Monday, September 27, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Trouble with Time Travel

Recently I caught Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and it has just hit video. The movie stars Jake Gyllenhall in the title role Gemma Arterton as the love interest, and Ben Kingsley as the villain. I guess now is the time for the warning that this will be a spoiler heavy post. So those of you that have not seen this film stop reading now………

Prince of Persia is set in a fantasy version of said empire, nothing historical need be noted. Frankly, I am just fine with this, I wanted to see a pulpy, swash and buckle adventure and I got one, with Arabian Nights trappings and plenty of pulpy goodness.

The basic plot is that the Persian king has three sons. Two are his natural children, the eldest destined for the throne, the second, captain of the cavalry, and the third, adopted from the streets is a rogue. The hero of the film and leader of the king’s special forces.

The vizier, played by Kingsley, convinces the brothers that they should attack a holy city that is seemingly running weapons for Persia’s enemies. The hero prince, through high flying swashbuckler daring, takes the gates and lets his brothers rush in to take the city. During the fighting he takes down an escaping warrior and obtains a glass hilted dagger that is a potent magical weapon, because within the glass are the Sands of Time. The sands allow the wielder to step back in time by a minute to correct a mistake, or avoid a killing strike.

Kingsly’s character manipulated the attack to gain possession the dagger and, the actual source of the power, to place himself on the throne.

Despite the sheer predictability of the story, which is actually the focus of this post, I just want to say that I really enjoyed it just the same. The adventure itself was a fun ride, the characters well done, the villains even more so. The use of, and look of the Hashishins (assassins) was very pulp sword a sorcery, and very cool. Of course the special effects were what is expected from Hollywood now. Despite any nit picky complaints, it is a fun movie that I will add to my collection.

In Prince of Persia, the hero is able to step back a minute and correct his mistakes, or change the course of events. The films follows the course where everyone dies, the brothers, the father, the love interest, and even helpful sidekicks all the way through are dying off. These characters dying, their sacrifices, created tension for the hero, but not for me, because the whole time I knew that the hero would turn back the clock to a certain point and none of it would have happened.

The actual idea of this post is the nature of time travel in movies and fiction in general. It always sounds so cool, but is nearly impossible to execute because of the paradoxes and the idea of “do overs”.

This is the biggest flaw in trying to create a time travel adventure. The hero can always fix his mistakes. As a matter of course it is actually the main thrust of such adventures from Back to the Future to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The tension and story come from the hero trying to correct those mistakes or set things right, but in the end we know they will. Outside of failing in the middle of the adventure, which no writer if it be screen plays, scripts, or fiction, would do.

Some films have pulled off the time travel adventure by stepping out of the norm for such stories, and a very few have actually pulled off some surprises. The two above used humor to tell the time travel story, Bill and Ted was over the top with the guys taking mental notes on going back in time to set up events to help them in the present, which of course worked….mostly. The first of Michael J. Fox’s movies did this well with the “my own grandpa” kind of shtick. Few actually seem to hold many surprises though.

The Terminator series took a slightly different tack, thank you Harlan Ellison. The first did well with the time travel elements of Reese being Conner’s father, because even the viewer knew he was going to die, the tension in the film actually came from that knowledge. The rest fell into a cycle of sending the next new and improved model after Conner. I imagined Sky Net sitting in Mordor (oops) saying “Did it change yet? Damn! Send another one!” Again, I imagine: why not send Arnold back with a dirty nuke in his guts and BOOM! Sky Net wins!

So what is the purpose of this post? Not much other than pointing out the pit falls of the time travel genre. I will turn off my logic engine and put in Time Rider followed by Time Line and if I have time, another viewing of the sword and sorcery fantasy Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I will follow the axiom on the subject from South Park: The rules for time travel are just silly.