø in its name and specialized in unique games with fun ideas: Lode Runner, which was the first game I remember with a level creator; Fantavision, a vector-based animation program for the Apple II with actually featured tweening (and blew my 10-year-old mind when I first saw it); and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? which for educational software was the Oregon Trail killer. Mechner also designed Karateka, a martial arts fighting game which had one of the meanest moves in videogame history: after fighting level after level of bad guys with no continue option in order to save the princess, the object of your desires would strike you down with one boot to the head if you approached her in your combat stance. Oops! Try again, and be more polite to her this time!

2. The tomb runs in AC2 are some of the most fun I've recently had in a videogame running, leaping, grabbing, swinging, and then missing and falling. Now that I've done all the tomb runs I almost don't want to keep playing the story missions, but the Venice level during Carnivale is amazingly well-done and it's enough to make me want to see the entire thing through.

(16 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:May 30th, 2010 01:48 am (UTC)
My younger brother and I were obsessed with Karateka back in the day. I always kind of liked the fact that the Princess tried to kick the hero's ass. (Mind you, the hawk usually pecked his eyes out first. Took me ages to get past the hawk.)
[User Picture]
Date:May 30th, 2010 02:00 am (UTC)
Didn't you hafta high-kick the hawk at just the right spot on the screen?

I played through that game on a keyboard. I vividly remember the layout: Q and W for high attacks, A and S for regular, and Z and X for low. Ages before WASD became a standard, so my left hand was kinda freaked out by all it had to do.
[User Picture]
Date:May 31st, 2010 12:07 am (UTC)
I adored Karateka. I played a pirated copy on an Apple 2e until I could make it through with nary a scratch, even from the birdie.

I have to say, though, if the Princess was so badass that she could take out the hero with a single kick, no saving throw, why couldn't she have kicked her *own* way out?
[User Picture]
Date:May 30th, 2010 03:34 am (UTC)
"So it's the Hail Mary Pass, then"
OMG, that's AWESOME! Thank you!
[User Picture]
Date:May 30th, 2010 03:41 am (UTC)
If you like the AC2 tomb runs, you should really play the Sands of Time game. The last entry in the franchise, without subtitle, was also quite good. I haven't played the two in between those.
[User Picture]
Date:May 30th, 2010 03:57 am (UTC)
*staggers over from friend's journal* The Boy, whose opinion I trust because I'm fairly sure he's played the games at least two or three times through, each. ... In fact I know he has, he played Sands of Time three times while I was making his Sands of Time Prince Halloween costume.

... anyway. The Boything says that it's a smashup of two games, Sands of Time and Warrior Within. He seems to take umbrage at this.
[User Picture]
Date:May 30th, 2010 04:03 am (UTC)
(Here through hermitgeecko

FWIW, Mechner didn't just make the original -- he wrote the first screenplay draft and pitched it as a movie. So he does deserve a decent amount of the credit and the blame.

Haven't seen it yet, and this review makes me feel better about not seeing it. I love Jake Gyllenhaal, and I like the idea of a popular movie that actually portrays Middle-Eastern people positively, but casting white actors as non-white characters always squicks me.
[User Picture]
Date:May 30th, 2010 05:24 pm (UTC)
Well, his mother is Jewish, and from the looks of him Sephardic, so the criticism on that point seems unfair to me. Why shouldn't a street hoodlum in Persia be of Semitic descent?
[User Picture]
Date:May 30th, 2010 06:05 pm (UTC)
You raise a valid question; there are many Sephardic Jews whom I'd have no problem playing someone of Iranian descent. However,
1) he's not Sephardic (part Ashkenazi, part Scandinavian),
2) he's perceived by the West as a white actor, unlike the many actors of color trying to get jobs,
and 3) while his coloration might be plausible for a member of the upper class, it's really not the norm for Iran, particularly for a "street rat" who hasn't spent his life in a palace.

There are some further discussions of the "whitewashing" on Salon and (along with the Avatar:TLA mess) on the AP.
[User Picture]
Date:May 30th, 2010 04:51 am (UTC)
My name is Zarf and I had a good time watching this movie and I recommend it. The characters were having fun. Fun was going on. I was into it. So there.

I liked _Stardust_, too.
[User Picture]
Date:May 30th, 2010 04:58 am (UTC)
Also here via Ms. Geecko.

The best thing about this movie was coming out of the theater after seeing the first act of Turandot through the Met's live in HD program, and seeing the poster. Apparently the sands of time do not help one solve simple riddles.
[User Picture]
Date:May 30th, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC)
Ah, Brooooderbundt. I never played the original Prince, but I do remember Karateka.

Those were the days (approximately) when EA was taking out double-page black-and-white ads in EGM, forging a public image of an innovative company where artistry and creativity were more important than cranking out the same old dreck. How times have changed.

Also, yay Joe Bob Briggs reference.
[User Picture]
Date:May 30th, 2010 09:15 pm (UTC)
The square-sphere-triangle logo for EA was one of the greatest logos ever. You knew you were gonna get something good from them. I played the hell out of Adventure Construction Set and miss the old games I had created on them. One of my current Red Shift villains is named from the villain in one of the old games.
[User Picture]
Date:May 31st, 2010 04:55 am (UTC)
It was a memorable logo. I always thought the sphere looked a lot like the Saul Bass AT&T Death Star logo, which was designed around the same time.

In general, shapes broken up into raster lines were a huge 1980s fad in logo design; horizontal lines meant computery and high-tech. Even the first Microsoft logo had a stripey O. I'm guessing this was partly because of CRT rasters and partly because of the influence of Paul Rand's striped IBM logo from the sixties.
[User Picture]
Date:June 1st, 2010 12:15 pm (UTC)
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Man, I totally remember and miss ACS. Rivers of Light was still one of the weirdest games I ever did play...

In other news, life has NOT been kind to Ben Kingsley. First he was the bad guy in Bloodrayne, and now this? Oh...I hope there's a good story involved, about how he's got a massive laudanam addiction he needs to feed, or huge bacarrat debts incured in exotic locales while eating sushi off the naked backside of an underaged Japanese schoolgirl.

(Please please please do not let it be something mundane like Ben Kingsley just simply sucks at personal money management and/or made a few bad investments during the DotCom era.)
[User Picture]
Date:June 1st, 2010 04:31 pm (UTC)
Rivers of Light was pretty darn awesome and taught me what the Fertile Crescent was. Every now and then I consider firing up an Apple emulator and looking in at all the Babylonian mythology I obviously missed the first time around in 1985.

There was also at least one screen which turned the top-down perspective into first-person. You walked past temple columns and then up one square into a doorway. It's a simple trick but damn it blew my mind.

The guy behind ACS had previously written Temple of Apashi, and it's clear most of that game engine made it to ACS.

And then there was the giant mishmash adventure game which took you from Alice in Wonderland to a detective mystery ("Mom, what's a pawn ticket?") to Washington crossing the Delaware. I think there was also a castle and a space station to show off the game's other graphic tilesets. But it was all in one crazy nutty game.

Also, you could exploit the hell out of the way the game handled ranged weapons. IIRC ranged weapons worked on targets at least one square away from you, but the range check was only for the four cardinal directions. You could just stand one square away diagonally and fire all you wanted. The distance was so short that the projectile sprite almost never missed.

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