This is a new feature; Cinematic Showdown, the winner takes all battle between any two films that I happen to have seen recently. Because the only thing that I love more than movies, is violence.
These films may have little, if any, thematic connection. In fact, the less they have in common, the more fun I’m going to have with it. I like to think of the world of cinema as one continuous artistic landscape, where I can talk about movies like Ice Station Zebra and Pootie Tang without necessarily having to qualify them as “Classic Spy Film” or “Modern Urban Comedy”. Ultimately, I wish that everyone, myself included, could learn to think outside of those boxes and labels, and view a work based solely on it’s own unique merits.
It’s merits – compared to another unique work, in an intellectual version of gladiatorial bloodshed. Will the trident wielding apple be able to best the broadsword brandishing orange?
The prize at stake? Respect.
Metropolis (German, 1927)
Prince Of Persia:The Sands Of Time (USA, 2010)
Fritz Lang (1890-1976), the director of Metropolis, was an Austrian-born director who produced several influential and well regarded films in pre-Nazi Germany, including M, Die Nibelungen, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, and the film in question. Following his emigration to the US to escape persecution (Due to his Jewish heritage), he proceeded to craft a number of what would later be referred to as “film noir” movies, both independently and within the Hollywood system. He’s the type of artist that I most enjoy; Someone with the ability to balance Art with Entertainment in equal measure.
Mike Newell (1942-), the director of Prince Of Persia, is a British filmmaker with an extensive television background. Like Lang, he also bridges the gap between arthouse and cineplex, but while Lang is someone that I would classify as an artist making entertainment, I think of Newell as an entertainer making art. The distinction may seem subtle, but take for example Newell’s popular film Donnie Brasco: It’s a serious movie, one filled with interesting characters and superb performances, but the direction appears almost workman-like. You watch a Fritz Lang film, you get the impression that he saw the whole movie in his mind’s eye before filming began. With Newell, the camera set-ups often seem arbitrary, though reliable. Newell has had a couple of duds in his career, including The Awakening, but has balanced these out with some moderate successes, including the aforementioned Brasco, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Harry Potter and the Goblet Of Fire.
Now that the players have been introduced, and my biases firmly established, let’s get on with the battle!
This one’s used as a tie-breaker.
Metropolis is a simple, yet evocative title, perfectly reflecting both the dazzling wonder and oppressive claustrophobia that are central to the story. Prince Of Persia:The Sands Of Time sadly joins other recent failed franchise starters that decided to have two titles going out the gate. The ambition is to be admired, but when you rush on stage to accept an award before they announce that you have it, it’s an awkward moment for everyone involved. Plus, how about using the classic “and” in place of the colon? It might come off as old school cheesy, but the punctuation shows that you don’t really have your heart in it.
Metropolis is the story of a futuristic city in an unnamed time and place. It is a city whose founders enjoy the opulent magnificence that they have designed in it’s lush gardens and towering spires. Freder, our hero, has always known this life of leisure, being the son of the city’s top citizen. His world is turned upside down when a mysterious woman enters his world, introducing him to his “brothers”; impoverished children who live with the working class, in a nightmarish subterranean world. His eyes opened, Freder tries to bring about a peaceful co-existence between the “Head” of the city (The planners and managers), and the “Hands” (The blue collar workers). He has to fight against practitioners of violence on both sides, and ultimately against the deranged Rotwang, a scientist who has created a machine that walks and thinks like a man, for reasons known only to him.
Metropolis is simplistic, to be sure. H.G. Wells famously lambasted the movie for being both silly and nonsensical. It was the Avatar of it’s day; Gorgeous to look at, expensive as all hell, and with a crowd-pleasing story that wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve. Everything that Wells, and other critics at the time, said was perfectly justified, but I think that by trying to analyze this logically, they were missing an essential component; It’s a fairy tale. Science fiction can sometimes get caught up in the “how” of things, but Lang didn’t seem interested in “how” a robot could look like a human, so much as what it would be able to do if it could. This is a morality tale, as much as Star Wars, The Day The Earth Stood Still, or Avatar.
Prince Of Persia similarly attempts to learn us something, but in a much more confusing fashion. Prince Dastan, the swashbuckling titular hero, is sent into the ancient city of Alamut, upon receiving intel that they may be selling WRMD’s (Weapons of Relatively Minor Destruction. Swords and such.) to Persia’s enemies. After sacking the city, it’s clear that there are no weapons to be found. The Prince doesn’t seem terribly concerned about this, and neither does Alamut’s ruler, Princess Tamina, strangely. She’s portrayed as an uppity bitch whose righteous indignation over the completely unnecessary slaughter of her people is mined as romantic comedy material while she trades barbs with Jake Gyllenhaal’s shirtless sociopath. They both have symmetrical features and very low body fat, so love starts to blossom after they go on the run together following the Prince’s framing for his father’s murder. SPOILER AREA! SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH, IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW MORE! Despite the movie making little to no effort to hide the identity of the villain, please allow me to confirm your suspicions; Ben Kingsley, who plays the King’s brother. You see, his plan all along was to invade Alamut so as to retrieve the Dagger of Time, a magic knife that, when combined with a magic giant hourglass, can turn back time to whatever point you desire, with only the wielder remembering the alternate timeline. So, after fabricating a war with false information, he is now in the perfect position to retrieve said knife, since Prince Dastan recovers it immediately, has no idea what it is, and has complete trust in everything Ben Kingsley says to him. Oh, I forgot to mention; The reason Ben Kingsley wants to go back in time, is because he can then allow his brother to die as a child, thus taking the throne. For some reason, possibly just out of spite, he kills his brother in the current timeline, and frames Dastan for the crime, thereby endangering everything that was right in his hands the whole time. Because, you see, Dastan is like a cross between a monkey and a ninja, and easily evades the guards, running off into the desert with his future/past bride to be, with the Dagger/Tardis tucked comfortably into his pants. A bunch of stupid shit happens, then it’s all erased when Dastan is flung back in time to a point immediately following the invasion. Ultimately, the “moral” seems to be that if you’re going to be an imperialist, make sure that the Princess of the place you’re invading is hot, and of an equally shady viewpoint on morality. Also, don’t take cookies out of the jar without asking your father’s permission. Also, ask his permission before decimating a peaceful city. Otherwise, it’s ok.
Prince Of Persia has many of the ingredients for a fun, lighthearted action film, but given that there are at least four credited writers on this behemoth, it’s likely that this was a case of too many cooks spoiling the pot.
Fritz Lang was a visionary stylist, and almost every shot of Metropolis is framable. The fx were revolutionary for the time, and very well done, including in-camera shots utilizing mirrors, miniatures and paintings. The action scenes are suspenseful and exciting, and the massive crowd shots are balanced well with effective close-ups. Masterful.
Mike Newell has some nice, standard iconic shots in this, but mostly this is a by-the-numbers adventure film that we’ve seen several times over. In contrast with Metropolis, the fx are often ugly and muddled. If I see another digital sunset in a film, it’ll be too soon. Despite the Prince’s aerobics routines, the action scenes are completely devoid of life, and are mostly repetitive and boring. A lot of that also had to do with who he happens to be killing; Innocent citizens of a peaceful city, and Persia’s own soldiers, who are only pursuing him because he was accused of treason and ran away. The use of British accents makes some sense, I suppose, given that class structure is pretty important to the story, and England has one of the most distinctive differences between the accents of the haves and have nots, but it ultimately comes off as silly. A lot of the casting just felt odd, or off. Ben Kingsley seems a little too obvious as the villain, Jake Gyllenhaal is in no way convincing as an action star, and the two romantic leads don’t have any chemistry together at all.
Certainly, there are other criteria to judge a movie on, but I wanted to keep this first one fairly simple. Plus, while I’m not completely behind the whole Auteur theory, I do think the buck has to stop somewhere. If the music, editing, acting are bad. . . the director could have done something about it, right?
Overall winner: Metropolis
That’s all for now, kids!