Prince of Persia could be the best video game movie ever made. Which is faint praise, indeed, as pretty much every other video game movie has been rancid. Persia, though, manages to break the streak by being merely ho hum. A slightly tedious attempt to create a sandier version of Pirates of the Caribbean, Prince of Persia is a loud and highly art-designed trifle, stuck with two leads who have all the chemistry of oil and water.

Jake Gyllenhaal, sometimes affecting an English accent so bad you keep expecting him to say ‘Wut wut, guv’nor?’ (and I say sometimes because the accent very much comes and goes from scene to scene), is Prince Dastan, raised from the slums by the kindly King of Persia. Dastan has two brothers (by other mothers) and a jealous uncle (the film tries to make it a reveal when Sir Ben Kingsley gets evil. It doesn’t work), and he grows up to be a rash but good-hearted warrior. Events occur, as they will, and the Persian army assaults some holy city despite the King’s wishes, and Dastan ends up with a magic knife and being framed with the assassination of the King. There’s a whole bunch of other bullshit and time travel and jumping and more CGI than you thought possible and then the movie ends.

We’re supposed to believe that Gyllenhaal is in love with Gemma Arterton, playing a beautiful princess tasked with protecting that magic knife, but even the movie has a hard time suspending that disbelief. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that the script’s attempt to give them a banter-filled, quippy relationship is played out as just two preening bitches going at it. Director Mike Newell keeps putting Arterton in amazing outfits that stun the senses, but then allows her to deliver a screechy performance that stuns the mind. The viewer is torn – I want to keep watching Arterton but I want that character out of the movie as early as possible. She’s magnetic and hateful.

Gyllenhaal is more innocuous. Dastan is meant to be played as a sort of scoundrel (I’m sure Han Solo and Princess Leia were discussed by the writers, credited as Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard and story by video game creator Jordan Mechner), but he comes across as kind of a doofus. Gyllenhaal often seems dazed, and the very few stunt scenes where we can see his face we see that he has an expression of profound confusion upon it. There’s something endearing about that – the bumbling moron as epic action hero.

But it doesn’t really matter if Dastan bumbles because the entire film’s premise is based on time travel; in the Prince of Persia video game the ability to jump back in time a few seconds was a brilliant twist on standard gameplay, but in a movie it’s the best way to destroy all drama. Every time someone dies or something bad happens you simply expect the heroes to jump back in time and call a do-over; later, as the source of the dagger’s power is revealed – a big, Lost-like yellow glowing cavebound ‘source of all something or other’ – we learn that it’s possible to go back in time as far as you want. Guess how our hero wins the day and makes sure everybody is around for a sequel?

The supporting cast is reasonable. There are no Pirates-esque standouts, although Alfred Molina as a merchant obsessed with dodging taxes (he’s a Tea Bagger in the sand dunes), has lots of cartoony fun in his role. Kingsley is a generic villain; he’s given very little to do and scant time to be actively villainous. Most of his biggest villain moments come after Dastan has defeated the Hassassins, sort of dust ninjas who are the scariest guys in the world (except when confronted by a bunch of guys who run ostrich races in the desert. Then they get their asses handed to them), which really reduces the threat that Kingsley presents. If Dastan could defeat the dust ninja who is such a badass that a snake lives inside his pants, what hope does little old Sir Ben have against him?

The most surprising thing about Prince of Persia is that it’s some kind of Iraq War parable or something – the assault on the holy city at the beginning is based on false intel, and the promised weapon forges don’t exist. The fact that the filmmakers wanted to make some sort of statement about the Middle East today puts the cast’s preponderance of white actors front and center. They wanted to talk about how we deal with people from foreign lands, but they’d rather not use too many people from those actual foreign lands.

Newell directs the film in sleepwalk mode. Most of the fight scenes are unfollowable garbage, and for a movie based on a game that sort of invented parkour the amount of cool stuntwork is disappointing. This movie should have been full of crazy jumps and Dastan running up walls and making impossible escapes down towering minarets; we get a couple of moments of Gyllenhaal’s stunt double doing that stuff, but we get many more scenes of jumbled, uninteresting sword fights, often where people are being shot at with CGI arrows or darts. Most of the vistas seem to be CG, making you long for the simplicity of Middle Earth or Lawrence of Arabia‘s desert scenes (and I detected some distinct Lawrence rip-off cues in the score, by the way). Every time a long shot is real my heart soared, only to end up frowning as we next went to a big CGI city or a a CGI canyon or a real desert filled with running CGI men. 

Speaking of CGI, is the time travel effect supposed to look shitty? When Dastan activates the dagger he turns into a sort of fiery, sandy being with Gyllenhaal’s face mapped on it; what it reminded me of most were the effects from Sommers’ The Mummy. It’s truly shoddy work, dark and unimaginative and ugly. This stuff should have been thrilling and exciting and like nothing we’ve seen before, not a return to sandman effects from the late 90s. 

The most impressive achievement in Prince of Persia is how Newell and the writers managed to have so much happen and still make it boring. Everything is dusty and dull looking, the movie is so golden it feels like someone peed on the print. The action scenes are perfunctory and unengaging, and there are few thrills. I liked the ostrich race scene, and a couple of other moments here and there feel like they could almost have the energy of the first Pirates but otherwise this film is mostly dull and tired and doesn’t seem too interested in telling a decent story. Instead of a story we get scene after scene of the dagger changing hands; at the end when the Hassassins get it and Arterton freaks out you wonder why she’s so upset – the fucking thing has been in everybody else’s possession the entire movie, so there isn’t that much different now. 

Perhaps Dastan should have used the powers of the Sands of Time to go back to the earliest days of this production and let everybody know to not bother; after all, nobody sets out to make a stunningly mediocre, completely generic movie. At least you hope nobody does, but then you watch Prince of Persia and wonder if anybody was actually trying.

5 out of 10