Sunday, May 30, 2010

Prince of Persia

Another month. Well, well, well. Thing is, there haven’t been any films I’ve seen that either needed much fixing or could really be helped by any. “How to Train Your Dragon” was a real treat and was the last memorable film I saw. We’re now officially in the summer movie season so the big bucks are starting to be flung at the screen. First in line is “Prince of Persia.” I’m not sure how much there is to save here. It’s a movie based on a video game, a practice which, in and of itself, is a lukewarm idea at best. Oh, sure, millions played the game but playing a game and watching a movie is not the same thing and the translation often shows how shallow the original source material is. Games are, by their very nature, more captivating as their audience, by participating at all, is made to feel that their actions directly affect the outcome of the story. This isn’t really true of course, but because of that interaction, games can get away with thinner story than movies which only require us to sit and watch. A really good movie will also engage, start the imagination going and allow us to immerse ourselves in its tableau and even forget we’re sitting in a dark room with lots of other people doing exactly the same thing. Pity so few films seem to be able to do that these days.

So “Prince of Persia.”

Problem: The movie’s crux, the magical doohickey, the Maguffin is too damned complicated, and unnecessarily so. Sands of time can either do everything or nothing and we’re not really sure which. “Don’t do this,” or “If this happens,” and of course, “But only I can stick the blade in the stone which will save the world...” Blah blah blah. Taking a simple idea and watering it down with complexities disengages the audience, brings about disbelief and really is not necessary.

Solution: The dagger should only be able to do one thing; reverse time in short bursts. There should be no grand story about gods, destruction of the earth, great sandstorms that might come again and all that unnecessary crap. The dagger and sands should be two separate components of one idea; Two ‘chosen’ people unite to undo some of the world’s wrongs. One, a brother, wields the dagger with which he can right some of those wrongs. The sister is the one capable of creating the sands that the dagger uses. These abilities are passed down through the ages, taught mother to daughter, etc. This simplifies a hell of a lot and helps the conflict between Prince Dastan and Princess what’s her name; they will HAVE to work together to overcome evil, using the dagger, just as has been foretold, etc. Dastan’s killing of the brother in the opening of the film will make the coming together of the two more difficult and stronger once it happens. The movie can be more about Dastan trying to prove himself to her and to himself and less about all this mystical mucking about.

Problem: There is opportunity for closure in the film and that potential is unfulfilled. The King tells Dastan a story of why he was chosen from the streets when he was a boy, that the King saw what was a ‘good’ boy who had potential to be a ‘great’ man, and that by not stopping the attack on the holy city, he failed in that. It’s a well placed bit of foreshadowing (for a simple hero story) and it’s left only half finished in the end for a supposedly better, love-filled ending.

Solution: The solution is simply to have Dastan go back in time and convince his brother that the city should not be attacked before it happens, to stand up to both older brothers and the evil uncle the way his father said he should have in the first place. Perhaps a combination of the scene where Dastan stabs himself with the dagger, and that where he’s screaming to be heard on the steps of the conquered city could be done in the tents before the battle. There would be nice visual contrast of his facing this darkest hour before the dawn, literally as the army poised for battle could actually march forward as friends in daylight. Here, the movie would have a more bittersweet and stronger ending as Dastan would see the woman he loved and know that she would never be his as the circumstances for her to come to know him would never happen (at least not in this film). A tragic hero is a stronger hero than one who gets everything in the end, and a more memorable one. This also leads to the next issue.

Problem: The movie, which obviously wants to be the beginning of a franchise (not likely) does not end in such a way as to suggest that a continuation would be either needed or wanted. We see the hero get the girl, the evil in the royal family has been purged. I’m betting most filmgoers walked away from this thinking the story was over, the end, what’s next on the marquee? The same could be said for some other successful franchises (“Star Wars,” for example) but why not leave the audience wanting more? Isn’t that the best way to get them to come back?

Solution: Connected to the change in plot above, Dastan does not get the girl, misses out on love (at least for now) and is still third in line for the throne. And there is still the enemy of the empire on the horizon (pretty much forgotten about in the movie). In other words, things are not all tied up neatly at the end. There is tragedy in Dastan’s life, a scar that we, the audience knows is the first stone of a road he has started to travel. This part of the story would have an ending but we’d also expect there to be more.

Problem: There’s just too much going on that gets in the way of the main story. Even without the complications of the dagger and the sands, there’s the whole subplot mess with Alfred Molina and his anti-tax stance (is that meant as some kind of political message?). The knife-thrower character is obviously just there to be thrown away later and is only given a flicker of respect. The whole cast of characters lack motivation, are wishy washy and are obviously just filler.

Solution: Remove importance of the Molina character and replace it with the knife-thrower. Have Dastan save his life thus transferring the life-debt from Molina to Dastan. Or, perhaps, make the whole incident with the ostrich camp go away. It’s not essential to the plot. It’s the Mos Eisley scene but goes on too long and comes back to haunt us. Molina is meant to be funny, but we don’t need funny and he’s not that comical (good actor, bad role). It’s nice that the knife-thrower sacrifices himself for the ‘greater good’ later on, but we know it’s going to happen, we know when and we know how. There are no surprises. Filler is understandable, yet it can still be better thought out and can be used to support the story as opposed to just slow it down.

Problem: The Hassansins are ultimately just silly.

Solution: If a character is meant to be above and beyond, let them be above and beyond and do not water them down. The Hassansins are shown to be spooky, ridiculously skilled and even possibly magical. Yet when they catch up to the whole crew in the mountain village, even the riff raff Molina is traveling with manages to kill some of them off. We no longer take them seriously or expect them to be any real obstacle. Have fewer of these Hassansins, or even make it just the one. Since there is no reason, with the plot adjustments above, to even have the scene in the village, simply have the Hassansin dog the tracks of the hero all the way through. Perhaps near the end of the film, it can be he who kills the princess, making him both more evil seeming as well as more competent. It would also reinforce the need of Dastan to reverse the whole series of events as well as deepen his regret when he realizes they will never be together.

Problem: British Accents, white actors.

Solution: With the amount of money being spent on a film like this, there is no chance that the leading role would go to anyone but a big name Hollywood star. While I think the audience would accept an Arabic actor if the story were that well done and compelling, Hollywood would never trust us to spend our money on an unknown. So be it. But. Why is it, why oh why is it that every foreign nation depicted in an American film has to have an accent from the UK? If the actors have to be voice coached, why not use the accent that’s actually geographically correct? This is not only insulting to the moviegoing public but to the cultures that are depicted. Easy solution; use the proper accents. Even better, hire actors from the proper countries as well.

Problem: American directors cannot film action scenes. Every fight is heavily planned and rehearsed and yet when it comes time to film these scenes, a camera is seemingly strapped to a vulture and the corresponding footage is sewn together with yarn. The camera jerks around so much, we have no idea who’s hitting who, where we are or what’s going on. There’s no sense of place at all. It’s a constant problem in American action films.

Solution: Either watch some Hong Kong action films and see how striking action should be captured or just hire cinematographers from Hong Kong to shoot these scenes. I use Hong Kong as an example as I have seen quite a few of the action films from there and rarely do I have trouble telling who is who, where they are, or what just happened. The camera moves far less and the sense of place is always clear. There are exceptions in American cinema but it seems the big budget action movies tend to suffer from this far too much. Even a simple fist fight looks like it was shot by a one legged roller skater. Enough!

Likely that even with major changes like those above, there would need to be a lot of ‘sanding’ done to make this movie flow smoothly, and there is good reason to question whether or not it’s worth doing. Thing is, as is often the case, this could be done at the writing stage and as such not be all that expensive to do or difficult. It costs just as much to film a well thought, tightly written plot as it does a sloppy one.