No matter how low you set your moviegoing expectations, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time will disappoint you; it is one of the most dispiriting films of the year. Yet, if you're a sensitive, flexible filmgoer it's not as though you were headed to this movie with high expectations anyway. This is, after all, a swashbuckling action blockbuster based on a video game that's been imagineered into existence by the unholy alliance of Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
But think also of the additional aesthetic compromises you've willfully embraced before the house lights dim. You've seen dumb "historical" action movies before. You'd be happy to see a fruit cart overturned during a chase scene. So when you purchase your ticket, you willingly pledge allegiance to the tripartite Summer Flick Law of Force, Speed, and "Just Plain Fun." It's only a movie, isn't it?
These are terrible concessions to make, but they must be made if you want to survive, much less enjoy, these movies. It's almost an achievement, then, when the movie you've prepared yourself for is still a debacle from start to finish.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as the adopted urchin and titular sorta-prince Dastan, who draws the ire of his brother and his uncle (Ben Kingsley) when he is falsely accused of murdering his adoptive father, King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup). As part of the victory spoils of a recent battle, Dastan also lucks into possession of a magical dagger that allows its user to control time. This dagger conveniently connects Dastan with another one of the victor's spoils — its appointed guardian, Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton).
Really, though, the names of the characters aren't important. They don't matter. In fact, it's hard to think of another movie so fat with human bodies yet starved of human personality. In spite of his parkour skills and his impressive physical transformation into a bulky, rippled fighting machine, the hesitant and lazy-eyed Gyllenhaal can't dumb himself down or (paradoxically) act decisively enough to play a credible action hero.
When she's not explaining the rules and regulations of the Herculean labors Dastan must complete, Arterton — who's like a plumper, brattier Catherine Zeta-Jones — simply holds on as she and Gyllenhaal teleport from one improbable scenario to another in search of a very loose, very thin narrative thread. Alfred Molina's unscrupulous, ostrich-loving desert trader is something that feels new and fresh only because every other screen presence, such as the film's numerous CGI landscapes, occupy space without conveying weight, volume, or meaning.
Prince of Persia is yet another big-budget action spectacular that buries its creators under masses of artificially generated imagery. Only two directors seem capable of taming 21st-century special effects: Steven Spielberg and, unbelievably, Michael Bay. (Even James Cameron succumbed to the glow of his 3D toys.) Perhaps director Mike Newell should have scaled back this tawdry, computer-generated feast for the eyes. Maybe he'd have found another image in the film as sleek and expressive as that one precise, trick-free shot of Gyllenhaal on horseback against the backdrop of a scalloped sand dune.