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Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Directed by Jerry Bruckheimer

I am fresh-returned from the cheapest theater ($4.50 matinee) I know of in L.A., with images of Disney’s latest swashbuckling PG-13 film dancing in my head. I speak, of course, of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I’m not normally a film reviewer, but this particular work falls into my purview by virtue of being based (rather loosely) on the video game of the same name. Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia was a wonder, a game with an almost tactile pleasure built into its gameplay. As any adaptation begs comparison to its source material, the question before us is: how does Disney’s movie look next to Ubisoft’s game?

As is so often the case, the film is a much worse film than the game is a game. We’ve seen this before, and it comes as no great surprise. Still, I will give the film its proper dues: Jake Gyllenhaal is a beautiful man. Seeing him performing dazzling feats of parkour ain’t a terrible proposition. He certainly seems have to worked out for the role. His biceps bulge and his neck has a surprising thickness. But he retains the same impish charm that has helped make his career. As far as Disney logic goes, having the whitebread Gyllenhaal play the titular Prince of Persia is pretty much par for the course (and he has been pointed out as a lookalike for Iranian President Ahmadinejad – thanks Andy Samburg). And the romantic lead, played by Gemma Arterton, is about as feisty as one can expect from a character who’s most discussed characteristic is her hotness (of course the word the characters use – over and over – is ‘beauty’).

All the other predictable trappings are here as well – the ambiguously British-sounding Persians, the hilariously greedy comic relief character, the taciturn African who cares only for bloodshed and honor (the flip side of the ‘magical Negro’ stereotype), a gruesome assassin type with a serious BDSM vibe – the disorganization of the plot was actually almost refreshing, since it served as a break from cut-and-dried formula. But being snide about a target this wide is no intellectual feat. I don’t think producer Jerry Bruckheimer was trying to fund the next Breathless. Nor is the source material any monumental work of artistic vision. It’s an incredible game, don’t get me wrong, and honestly better written than the film, but it’s ultimately about delivering a platformer game in three dimensions, a game in which you traverse strange and difficult terrain by sequencing actions carefully and accurately. This is, I promise, way, way more fun than it sounds.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, from Ubisoft

What, then, to say about these two works? They are very much what they appear to be, deliver what they promise, and do so with a minimum of fuss and pretension. Fitting, too, since the Prince of Persia franchise has been, since its inception, delivering fun unclouded by ambition. The original game, released in 1989, featured a nameless protagonist saving a princess from an evil vizier, pretty much the oldest existing American pop culture trope involving the Middle East. Fast forward to 2003, and we have Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. There’s a princess. There’s a vizier. A certain amount of saving may be called for. Familiar territory.

What’s new are these so-called ‘sands of time’, a central plot feature that carries over into the film. In both the game and the film, the sands of time are a dangerous force, held in a sacred container, which, when drawn into a special dagger, can permit the dagger’s wielder to turn back time, escaping death, undoing disaster or, as is often the case in the game, rewinding after a misaimed jump that landed your character in a pit full of spikes. A neat trick, you’ve got to admit.

With an object like that, though, it’s important to make it more than a trick – otherwise it would be like Chekhov’s famous gun firing a little flag with ‘BANG!’ written on it. Both the film and the game deal with time, and its undoing. They do not have the poetry of La Jetée nor the weirdness of Time Bandits, but both do perform one peculiar function: both plots end in their own erasure. Sands of Time, in both its iterations, is a narrative seeking to undo itself, to return to its beginning and avert its initiation.

This isn’t anything terrifically new on the face of it. Every mainstream time travel narrative involves the protagonist trying to suture a rupture in history, often one he or she created in the first place (Back to the Future, for example). If not that, then the protagonist is seeking to prevent an antagonist from changing the past and thus rewriting the future (Terminator, etc). But both of these types of time travel narratives operate around a fixed ‘historical’ text, in that both refer to ‘events as they happened.’ Marty McFly is trying to make sure his parents meet, and while he ends up changing the conditions of their meeting and thus the future, he does so in a way that allows him to continue to exist – he ‘tweaks’ history. Sarah Connor is trying to stay alive so that she can fulfill a destiny in crisis, maintain the course of a history the Terminator is sent back to avert.

Sands of Time, both the game and the film, have no central history to which they must relate. But a further analysis of what this means requires some reference to the events of the plot. So … consider yourself warned, because spoilers are pending!

Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton, from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Prince of Persia‘s cinematic manifestation begins when the great and wise King of Persia, Shahraman, intervenes on behalf of a brave guttersnipe. Seeing the guttersnipe’s obvious goodness of heart, he does what all good legendary kings do: he adopts the orphan urchin and makes him into (da dum!) a Prince of Persia. Fast forward fifteen years, and Prince Dastan (Gyllenhaal) is travelling with his two brothers (one rash, one wise), and his uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley). Their spies report that the Holy City of Alamut is secretly supplying their enemies with weapons, which serves as a pretext for a swift invasion. Dastan resists this idea, but more or less rolls over when push comes to shove, and instead of directly preventing what he feels is an unjust attack, he infiltrates the city and arranges for its swift seizure, limiting casualties (Persian casualties, at least). Of course, it turns out the Persians were acting on bad intelligence: no forges are to be found, so the Persians start digging around, trying to justify their invasion.

This should already sound a little familiar. Just substitute ‘forges’ with ‘WMDs’ and you’ve got a fairly neat mapping onto the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Of course, it’s not fully avowed. There’s a brief suspicion that the eldest son constructed the lie in order to extend the Persian Empire, but it’s swiftly dispelled in favor of letting Nizam take the heat. He may not be a vizier, but a jealous brother to the king serves a very similar function. When King Shahraman shows up, he’s not happy – he thinks the city should not have been invaded and explains to Dastan the difference between a good and a great man. A good man, it turns out, would do what Dastan did and help capture the city with as little bloodshed as possible. A great man would have prevented the invasion from ever happening in the first place.

But what does that smart-ass know? After offering the extremely sexy Princess of Alamut (Arterton) a political union through marriage to Dastan, he promptly gets killed by a robe Dastan gives him, which turns out to have been poisoned, a la Medea. Dastan is forced to flee, framed for both patricide and regicide, but not without his erstwhile bride-to-be (wedding plans are postponed due to paternal deaths and daring escapes) and the aforementioned magical dagger that Alamut kept safe until the Persians came knocking.

Various action scenes and plot revelations later, and here’s how things stand: Alamut possesses the Sandglass of Time, a giant pillar of glass that contains a world ending sandstorm that, when sampled moderately and used in the magical dagger, allows you to go back in time. Only a minute, though, if you’re using the dagger normally. If you shove the dagger into the glass and just let it rip, you could turn back time effectively until your birth, but the force of the time shift will cause the glass to break, and then the world will end. Nizam doesn’t know about this last little detail, but he wants to go back to when he was a boy, in order to stop himself from saving his brother’s life, effective rewriting history so that he can end up on the throne. Terminator-esque, but more personal. In the final showdown, Nizam and Dastan battle over control of the dagger as it channels time and cracks the glass, and when the dust settles, Dastan finds he’s rewound time to just after the invasion. Almost the entire film has been undone in a matter of minutes, and only Dastan knows what has happened (hasn’t happened? will happen? will not happen? damned time travel tenses!). Again, neat trick.

Being the hero, he takes his chance to set everything to rights, revealing Nizam’s treachery and killing him in a last, ferocious swordfight (Ben Kingsley is a spry fellow!) He even convinces his brothers to apologize to Alamut’s princess for their unjust invasion. Sadly, blood has been spilled, and Dastan is not given the chance to achieve greatness since he never gets to undo the invasion itself. But he still gets the girl, which means Persia will get to keep Alamut, and the wise, just king continues to rule. A happy ending! For the Persians at least.

On the level of a political fantasy, this is very much wishful thinking on the part of the United States. An unjust war, begun on false pretenses, is effectively redeemed but without the precipitating event (the invasion) having to be erased. It is the equivalent of Iraq without the unfortunate aftermath. The Sands of Time, while too dangerous to allow Nazim to go back years to prevent his brother’s survival, are capable of canceling out the madness and violence that comprise most of the film, without erasing the benefits – the romance between Dastan and the princess, the important life lessons all Disney movies teach us. This is a symbolic gesture par excellence. The consequences of the invasion are acted out, played through, and then undone. Nothing has happened, yet Dastan and all of Persia have the benefits of having had it happen. The story fictionalizes itself.

This is mirrored in the video game. The events of the game are related by the narrating Prince, who has lived through the events of the game and has entered the Princess’s chambers to tell the story of how they saved the world from the Sands of Time, events she does not remember. There are major deviations in character and plot, but this basic narrative structure remains intact. In the game there is no such happy ending, nor is there a political function comparable to the film’s, but the game even better expresses the movie’s strange twist. The events of the game are the telling of the story of how the events of the game became the story being told.

So, whatever the expected failings of the film, it shares with its game counterpart a remarkably interesting observation about the relationship between fiction and history. Fiction, in these moments, functions as the excess of a knowledge outside of history – its power is that it contains a fullness of experience like a history, without having happened. It has a virtual efficacy, as all symbolic functions do. Each prince returns from the averted timeline, but carrying piece of knowledge gained in that timeline, necessary for that timeline’s very aversion. The story has an effect, very real and very active, not despite the fact that it didn’t happen, but only because it didn’t happen.

Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.