Game Buzz is a weekly opinion column designed to take an irreverent look at one of the biggest news stories to break in the past week. Every Friday we’ll be bringing you another slice of reaction to topical gaming news, and inviting you to agree, disagree, shout assent, vent rage, scream and complain to you heart’s delight. This week, we take a look at the new Prince of Persia movie and see if it can buck the crappy trend and turgid legacy of gaming-inspired cinema. Be warned, you may encounter the odd spoiler.
There were two things that made me a little angry this week. The first was the announcement from THQ that UFC 2010 would feature an online activation system for web-based play not dissimilar to that of the EA Online Pass. A slippery slope indeed, and we called it. To be fair, in last week's Game Buzz I was only really stating the obvious, something that industry analysts seem to get paid lots more me to do in the press. Which brings me onto number two - Michael Pachter admitting he was wrong for actually flying in the face of sanity and presuming that Red Dead Redemption would disappear without a trace. Somebody needs to shake Pachter about. I didn't mind it when he made largely inoffensive remarks every so often that a baboon could have deduced, but since he got his own online show he seems to be everywhere, mouthing off left, right and centre.
That's what I was going to focus on. But then I broke a plate and crushed a pint glass and figured that channelling rage probably wouldn't be a good idea. Thus I found myself in the cinema, preparing to watch a film defiantly standing in the face of insurmountable odds. Game-based movies have near-universally bad press and with good reason. In fact, Brendan recently tried to uncover the most criminal of the bunch and almost went insane.
But The Sands of Time, and here I'm referring to the film, is different. Pirates of the Caribbean, a movie franchise built upon (of all things) a glorified fairground ride, is a good starting point as any for this particular movie: an opulent swashbuckling adventure with a big budget and some killer casting. True, the sequels suffered from all of the writing team seemingly developing schizophrenia and panic attacks, but the first film was a quintessential summer smash, largely thanks to one Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer has a big name that lends itself to glossy spectacle, even if much of his work uses shiny objects to distract from blockbuster box ticking.
The big question on everybody's lips is whether or not his big bucks and Hollywood credibility can change the stakes. Can the bond between cinema and console be anything more than depressingly mediocre?
The answer, I'm glad to announce, is yes and it's clear that if a formula can work for a film based on a theme park attraction, it can be applied to video games as well. Observe the steps for creating your own summer blockbuster based on a subcultural entity:
- Acquire A Decent Director And DoP: Gore Verbinski worked wonders with that first Pirates film, and Mike Newell has done the same here. It's a little restrained perhaps - Newell's CV hardly reads like an action junkie's wet dream (Four Weddings, Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) - but the man certainly has talent. He manages to extract just the right amount of winsome banter between the two leads (we'll come to them) and pulls the strings immensely well. The film looks fantastic, for the most part, with John Seale's cinematography really capturing the epic feel of the film and bringing us grand sweeping vistas and fight scenes that don't make you feel sick.
- Remember The Importance Of Good Acting: I think it's fair to say that Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush carried Pirates pretty much on their own and that's fine, they were the chief baddie and endearingly flawed hero. Jake Gyllenhaal is the big risk here, but by and large it pays off. His chemistry with Gemma Arterton's Princess Tamina (imagine if Keira Knightley could actually act) is believable and the banter deliciously delivered. They're more than ably backed up by Alfred Molina - who really should have been given more lines - and Sir Ben Kingsley, who makes an utterly fantastic baddie. The only shame here is that they're slightly underused. We're never given the chance to revel in Kingsley's Machiavellian designs as much as we might like, but both of them add some real style to the proceedings. There's even a beardy appearance of Jeff from Coupling.
- Get A Writer In Who Knows What They're Doing: Jordan Mechner, being the series creator, knows what Prince of Persia is about. But, thankfully, he's also made the odd movie in his time including the documentary feature Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award. He penned the original Sands of Time game, not to mention a wealth of spinoffs and graphics novels. In short, he's a game designer that likes to explore other media and knows his stuff.
- Throw Some Money At It: You'll notice that this comes last. There can be no doubt that Bruckheimer's money - the film had an estimated budget of $200 million - helped a lot. Most of the special effects are glorious to behold and acrobatics and fight scenes are excellent. But most of that money, would be useless without the ingredients mentioned above. Just look at Pearl Harbor. In fact don't...you'll want to claw your eyes out.
But what of the film itself? Well, it ushers in the summer season successfully by doing the basics right. Keeping it simple, Mechner and the other screenwriters have spun us a solid tale involving a good-yet-misunderstood Prince, a strong-willed Princess, a lovable ostrich-racing rogue, an evil family member and the promise of an apocalyptic sandstorm if the titular Sands of Time are unleashed fully. There's a brief, if clumsy, little subplot involving some topical hidden weapons of mass destruction that seem to have vanished (...or never existed at all), but otherwise it's all fairly straightforward, which works in the films favour. It allows us to revel in the little things - a Kingsley sneer here, a comic exchange between the leads there.
However, the game is notably absent. Don't expect too much by way of fan pandering (fandering?) here because you simply won't get it. But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. It's a shame that the story is resolutely fixated on the humans, no scary beasts for the under-12s here even if they do pop in with mum and dad, but its not too much of a problem. The essence of the game is captured thanks to the gravity-defying stunts and Sinbad-channelling swashbuckling. Actually, for all of the talent on show here, it's Mechner and Co. who actually come up a little short in the execution of all of this with some woefully sluggish dialogue at times and some jarringly bad moments of over-exposition that explode all of sudden seemingly for the benefit of a generation raised on Ritalin.
But let's return to my initial point: we're not assessing this film against something like The Hurt Locker, but against two specific genres: summer blockbusters and video game films. As the former, Prince of Persia suffices as an entry point to the season - a spectacle if not quite spectacular. As the latter, it points the way forward, offering fun where there was previously only frustration. It's got some glaring issues and is far from perfect, but you know what?...I came out of the movie with a big, fat, genuine smile on my face. That's the first time I think I've been able to say that about a film like this.