Hey, it’s the return of Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart use time sand to find out during what sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating popcorn. This week they leap over thorny ideological spikes and evade mystical moral guardians in Mike Newell’s video game adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Hi Henry, it’s nice to be back for another summer of discussing the stupid, ridiculous, offensive, fun and occasionally intelligent event-movies that Hollywood will be hurling at us every week between Memorial and Labor Days (often in 3D, but not here, weirdly), and how appropriate that we’re starting the season with a film that is at various times all those things in very disparate proportions. Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time shifts between Ridley Scott-ian self-seriousness, classical tragedy, effects movie camp, political allegory, schizophrenic Persian-face jingoism, intermittently successful video game-like action and the laziest time travel plot in movie history.
That narrative has virtually nothing to do with the beloved 1989 original Prince of Persia, and everything to do with its 2003 reboot, Sands of Time. We begin, a la Gladiator, with golden-hued opening titles about a vast, savage-civilizing empire, immediately followed by a military campaign to expand Persia by taking the neighboring princesspality Adamant under the pretext that its government is selling weapons to enemies of the empire. The shrewdness with which screenwriters Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard construct their Iraq War allegory is classic middlebrow cinema, if seven years late, from the search for weapons manufacturing facilities in a network of underground passages, to the scheming Rumsfeld-Rove-Cheney stand-in Nizam (Ben Kingsley) who convinces king-to-be Tus (Richard Coyle) to attack this former ally despite daddy’s warnings.
Starved for battle, the all-white and mostly British-accented Persians lay siege to Adamant, whose gates are swiftly breached by the inventive infiltrator Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal)—who is basically d’Artagnan, right?— the youngest of King Sharaman’s (Ronald Pickup) three sons and adopted to boot. Thus closes the Scott-ian epic seriousness, briefly replaced by some family drama right out of classical Greek tragedy: Tamina (Gemma Arterton, essentially reprising her Io from that recent Greek tragedy, Clash of the Titans) accepts marriage to Tus in hopes of getting her sand-powered dagger time machine (basically a pointy hourglass) back from Dastan, but before she can the latter is framed for his adoptive father’s murder and the mismatched pair must flee. The rest is a cross-class rom-com road trip period video game action movie! Dastan and Tamina run from a squad of mercenaries (cleverly renamed “Asansins”: from the Persian original, “assassins” + “sand”), befriend a big government-hating, ostrich-racing outlaw businessman played with movie-stealing swagger by Alfred Molina (seriously, that guy!), sneak the sacred dagger from one another constantly, and gradually fall into Disney love—meaning that they only kiss once, after much delayed gratification, a moment that’s erased and replaced with hand-holding through the purifying magic of time travel. But before we completely spoil the ending, don’t you want to hash out the regressive politics that Prince of Persia smuggles in under the cover of its sandstorm of lefty pseudo-topicality provided by the Iraq allegory?
Hiya, Ben! It’s nice to be suffering through another Hollywood summer with you. And, boy, Prince of Persia is the kind of movie you suffer through, eh? But before considering Persia’s reactionary sensibilities, I’d like to jump on your mention of “Disney love” to point out that, before the movie shifts earnestly into its Ridley Scott-ness, it opens by cribbing the studio’s own Aladdin: Dastan, like that Disney hero, is a street urchin who becomes a prince and relies on magic—there, a genie; here, a sand-filled dagger. That early origins-sequence here, in which Dastan’s younger self defends an apple-stealing child, played out almost as a shot-for-shot remake of the cartoon’s “One Jump” sequence, just stripped of all its music and energy. Hey, that was a common motif of this movie: it reminded you of something else, just without all those things that made the original memorable. (Straight from my notes, regarding that middle section: “like a screwball comedy stripped of all wit or chemistry, just complaining.”) Like, it was an Iraq War allegory, up until it wasn’t: when the overemphasis on mysticism and franchise self-mythology shoved any clever present-day parallel off the rails.
So, what are we left with? At least an hour about how we should always put Family First—well, except for nefarious uncles anyway. (Just like The Lion King! Disney knows what works, Ben. Or, at least, what did work at least once.) Going into this movie, I was really curious how this movie would deal with the Persians; 300, of course, generated some controversy in 2006 when it posited the Iranians’ forebears as The Bad Guys, right at a moment at which the West was ramming up against Iran once again. For a moment here, the Persians are awesome ass-kickers—which might explain their Western accents?—before they’re bloodthirsty monsters, which is before things get a bit more nuanced: some of the Persians are bad, some are good, the rest are just easily manipulated. Sound a lot like anyone you know, Ben? (If not, look around you in that darkened screening room.) The point being that Sands of Time is careful not to make the Iranians the heroes but it’s also careful not to vilify them categorically, either. Do you think that’s a sign of its superficial liberalism, or a consequence of how much studios rely today—even more than four years ago—on international box office? Avatar, after all, made a gajillion dollars not just on these shores but Over There because its story was simple enough to satisfy American yokels and penetrate foreign markets, not in spite of it. And its anti-American-imperialism—“duh, what?”—couldn’t have hurt, either, right?
Before I take up your point and move time forward to re-cast Prince of Persia as an Obama-era Middle East military pullout allegory, Henry, I’d like to quickly mention another, also more memorable pair of movies (or franchises, rather) of which it reminded me. Indiana Jones, firstly for all the exotic others who at points literally parade through the scenery for color—the Indians and East Africans attending the king’s funeral, for instance; secondly for the subterranean lava flow of time sand that is equal parts Lost Ark excavation scene and Temple of Doom demon-worship ceremony; and thirdly, most specifically, for the treacherous path that Tamina and Dastan must follow in a trapped room to avoid triggering a chamber-destroying mechanism, just like that part in Last Crusade. And Lord of the Rings, also for the generally (though much less so) problematic representations of race, but also for the whole “get the precious thing to the place it came from right in the heart of the enemy’s territory in order to destroy it or perhaps unleash Armageddon” plot. And since we’re here, what of Prince of Persia’s politics of representation? Everyone looks ambiguously tanned to the point that they might actually be Persian. One black character, Seso (Steve Toussaint), has his own action scene, a noble savage’s death, and at least one multi-syllabic line. (Post-race Hollywood, here we come!) Of course the royal family is all-white, and until Tamina’s inevitable bequeathing to Dastan (oops, spoiler, to the time dagger!), all-male. In fact, aside from her occasional words of proto-feminist protest, I can’t remember any other female character getting even a single intelligible word out, can you? Meanwhile the lead Asansin, with his Goth makeup, lispy voice and all those slithery snakes coming out of various holes in his robe, was the only symbolically gay character I spotted. “Superficial liberalism” indeed.
But back to war! Don’t you think that the final scene—which, due to time travel technicalities, is set shortly after the opening scene—rather than abandoning the film’s U.S. invasion allegory, takes it a step further into near-future fantasy? Here, a fundamentally good if rather impulsive and impressionable Tus, guided by his future-seeing brother, realizes the error of his hasty invasion. He announces to Tamina that his army will leave her city peaceably, no harm no foul (save the hundreds of soldiers killed and buildings destroyed), and that she should really marry his little adoptive brother because look how toned his muscles are. The allegory sort of falls apart at the end there, tipping its hat to the inherent impossibility of such an amicable, in fact downright amorous resolution to the occupation of one territory by the armed forces of another. So, as seems appropriate for a time travel movie, Prince of Persia projects its Iraq War subtext into an idealized future where all war crimes and humanitarian crises are forgotten for a sensuous hand-holding. I suppose that’s what happens when you engage real world problems though fantasy video game movie logic.
Yeah, there’s only so far a video game can get you. No offense, gamers, but though great strides have been made in the level of storytelling encountered on Xboxes, the medium’s interactivity finds its purest expression in prolonged action, which this padded-at-two-hours movie has in spades. Keeping true to its source, there’s a lot of improbable jumping, parkour-esque battle sequences (which often decelerate into slow motion briefly, to emphasize one particularly awesome move), and, most hilariously, a “final boss” to every high-body-count fight. I’ve been vexed in the past by the way a lot of action movies have become like video games—or, how many of their set pieces feel conceived as a level in the requisite game, and nothing’s more dreadfully dull than watching someone else play video games (see: your cousin’s basement)—but there’s a kind of a pleasure in seeing a movie based on a video game that feels like a video game. At least you’re getting what you expect.
Another part of what we expect from video games is not much of a role for women. And boy do we get that here, as you mention. True, Gemma Arterton plays a strong female character—though, as we’ve established, she’s no Jean Arthur (who is!?!?) or Caludette Colbert—but in the marketing plans it’s not she who’s supposed to draw the female demographic away from Sex and Privilege Part II this weekend: it’s casting a pretty-boy heartthrob like Gyllenhaal in the lead, as opposed to a beefheaded action star like, uh, Nicolas Cage or something. But, hey, did you notice that all the dangers in this movie were conspicuously phallic? If our heroes weren’t dodging “swords” or pointy-tipped “whips,” they were trying not to get killed by poisonous “snakes”.
Anyway, Ben, are you suggesting that having a gay villain trying to kill our two heroes was a sly way of suggesting that homosexuals conspire to destroy heterosexual unions? But seriously, what bothered me most about the politics here was that bull about the nobility of the poor—you know, the one from Slumdog Millionaire? Dastan doesn’t have royal blood pumping through his veins, we’re reminded many times, but he has strength, courage, and kindness—a recipe for “greatness”—not in spite of his poverty but because of it: they’re qualities he learned on the mean streets, protecting the hungry from the men with swords. It ties in nicely with Molina’s frequent diatribes against the small businessman being taxed to death, as though Persia wants to tell the audience: hey, you unemployed victims of the recession, don’t ever change—you’re great. (So noble!) It’s the government, full of earth-ending conspirators enjoying lavish banquets, that you’ve got to worry about. (“Secret government killing activities!” Molina explains. “That’s why I don’t pay taxes.”) If you think about it, Ben, I think Sands of Time might be our first Tea Party movie of the summer.