Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, May 31, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Pokemon Detective Pikachu (2019)




Like most ten year old Americans in 1998, I was swept up in “Pokemon” fever. I can distinctly recall racing home from school around three in the afternoon, in hopes of not missing more than a few minutes of the anime, which was airing in syndication at the time. I grabbed up plenty of the toys, especially the pocket-sized figurines of the various monsters. I had a small binder full of the trading cards. I even convinced my dad to buy me a Gameboy Color specifically to play the games. However, my passion for “Pokemon” cooled after a few years. I remember playing “Pokemon Gold” but, even by that point, I was loosing interest. A lot of that interest had transferred over to “Digimon,” easily the superior anime, and then much weirder shit.

But for the rest of the world, Poke-fever never really ended. Over two full decades after the franchise's beginning, Pikachu and his other pocket monster friends – tallying around 811 now – remain beloved pop culture staples. The anime is still running. The games are still event releases that drive conversations all around the internet. There's been at least 21 animated “Pokemon” movies released over the years. Now, the time has come for a live action one. “Pokemon Detective Pikachu” has been similarly enthusiastically received, the trailer being widely accepted as one of the year's best. People were even wondering if the video game movie curse has been broken. Which makes “Detective Pikachu” a fitting choice to close out Video Game Movie Month.

Instead of adapting the mainline “Pokemon” series, the basis for all those anime movies, of Ash or Red trying to catch 'em all and be the very best like no one ever was, “Detective Pikachu” draws from a mystery-solving spin-off. After his dad seemingly dies in a car crash, young insurance salesman Tim Goodman ventures to Ryme City. Instead of being kept in Pokeballs and being forced to fight for human's enjoyment, people and Pokemon peacefully co-exist in the city. That's when Tim discovers a deerstalker cap wearing Pikachu that speaks English, that only he can understand. The Pikachu has some connection to Tim's dad and is certain he's still alive. Unwilling at first, Tim soon teams up with the highly marketable little critter to unravel the mystery.

First and foremost, does “Detective Pikachu” break the video game movie curse? I'll concede that the film is definitely much better than the majority of video game adaptations. As crowd-pleasing spectacle, “Detective Pikachu” definitely works. The movie features its share of impressive action sequence. A fantastically exciting, and mildly surreal, sequence involves characters trying to escape the massively shifting landscape as three giant tortoise Pokemon grow up around them. Action scenes, like Pikachu and Tim escaping a horde of mad monkeys or a fight between a scarred Charizard and the titular detective, are energetically directed. Even in a family flick like this, there's still a finale packed full of urban destruction. It is, admittedly, a pretty good urban destruction filled finale. A series of flaming parade balloons make for an especially memorable set piece.

Perhaps even more importantly, the world of “Detective Pikachu” brilliantly works. No, many of the questions I have about the ramifications of this universe remain unasnwered: Do people eat Pokemon? Where do all these pocket monsters poop? Why are private citizens allowed to cock-fight cute creatures with the equivalent power of WMDs? However, Ryme City is a pretty cool place. The setting has so much character. You see humans and Pokemon interacting in minor ways in the background, every corner of the film full of so much personality. The special effects, the classic Pokemon designs being smoothly transferred into real life, are also extremely good. That helps the audience further buy into this fantastical world on-screen.

For all the qualities of “Detective Pikachu” that work, I never quite connected with the film. Something about the story's emotional core rings hollow. Tim's background is rift with so much tragedy. Even before his dad goes missing, he has a dead mom, a distant relationship with the aforementioned dad, and is a general outcast. The bond he'll form with Pikachu is developed soon enough, his disinterest in Pokemon obviously setting up him falling in love with a pocket monster later. From the moment we meet the talking Pikachu, he's cracking jokes in Ryan Reynolds' voice. That snideness makes it hard to relate too much to the life-changing friendship they are supposedly forming. The scene where Tim is moved to tears by Pikachu being injured feels deeply unearned. We jump right from the “hating each other” part of the buddy cop formula to the “loving each other” part without the necessary middle section where the partners gain a begrudging respect for each other.

Though it's hard to believe, “Detective Pikachu” is still ostensibly a mystery. Sadly, the movie underwhelms in that regard as well. In fact, the script cheats several times before the end. Fully immersive holograms that can perfectly recreate recordings, even apparently angles the camera never caught, is a very contrived plot turn. Similarly unlikely plot devices, like perfect mind control and magical new powers, crop up before the end. The true villain of the story is immediately identifiable the minute he appears on-screen. The exact nature of his master plan is especially baffling, shifting how humans and Pokemon interact in a way I still don't completely understand.

Still, there are plenty of things to enjoy about the film. The cast is likable, for one thing. As Tim, Justice Smith is an entertaining lead. The slightly irritated quality he brings to the lead plays off the crazy world and critters he encounters along the way. Ryan Reynolds still seems like an odd choice to voice the electric rat – should've been Danny DeVito – but he attacks the part with gusto. Kathryn Newton has a decent amount of attitude as Lucy, the hotshot would-be reporter Tim teams up with. I also liked her Psyduck sidekick, always one of my favorite Pokemon. And, since this is a Hollywood movie based on a Japanese property, Ken Watanabe is legally obligated to show up.

“Detective Pikachu” is amusing. It's a big budget family fantasy film that includes shout-outs to both “Aliens” and Michael Haneke, so it's impossible to say I wasn't entertained. Choosing to forego the story fans all expected in favor of something different, right from the get-go, was a smart move. However, “Detective Pikachu” still has the problem of attempting to transfer video game lore and logic into a narrative motion picture. Audiences don't seem to have minded. The film has predictably been a box office success. Legendary Pictures already has more “Pokemon” movies in development. I didn't dislike the film, even if the adorable charms of its fuzzy titular investigator only goes so far. [6/10]


After watching a whole month of video game movies, what have I learned? The Japanese do it better than Americans. A lot of video game movies have a frustrating disregard for what they are adapting. Yet fidelity to the source material doesn't necessitate quality. The pacing needs of a motion picture – rising and falling action – and that of a video game – rising action that constantly moves forward – are totally different. This is the conflict video game adaptations most struggle to overcome. I think future video game movies should pull from games with deep lore and interesting characters, while also realizing there's no need to replicate the exact structure of a game's plot or mechanics. (I also learned that Uwe Boll is a more interesting filmmaker than Paul W.S. Anderson.)

And there will be many more video game movies in the future, especially as gaming continues to grow to dominate the market. Within the coming months, we'll see movies based on “Sonic the Hedgehog – a topic I already have many thoughts on – as well as “Monster Hunter,” “Dynasty Warriors,” and a new “Doom” film. A CGI animated “Mario” feature from Illumination is in the pipleine. So is a new “Mortal Kombat” film. Movies based on “Minecraft,” “Five Night's at Freddy's” “Mega Man,” and “Uncharted”  are just some of the announced projects that sound like they might actually get made. With the recent announcement of Sony creating a new production company specifically to adapt video games into movies, it doesn't look like this cinematic trend will slow down any time soon.

At the beginning of May, I wondered if I would still think a month of video game movies would be a good idea by the end. I can soundly say it was a bad one, as watching so many lousy films in such a short time frame was exhausting. But there are still plenty of game movies and more being made, and I'm an idiot, so there's also a chance I'll do this again. Until that time comes, the arcade is closed.


VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Rampage (2018)




Video game movies usually happen because someone — a film studio, the game developers, or an opportunistic rogue like Uwe Boll — is eager to capitalize on the popularity of a franchise. You’ll notice most of the movies I’ve talked about this month have springboarded off titles that were relevant at-the-time. But something odd happened in 2011. Warner Bros. technically acquired the rights to “Rampage,” a quarter-gobbling arcade classic devoted to cartoonish kaiju smashing buildings and eating people, when they bought Midway Games in 2009. There hadn’t been a new game since 2006 and nobody was crying out for a “Rampage” film. However, producer John Rickard realizes the studio owned the game in 2011 and thought it would make a cool movie. He quickly got superstar Dwayne Johnson attached, who then reeled in his “Journey 2” and “San Andreas” director Brad Peyton. (Films with giant animals and lots of urban destruction, respectively.) In brief, nobody expected a “Rampage” movie, not even Midway or Hollywood.

Genetics corporation Energyne has been doing unethical gene-splicing experiments in space, causing wild mutations in animals. After a giant rat escapes, the satellite is destroyed and canisters of secret gas fall to Earth. Three animals are exposed to the pathogen: A wild wolf that grows into a ravenous monster, an alligator that becomes even larger and more dangerous, and an albino gorilla named George. George’s caretaker is former special forces and anti-poaching expert David Okoye. When George grows to giant size and escapes, Okoye and a former Energyne scientist tries to bring him in peacefully. The heads of Energyne, the evil Wyden siblings, cook up a scheme to clear their names, drawing all the mutated animals towards Chicago. Naturally, much mayhem ensues.

In a way, “Rampage” was an ideal series to adapt to film. None of the games have much in the way of story, the plottier entries not extending far beyond “evil corporation turns people into giant monsters, they escape and seek vengeance.” (Sometimes, alien invaders or time travel are involved but the execution is the same.) In other words, a “Rampage” movie could be about anything, as long as it had giant, mutant animals destroying buildings. The film’s team of screenwriters rightly decided upon a Saturday morning cartoon-like tone. “Rampage’s” heroes are very good, a group of smart-asses who are ultra talented, always ready with a one-liner and determined to save George. “Rampage’s” villains are very evil, a pair of scheming corporate executives who unleash a trio of giant monsters on Chicago to cover their own asses. “Rampage’s” script is very dumb. The villain’s ploy has a few holes in it, including staying in the city long after the rampage starts and putting themselves in danger. George is treated like a hero at the end, despite destroying a lot of property and killing a ton of people. Okoye’s ability to communicate with George via sign language far out-strips any previous human/primate relations experiments.

The film overcomes its central dumbness by embracing an intentionally comedic tone. “Rampage’s” jokes are frequently crude. There’s references to pooping your pants and sexual intercourse within the first few minutes. George flips the bird not once but twice, as far as I can tell only the second time this event has been portrayed on-screen. The big silly ape later mimes the universally recognized hand gesture for doin’ it. The Rock reacts to the unlikeliness of what is happening around him with silly quibs pointed right at the audience. In fact, several of the characters speak exclusively in corny jokes. One half of the evil siblings is exceptionally dumb and his departure is fittingly sarcastic. “Rampage” knows how silly it is and further signals this by putting the original arcade cabinet in clear sight in one scene. (George also makes sure to throw a Dave & Busters logo, which featured an exclusive “Rampage” game based on the movie, right at the camera.)

The “Rampage” games were always jokey homages to kaiju movies of old, so it’s fitting the film follows a similar path. The film makes its trio of giant monsters as realistic looking as possible, with some quite excellent digital effects. Yet the goofy cool factor of the creatures are not sacrificed for realism. Ralph the Wolf, who is so named in-film, can glide like a flying squirrel and throw porcupine-like spines. Liz the Lizard becomes a massive alligator, with spikes, a frill, and a club-like tail. George is the least grotesque of the creature, though the albino gorilla still gets a cartoonish range of facial expressions. That the film allows its monsters some actual personality is a great benefit. That makes watching them reek endless destruction on Chicago much more entertaining. It’s even mildly cathartic, nature’s fierce beast striking back against the corporate world that deformed them. The film is definitely on the monsters’ sides. Even if it also mines them for fear, in surprisingly scary scenes like Ralph taking the mercenaries apart in the woods. Or a decently tense opening devoted to Larry the Rat chasing an astronaut through a satellite.

The film’s extensive scenes of urban devastation are fun to watch, initially. George flips tanks into the air and tosses them back down. Liz crunches a fighter jet right as it passes between her jaws. The giant gator gets another cool stunt when she scales a skyscraper just to walk directly through it. There’s a definite glee to the film’s destruction, the giant but not-quite-Godzilla-scale creatures ripping buildings apart in a fun, cinematic way. Yet, much like Peyton’s “San Andreas,” the movie’s endless destruction eventually wares the audience down. The film peaks when George eats one of the bad guys and the monsters tear down the central skyscraper. Though the kaiju brawl that follows is inevitable, George and Liz recreating “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” we’ve had about as much gray, ash-sodden mayhem as we can take by that point. “Rampage” runs 107 minutes, when it probably should’ve tapped out at 90.

Still, it is a fun movie and the cast is certainly in on that fun. Dwayne Johnson has come a long way since “Doom.” In 2018, the man formerly known as the Rock is totally self-assured in his movie star charisma. David Okoye is a standard issue Johnson role, a hyper-capable and giant tough guy with a soft spot for animals and an endless supply of one-liners. He’s having a ball. (If you still doubt Mr. Johnson’s classic gaming credentials, he was also attached to an unrealized “Spy Hunter” movie for many years.) Jeffrey Dean Morgan is gloriously over-the-top as a Southern fried government agent that cracks most of the film’s jokes. Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacy play the blank-faced antagonists, on the script’s cartoonish level. Joe Manganiello is similarly hammy as the short-lived leader of the evil mercenaries. The only actor seemingly playing the material straight is Naomie Harris, as the scientist following Okoye around.

Likely because of the Rock’s status as the biggest movie star in the world and the global appeal of cinematic mass destruction, “Rampage” was a proper blockbuster. The film rode the same wave of revived interest in kaiju movies that “Pacific Rim” and 2014’s “Godzilla” reboot enjoyed. The film also held the dubious distinction of being the best reviewed video game movie on Rotten Tomatoes, a title it held until very recently. Pretty good for an adaptation of a thirty year old video most people had probably forgotten about. The kind of fun-dumb popcorn flick that doesn’t get made much anymore, “Rampage” is a good time if you’re in the mood for supremely silly chaos. [7/10]



Thursday, May 30, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Tomb Raider (2018)




I tend to think of the “Tomb Raider” franchise as a relic of the nineties, an artifact of the PlayStation 1/Surge Soda era. However, it apparently continues to be a viable brand. The game series was successfully rebooted in 2006 with “Tomb Raider Legend.” During the mid-2000s, there was brief chatter about producing a third “Tomb Raider” film with Megan Fox, during her brief reign as America's top sex symbol, filling Angelina Jolie's padded bra. Following another successful reboot of the game series in 2013, the effort to produce a new Lara Croft movie was re-energized. 2018's “Tomb Raider” would see Alicia Vikander and her totally normal sized breasts assuming the Croft mantle and Scandinavian filmmaker Roar Uthaung, previously of “Cold Prey” and “The Wave,” behind the camera.

As with the game that inspired it, this “Tomb Raider” is a complete reboot. The most consistent factors are Lara's olive tank top and her vanished dad. This time, the senior Croft disappeared in the Devil's Sea while searching for Himiko, the legendary first queen of Japan that held the secrets to life and death. When asked to officially declare him dead, Lara discovers her dad's notes on the subject. She heads to Hong Kong, hires a boat captain, and is subsequently tossed in a massive storm. She wakes up on the remote island of Yamatai, where a villain named Matthias Vogel is using slave-labor to dig up Himiko's tomb. Croft must escape her captors, discover whether her father is dead or alive, and uncover the truth about Himiko.

While Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft was nothing more than a collection of hilariously dated attempts at coolness, Vikander's Lara is a result of the new teen's obsession with grittiness, realism, and origin stories. Compared to the cartoon character Jolie played, Vikaner's Croft is very human. 2018's Lara has refused to accept her father's vast wealth, working as a courier in London, which makes her more relatable. She's introduced being choked out inside a boxing ring. That sets up our new Lara getting hurt. A lot. She's tossed to the ground and through the air more times than can be counted. She's tied up by the bad guys and stabbed through the belly with a tree branch. Lara emerges as a hero not because she's ridiculously skilled and has limitless resources but because she constantly gets the shit kicked out of her and never gives up. It makes for a more compelling heroine, at the very least.

The action sequences in this “Tomb Raider” are also less cartoonish. Uthaung orchestrates a number of exciting scenes. The highlight of the film is Lara's escape from the slavers. She runs through the jungle, arms bound, avoiding gunfire. She leaps into a river and gets knocked around, the camera intimately watching her struggle. She pulls herself into a long-wrecked fighter jet at the edge of a waterfall. The scene isn't done escalating, as the derelict jet starts to teeter over the falls. Lara is tossed around more, dangling onto dear life, before riding a torn parachute out of the collapsing plane. It's a fantastically tense sequence that never lets up, building in even bigger directions but keeping its point-of-view on Lara. The audience is dragged along on this bracing journey.

It's also the highlight of the movie. There are other decent action scenes in “Tomb Raider.” A fight scene with a goon in the muddy dark is solid. The way the reboot puts a realistic spin on the fantastical MacGuffins we are used to seeing Lara chase is pretty clever. However, Uthaung's film still can't overcome its video game roots. Many of the action scenes feel too much like the quick time events that featured prominently in the new games. Such as Lara climbing across the edge of a sinking ship like it's monkey bars. Or her foot chase through the Hong Kong docks concluding with her swinging on a random hook. The film's roots as a video game are most apparent in its awkward last act. After uncovering Himiko's tomb and getting down to some raiding, Lara and company have to navigate a series of increasingly goofy puzzles. The scene where she tries to open a door with a number of colored keys, as the floor disappears under her, really makes me feel like I should be holding a controller.

Seemingly every British waif in Hollywood, and pitch perfect choices like Rhona Mitra and Gemma Arterton, were considered to be the new Lara. Instead, “Tomb Raider” would become Alicia Vikander's mandatory post-Oscar win grab at action movie stardom. All joking aside, Vikander does just fine. Her athleticism is impressive. She shows the character's steely determination while remaining charming. Walter Goggins appears as Vogel. It's odd that an actor as wildly talented at going over-the-top as Goggins would be chosen to play a ridiculous baddie like this. Vogel is pragmatic and almost sympathetic, being manipulated by a more nefarious force. Daniel Wu is a decent foil for Croft, as her male companion on this adventure, while Dominic Cooper gets to ham it up a little as her dad.

“Tomb Raider” looses a lot of momentum in its second half. Once the actual tomb raiding begins, it starts to rely more on CGI, traditional action movie theatrics, and silly plot devices. Up until that point, the film was a competently directed action/thriller that successfully brought an outrageous character down to Earth. It seemed to me that “Tomb Raider” came and went from theaters without much attention. Worldwide, it managed to make a profit – 274 million against a 94 million budget – so now talks have begun of doing a sequel. (The film leaves room for one, as the villains behind Vogel – a mysterious organization called Trinity – are still out there.) Even though 2018's “Tomb Raider” is a notable improvement over the earlier films, it still doesn't totally work. Whether a sequel will actually be worth seeing or not is still up in the air. [6/10]



Wednesday, May 29, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017)




All of the “Resident Evil” movies were box office successes. However, “Retribution” was the lowest grossing entry in the series since the first one. This, perhaps, suggested that the public's hunger for this particular franchise was finally running low. Thus, the decision was made that the sixth installment would conclude things, a staggering fourteen years after the original came out. Adopting the oh-so-original title of “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter,” the sequel would see Paul W.S. Anderson and Milla Jovovich coming back one last time, to conclude the baffingly long-running series they started.

Humanity's last stand in D.C. didn't go so well, as the resistance was apparently betrayed by Albert Wesker, something apparently nobody anticipated. Alice is the only survivor again. She soon gets in contact with the Red Queen, who informs her that Umbrella has an airborne anecdote to the T-Virus, hidden within the Hive under the remains of Raccoon City. Alice has twenty-four hours to find the anecdote, before the last remaining humans are wiped out. Along the way, she teams up with Claire Redfield and a new team of wasteland warriors. They take on Umbrella together, led by the suddenly alive Dr. Alexander Issacs, and learn many secrets.

Since this is the final chapter and all that, Anderson attempts to bring the story full circle. However, his methods are sloppy and frequently only draw further attention to the “Resident Evil” films' overall flaws. It is only now, in the sixth entry in the series, that we learn why the T-Virus was created and what the Umbrella Corporation hoped to accomplished with it. How the hell was that not covered sooner? The film retraces elements from the earlier films, Raccoon City and the Hive reappearing. Yet it says a lot about Anderson's priorities that he's largely paying homage to stuff he himself, not Capcom, created. The Red Queen parrots her trademark line of dialogue. The tunnel of criss-crossing laser beams shows up yet again. The final boss of the franchise is not Albert Wesker, the primary antagonist of the last two films, but Dr. Isaacs... Who was already killed off but, never mind, that was a clone. Also do not mind that the greatest enemy of this zombie/monster series is an old British guy in a suit with super-fast reflexes.

In fact, “The Final Chapter” is weirdly dismissive of so much stuff from the later, better “Resident Evil” films. Even as someone who defiantly does not give a shit about these movies, I'm kind of pissed at how freely the concluding chapter disregards stuff the last film set up. The showdown in D.C. happens totally off-screen. Alice regaining her superpowers was a lie, apparently. The Red Queen's motivations are the exact opposite of what they were last time, as are Wesker's. With the exception of Claire, all the other reoccurring cast members are nowhere in sight, apparently dying off-screen. That presumably includes Becky, Alice's adopted daughter, who is never even fucking mentioned. It's not like Anderson was retconning stuff he didn't approve off from later sequels. He directed the last two movies! Why toss out so much stuff the previous installment took the time to set up?

Not that plot or continuity have ever been much of a concern for this franchise. As with all the others, “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” is about brain-dead action more than anything else. After showing considerable improvement over the last two films, Anderson's direction is somehow the worst it has ever been. Within the first five minutes of the film, there are two obnoxious jump-scares. “The Final Chapter” indulges in every modern action movie cliché I hate. There's shaky-cam, some of the fights being rendered impossible to follow. All the action scenes are ridiculously over-edited, with roughly a hundred cuts every time something happens. This is most apparent in a totally gratuitous scene where Alice spins upside down while shooting random thugs. (Humanity is nearing extinction but she has no problem murdering more of it.) The film throws in a random martial arts expert for Alice to fight, though I don't know why as you can't follow what the hell he's doing. Yes, there's plenty of slow-mo and “Matrix”-style bullet time, people leaping from CGI explosions, and heavy metal on the soundtrack. I guess Paul was also feeling nostalgic for how shitty that first “Resident Evil” looked.

With most of the sequels' established cast gone, “The Final Chapter” includes a bunch of new characters. None of them are memorable, save for Ruby Rose's tough and resourceful mechanic. She bluntly exits the film following a few scenes. Claire Redfield is the only notable return and Ali Larter gives a bored performance. The decision to make Ian Glen's Dr. Isaacs the big bad of the series is so strange, though Glenn at least gets to ham it up some. Most of revelations in the plot concerns Alice's past. Turns out her origins are far more convoluted, and interlinked with series' lore, than we ever expected. Not that Milla Jovovich ever feels the need to change her flat acting style for this. Once again utterly unstoppable, despite being de-powered, Milla's Alice is going through the murderous motion. Her delivery of lines are flat, she seems disinterested during the action scenes, and she has no viable screen presence. And she was getting better too!

By the end, “The Final Chapter” is so self-obsessed with its own bullshit, that I was wondering if it even counts as a video game movie anymore. The disconnect from Capcom's games have never felt stronger. Save for some bat monsters and the very mutated zombie dogs, none of the creatures have that distinct “Resident Evil” style. Especially not a pair of skull-faced muscle monsters that randomly show up at one point. And even though the film is the concluding chapter in the series, bringing Alice's non-existent character arc to something of a close, its final scene is still shockingly open-ended.

It would seem audiences finally had enough of this bullshit. Released in the dumping grounds of January, “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” flopped domestically. The international box office, however, was the highest its ever been, making this technically the most successful of the whole series. It's only this iteration of the “Resident Evil” film series that's over, as a reboot was announced last year. James Wan was once producing, with low-budget genre work-horse Johannes Roberts directing. This hopefully means the new “Resident Evil” will be an actual horror film that draws more from the games. (Paul and Milla, meanwhile, are headed off to ruin a different Capcom video game series.) As for “The Final Chapter,” it's almost impressive how badly “Resident Evil” swings back after it became relatively tolerable over the last three films. It sucks but at least I can say I've seen them all now. Does this mean I have to watch the “Underworld” movies next? [4/10]



Tuesday, May 28, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Assassin's Creed (2016)




I remember when the first “Assassin’s Creed” game came out — which was almost twelve years ago now, because I’m old as shit. As I recall, most of the hype revolved around the game’s historical action elements. It was only after the game actually came out that people realized there was a sci-fi twist to the tale. Gamers clearly didn’t mind, as the original spawned an on-going series that includes 11 main entries and even more handheld/mobile spin-offs. Given that blockbuster success, a movie must’ve seemed like a good idea. Ubi-Soft, the games’ creators, were so determined to make an “Assassin’s Creed” film, that they formed their own production company to do so. Michael Fassbender became involved early on, suggesting confidence in the project was riding high. Instead, “Assassin’s Creed” was another video game adaptation to flop with critics and underperform financially.

Since ancient times, the Knights Templar have sought the Biblical Apple of Eden, hoping to use it to destroy free will and end mankind’s violent ways. Through the ages, the Assassins have opposed them. The Templars have tracked down the modern descendants of the Assassins, such as convicted felon Cal Lynch. Using a machine called the Animus, Cal relives the life of his distant ancestor: Aguilar de Nehra, an assassin in 14th century Spain protecting the Apple from the Inquisition. (Secretly a front for the Templars, of course.) The Templars plan to use these “genetic memories” to uncover the Apple’s modern location. Cal must decide whether to help them or not.

“Assassin’s Creed” was directed by Justin Kurzel, who previously worked with Fassbender on a gloomy version of “MacBeth.” Kurzel is best known for the unrelentingly dark true crime story “Snowtown.” Unsurprisingly, Kurzel brings his trademark dour approach to this film. The cast of “Assassin’s Creed” frequently brood in the shadows. The Animus room is weirdly dark. You’d think the scientists would want to clearly see everything. The secret compound Cal is kept is a washed-out, sterile environment. All the historical sequences have a gritty composition to them, emphasizing the heat and dirt of the setting. Everything is taken very seriously indeed. A disconnect eventually emerges, as the plot is a typically silly video game story of chasing after a magical MacGuffin.

Like so many video game adaptations, “Assassin’s Creed” has its share of exposition and pre-established lore. (Especially a subplot about the “bleeding effect,” an excuse for the modern descendants to learn their ancestors’ skills.) However, the movie actually makes this work in its favor. The ideas in “Assassin’s Creed” are interesting, to me anyway. I have a weakness for historical fiction that ties together the eons with a behind-the-scenes secret “true story.” The Templars are apparently behind all the massive leaps forward in civilization. Religion and consumerism were previous attempts to stem humanity’s violent ways. The central theme of the film — if free will is worth it, considering the human race’s self-destructive impulses — gives the protagonist a difficult choice. By actually being about something, by grappling with some real ideas, “Assassin’s Creed” is elevated above most video game movies.

For all its pretensions, “Assassin's Creed” is still an action movie. It delivers pretty well in that regard. Kurzel's action sequence are fast-paced, the deathly blows frequently being emphasized with stylized point-of-view shots or some rough handheld zoom-ins. Befitting the film's video game roots, the focus is on acrobatic and cool looking hand-to-hand combat. In a pretty impressive scene, Fassbender, who supposedly did a lot of his own stunts, swings a spear around and effectively dispatches a number of enemies. There's lots of leaping and flipping through the air. While Kurzel's camera is sometimes a little on the unsteady side – a scene where assassins run across ropes or an enemy busts through a window are a little hard to follow – it's all well handled, for the most part.

Another thing that elevates “Assassin's Creed” is its cast, which is considerably more stacked than you'd expect from a video game adaptation. As a lead, Fassbender is effectively grim, playing a guy with little hope that finds something to live for. His complicated relationship with his father, played by a nicely mythic Brendan Gleeson, adds further depth to his character arc. Marion Cotillard brings a sympathetic note to Sofia, the woman running the Animus program who clearly doesn't think of herself as a villain. Jeremy Irons, as her father and a high-ranking Templar, brings the expected level of dignity to what normally might've been an undefined villain part. Michael K. Williams as the modern day leader of the assassin descendants, pumps up a fairly small role with his expected level of attitude.

Going in with no expectations, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by “Assassin's Creed.” The direction is stylish, the cast is very good, the action is exciting, and the story has enough interesting turns to keep you invested. Critics felt differently, as the film was poorly reviewed. Maybe my positive reaction is just because I'm watching this at the end of a whole month of much worst films. Much like 2016's other big video game movie, “Assassin's Creed” did poorly at the box office domestically – it opened at number five – but did better overseas... But still didn't gross enough to be declared a success. I don't know why “Assassin's Creed” flopped, though being released over a crowded holiday weekend and Ubisoft flooding the market with new video game installments multiple times a year surely didn't help. But, if you like the same sort of bullshit as I do, maybe give the film a chance and see what you think. [7/10]



Monday, May 27, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Warcraft (2016)



Even though most video game movies have been financial and creative failures, there's a big reason Hollywood keeps trying. Video games are extremely popular! It's a billion dollar industry that has leaked into every facet of many people's lives. Movie studios would obviously like a slice of that considerably large, money-filled pie. Among the most profitable video game franchises of all time is Blizzard's “Warcraft” series. This is mostly thanks to the MMORPG spin-off, “World of Warcraft,” which was an inescapable pop culture phenomenon at the end of the last decade. Unsurprisingly, development on a “Warcraft” movie began around that time. Groomed as a Sam Raimi project for many years, “Warcraft” would ultimately be directed by Duncan Jones. Jones accepted the gig because he's apparently a big fan of the source material.

I've never played a “Warcraft” game, though it seems like all my friends have. As a novice to this world, I'll do my best to summarize the plot of the “Warcraft” movie. The orc home world is dying. A warlock named Gul'dan uses an unpredictable and corrupting force known as fel magic to open a portal to Azeroth, a world inhabited by humans, elves, and dwarfs. The orcs immediately come into conflict with the Kingdom of Stormwind. Military leader Lothar and mage Khadgar, and a captured half-orc named Garona, investigate this fel magic on behalf of King Wrynn. An orc clan leader, Durotan, sees fel magic for the evil it is and attempts to forge an alliance with the humans but faces resistance from his own race.

Whether or not you enjoy “Warcraft” seems to depend on how familiar you are with the source material. To quote a wise sage, “Warcraft” is some deep nerd shit. To somebody like myself, who is totally unfamiliar with the “Warcraft” games and all its associated lore, the movie is frequently incomprehensible. No attempt is made to dumb this shit down, so get use to hearing weird words, names, concepts, and rituals thrown around with few attempts to explain. The film rushes headlong into this stuff and never ever looks back. Yet as committed as “Warcraft” is to its incredibly geeky mythology, the film's storytelling is also extremely awkward at times. Characters are led to plot points by strange forces, enter into magical dimensions where celebrity cameos explain stuff, or just flat-out tell each other their histories. Is it possible to make a video game adaptation that isn't weighed down by heavy-handed exposition?

Granted, “Warcraft” does have quite a few things in its favor. First off, it's a very pretty movie. The worlds are very immersive. Jones' camera performs several sweeping aerial shoots, diving inside the elaborate castles and worlds of Azeroth. There's definitely a lot of weird, interesting shit in this setting. Such as a griffin casually being used as a steed, a floating city of magical monks, or walls of sparkling lightning. The special effects are also generally impressive. While many of the characters are entirely CGI, you can tell a clever combination of computer graphics and practical make-up, props, and effects were utilized as well. From a visual level, “Warcraft” does everything it can to make its weird world interesting.

In fact, I even found the plight of the orcs mildly interesting. Apparently when Raimi was set to make the film, it was going to be a simple “good humans vs. evil orcs” story. Jones rewrote the script to add more gray to both races. Neither human nor orc are inherently bad, both being manipulated by the evil Fel magic. (Whatever the hell that is...) There's something to be said for Durotan's character arc. He's a proud warrior but he also loves his people more than he loves victory, turning against the other orcs because he recognizes how dangerous the Fel is. The war-like orcs are governed by ritual, their culture striking a viewer as complex and fully formed. I also found Garona, an outcast who finds herself accepted among the humans, had potential as well. She ends the film following a pretty juicy plot twist.

At least the orcs have some sort of personality. (Even though the actors, which include Clancy Brown and Daniel Wu, are totally covered up and have all their voices distorted into deep growls.) The human cast of “Warcraft” is a complete snore. The actors are completely unable to find any humanity or personality among the strictly plot-driven characters. Ben Schnetzer as Khadgar gets it the worst, as he gets the film's most impossible dialogue. Travis Fimmel and Dominic Cooper both seem totally uncertain how to play the material. Even the action scenes aren't that interesting. There's a lot of stabbing and killing happening on the battlefields but none of it is especially memorable.

“Warcraft” was released in some territories with the subtitle “The Beginning.” This is apparently because the film takes place before the popular “World of Warcraft” story line, as the final scene introduces that game's main character. Also, of course, the studio was hoping it would launch a franchise. In the U.S., “Warcraft” grossed a paltry 47 million. Which makes sense, as the brand wasn't the cultural force it once was over here by 2016. Overseas, the film did much better. In China, where “World of Warcraft” is still massively popular, the movie broke several records. Despite earning a global total around 433 million – easily making it the highest grossing video game movie internationally – “Warcraft” still didn't perform as hoped. Thus, no sequel is forthcoming, much to Duncan Jones' disappointment. Considering the film played as nothing but empty spectacle for anyone unfamiliar with its convoluted lore, it's hard to consider this much of a loss. [5/10]



Sunday, May 26, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)



You can really tell where the priorities of the “Resident Evil” films are by looking at their posters. What did the graphic designers, paid to create the promotional material for these movies, choose to emphasize? Was it the zombies? The monsters? Brave heroes hiding from unspeakable horrors, waiting in dark rooms? Nope! Instead, every single main one-sheet in this series is devoted to Milla Jovovich posing with a gun. The exact number and size of the gun or guns varies but, otherwise, all the elements are present. “Resident Evil: Retribution,” the fifth entry in this improbably long-running franchise, was no different in that regard. The posters tell you nothing else about this movie other than Alice is a gun-toting bad-ass standing against evil forces in a post-apocalyptic world. Hey, people bought it the last four times. Why mix things up now?

The heroes’ victory against Albert Wesker and the Umbrella Corporation last time was declared prematurely. Alice and her friends are attacked and she is captured. She awakens in a massive Umbrella testing facility, a former Soviet submarine base under the Siberian ice. The Red Queen program is now in control of Umbrella and is determined to destroy all of humanity. The human resistance, ironically led by Wesker, sends Ada Wong to rescue Alice. Now, the two must fight their way out of the giant compound, fighting zombies, monsters, and a team of evil clones led by a brainwashed Jill Valentine.

Since the second film, interesting ideas have existed within the “Resident Evil” films, struggling to survive against the juvenile action impulses that primarily drive the series. “Retribution” is no different in that regard. The fifth film really runs with the concept of clones, allowing familiar faces — such as Michelle Rodriguez’ genuinely bad-ass and much missed Agent Rain — to return. By the end, even Alice is unsure if she’s the original or not, presenting interesting ideas about identity the film in no way addresses. “Retribution” is also one of the few video game movies that uses a game-like structure in a positive way. Alice and Ada work their way through a number of testing areas, based off various famous cities. This allows the story to keep moving but makes the setting varied in a way the other movies were not. Even Paul W. S. Anderson’s direction is getting better in some ways. The film opens with a pretty cool reverse sequence, showing Alice and friends falling to a sneak attack by Umbrella.

Another common habit of the series, by now, is the inclusion of a scene that actually functions like a zombie movie, in-between countless shots of Alice being a God-mode action hero. After that reverse motion opening and a lengthy “Previously on Resident Evil” montage, there’s a sequence of Alice living an idyllic suburban life with a husband and a daughter. This peaceful existence is suddenly interrupted by the zombie apocalypse, forcing normal-person Alice and her daughter to sneak around, flee, and fight in a more panicked, realistic manner. Though a blatant rip-off of the opening from Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead,” down to certain shots being replicated, it’s an effective sequence. It also gives us some rare insight into Alice’s personality, suggesting this stern-faced mega bad-ass secretly longs to be a normal person. The rest of the movie resists this character development — aside from a few quibs, Alice remains a soulless killing machine — but it does keep the daughter around, allowing Milla Jovovich to show some human empathy for once.

No matter what little growth “Retribution” allows the “Resident Evil” franchise, this is still a Paul W.S. Anderson film. The action scenes and direction remain dumb and over-the-top in the least charming way possible. Slow-motion is continually abuse. The movie frequently stops cold for lengthy sequences of Alice killing zombies with a chain whip, double-shooting while leaping through the air, or doing backwards somersault kicks. (Keep in mind, she's not suppose to have super powers anymore.) As with the previous entry, “Retribution” was filmed in 3-D. So you sure as fuck know there is a shit ton of bullets and other stuff – giant axes, cars, chainsaws – flying into the audience's eyes. Anderson loves this shit so much that one moment has a bullet flying towards the screen, which then explodes into smaller bullets.

Ada Wong, by the way, somehow manages to move faster than these projectiles. Because, of course, the action scenes are dumb as shit. Characters drive a Rolls-Royce into a subway tunnel and it still works afterwards. Alice and Ada explode a car inches from their faces but are not burnt. A new breed of zombie, that can operate vehicles and fire guns, are introduced, essentially making the undead identical to regular action movie mooks. It all leads up to another protracted ending that exists just to set up the next film, “Retribution” practically concluding with “To Be Continued!” flashing on-screen. The movie's typical Anderson-esque dumbness can be best summed up in one moment. Before Alice and the mind-controlled Jill face off, Valentine activates her weapon: A telescoping spear that keeps on telescoping until little claws pop out of the ends. Because everything must be taken to its most kewl, most x-treme conclusion.

“Retribution” does earn some points for being the “Resident Evil” movie with the most characters from the games in. Jill, Ada, Wesker, Leon Kennedy, and Barry Burton all have fairly prominent roles. (“Resident Evil 4's” Las Plagas virus is also referenced, though the film version is totally different.) Part five is right around the time public opinion seems to have shifted on the “Resident Evil” series. All my hardcore movie friends started to praise the films as trashy fun, when previously they were only referred to as aggressive nonsense. As someone who loves trash, I just can't see it. “Resident Evil: Retribution” is an exhaustively excessive and senseless film. It is better than the first and second entry in the series though, which is something, I guess. [5/10]



Saturday, May 25, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Ace Attorney (2012)




Most of the video game adaptations I've talked about this month have been made in Hollywood. However, other countries have also attempted to translate the gaming medium to the silver screen. Since a lot of video games are made in Japan, it makes sense that there have been several Japanese video game movies. Among the most high-profile is Takashi Miike's “Ace Attorney.” The “Phoenix Wright” series, a rare example of a visual novel – sort of like an interactive manga – breaking through in America, became something of a pop culture meme when I was in college. For a while, people were pointing and shouting “Objection!” everywhere you went. Despite being an adaptation of a very popular game series, made by probably Japan's leading cult filmmaker, the “Ace Attorney” movie has never been officially released in America.

In the setting of “Ace Attorney,” Japan's legal system is so overwhelmed by criminal cases that a new system has been instated, where all court cases are resolved in three days. Phoenix Wright is a novice attorney. After his mentor is murdered, he successfully defends the woman's younger sister, Maya, in court. Next, his childhood rival and friend, Miles Edgeworth, is framed for murder. While Miles initially demands a more experienced defense attorney, Phoenix insists on taking the job. He'll need all his skills to unravel this mystery, which unfolds in some extremely odd directions.

What's really fun and interesting about “Ace Attorney” is that it's a light sci-fi farce that also obeys all the rules of the courtroom drama genre. You still have the underdog defense attorney up against a more assured rival, defending a case he can't hope to win. There's surprise witnesses, shocking new evidence, last minute revelations, and dramatic pleas to the judge that save the day. “Ace Attorney” extends these tropes to their most extreme and absurd point. People attend court cases as if they were sporting events. The bailiff is dressed in a mascot outfit. Confetti falls when a victor is announced. Evidence is presented on Jumbo-Tron like sci-fi monitors. Takashi Miike's camera swoops dramatically around people as they deliberate or shout loud interjections. When somebody says something especially baffling, people in the courtroom fall down, as if knocked over by the absurdity of the statements. Whether “Ace Attorney” is making some satirical point about how justice is treated by people or if this is all in the name of comedic absurdity, I may not have enough insight into Japanese culture to say.

However, I'm willing to bet it's the former. Because “Ace Attorney” is determined to be the wackiest courtroom drama ever made. Ghosts, spiritualism, and a lake monster named Gourdy all wind their way through the plot, becoming part of the evidence. A tokusatsu hero named Steel Samurai plays a minor role in the story. A flashback features a random burst of theatrical martial arts. “Ace Attorney” is so damn nutty, that a cockatoo being called to the witness stand doesn't even rank among its most unrealistic moments. All of this is very intentional, of course. The ridiculous anime haircuts of the video games are faithfully recreated with real people. Characters have silly names like Detective Gumshoe or Larry Buttz. From its earliest moments – when an extremely impractical clock shaped like the Thinker become a plot point – “Ace Attorney” establishes itself as a supremely entertaining live-action cartoon.

Which makes its weird tonal shifts even more surprising. Granted, this seems to truly be a trademark of Takashi Miike, as every film of his I've seen has whiplashed between extreme violence, surreal humor, or low-key melodrama. There's no hardcore torture or sexual assault in “Ace Attorney,” thankfully, but the movie still becomes weirdly serious in its last third. We learn the tragic backstory of a key witness, which is depicted in a naturalistic sequence that totally kills the momentum of the film. “Ace Attorney” never truly recovers and the film's extended denouncement feels overwrought and tired. Maybe keeping the film's extremely goofy tone up forever wouldn't have been practical. But a tighter run time – the film is two hours and fifteen minutes – definitely would've helped with that.

Despite its flaws, “Ace Attorney” still works pretty well. Some of this success is certainly owed to the cast, which commits fully to the surreal and silly material. Hiroki Narimiya is regularly hilarious as Phoenix. Especially during the moments when he becomes really desperate, stumbling through statements or stretching out his words to stall for time. Akiyoshi Nakao, with by far the silliest hair in the whole film, is a similarly goofy performance. Everyone else in the movie plays it totally straight. Takumi Satio as Miles and Ryo Ishibashi as von Karma, the antagonistic attorney for most of the film, are especially good at taking every silly thing that happens one hundred percent serious.

Some have called “Ace Attorney” the best video game movie ever made. It certainly ranks high, by being both faithful to the source material and a highly entertaining motion picture in its own right. Amusingly, this wasn't even Takashi Miike's first video game adaptation, as he previously directed an adaptation of the first “Yakuza” game. (As well as a live action “Yatterman” movie, which is on a similar wavelength to this one but even more aggressively goofy.) By the way, the “Phoenix Wright” multi-media franchise also includes an all-female musical stage adaptation, because Japan can always take something that was weird to begin with and make it even weirder.  [7/10]



Friday, May 24, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)



I guess the subtitle probably should've clued us in. “Resident Evil: Extinction” was designed as the final entry in the franchise. That film began with the end of the world and I guess Paul W. S. Anderson figured there wasn't much of anywhere else left to go after that. However, “Extinction” would become an even bigger moneymaker than the previous two installments. And when that kind of cash is flowing, even dead series will rise from their graves. “Resident Evil: Afterlife” would shamble into theaters two years later, with Anderson back behind the camera for the first time since the original. The public's hunger for Alice's zombie-slaying adventures was clearly not sated, as “Afterlife” was an even bigger financial success.

With the army of superpowered clones she uncovered at the end of “Extinction,” Alice goes to war with the Umbrella Corporation. She tracks them down at their Tokyo base and kicks a lot of ass but Albert Wesker, Umbrella's evil leader, escapes. He injects her with a T-virus antidote, removing her powers. Now, Alice is searching for other survivors. She finds Claire Redfield, without her memories, in otherwise abandoned Alaska. The two move on to Hollywood, where a group of survivors hide in a prison, surrounded by zombies. The gang – which includes Claire's brother, Chris – hopes to make it to a near-by ship that promises salvation. However, as long as the undead reign outside and Umbrella survives, things won't be that simple.

“Resident Evil: Afterlife” at least recognizes that Alice is a shitty, overpowered character. The opening orgy of destruction features multiple Alices, a telekinetic tidal wave, slow-mo katana chopping, ninja stars, grappling hooks, and so many shots of Milla looking bored while firing a machine gun. After that, Alice has all her powers drained away. But don't think for a minute that means Paul will write his wife as anything but the ultimate bad-ass. Even non-powered Alice can explode a roof-top full of zombies, effortlessly flip through the air while parasailing off a skyscraper, kick a table of knives at someone's head, kick a shard of glass into a zombie dog, and never misses while shooting. In this dumb film's dumbest moment, she somehow sails twelve feet off the ground to kick a giant super-zombie in the face. Even a totally human Alice plays like a twelve-year-old's unchecked power fantasy.

Anderson being back behind the camera makes me beg for Russell Mulcahy to please come back. I will say that Paul's direction is slightly less tacky than his last “Resident Evil” movie. There's a little less heavy metal on the soundtrack. Almost no obnoxious jump scares are present. Otherwise, the direction continues to abuse slow motion during the action scenes. If you had to guess, how many times do you think someone leaps away from an explosion while the camera dramatically focuses on their face? It's a lot. In addition tot the ridiculously high-flying kung-fu, and at least one slam-dunk to the tale of an airplane, we also get a bad guy in a trench coat dodging bullets, as if “The Matrix” wasn't a full decade old by this point. Some of the green screen effects look so bad, it appears Milla is floating effortlessly through space. Since “Afterlife” was shot in 3-D, that gives the director even more of an excuse to throw random shit – zombie tentacles, bullets, swords, giant axes, airplane propellers, sunglasses – into the audience's face.

For all the stupid bullshit in the movie, and there is a lot of it, at least Anderson is trying to make a proper zombie movie this time. A long section in the middle of the film has Alice and Claire hanging out in the tower with other survivors. It actually feels sort of cozy and fun. Zombies may be swarming outside but people have put aside most of their differences inside. They even have running water and plenty of food. Seeing characters relate about their shared tragedies but find the strength to keep going is one of my favorite part of the zombie apocalypse subgenre. While the CGI effects look like shit, especially those zombie dogs, some of the monsters here are kind of cool too. That hooded executioner giant, inspired by a “Resident Evil 5” monster, is an intimidating villain. It looks bad in execution but the zombies shooting bug-like tentacles from their mouth is cool in execution.

Happily, the acting growth Milla showed in “Extinction” doesn't swing back here. While her delivery is still frequently bored, Milla is actually trying to imbue Alice with some personality once again. In-between killing hordes of zombies and bad guys, Jovovich actually smiles, laughs, and emotes. Ali Larter undergoes similar growth, her character's missing memory giving her an (unresolved but still) interesting arc. The new additions to the cast are welcomed. Wentworth Miller is tough but not without charisma as Chris Redfield. Boris Kodjoe is truly likable as Luther, the former basketball pro that becomes the survivor unlikely leader. Kim Coates is a delightful asshole as Bennett, a former Hollywood agent that is willing to do anything to survive. Of the cast, only Shawn Roberts as supervillain Albert Wesker is truly terrible. Roberts delivers his lines like he speaks English as a second language. He too accurately captures the quality of acting in the early Capcom games.

Don't get me wrong. “Resident Evil: Afterlife” is still hot garbage. Whatever positive momentum its hang-out movie middle section builds is wasted on a finale driven by some of the fucking stupidest action thus far. Yet the middle chapter is actually not too bad, the cast is better than before, and the script at least sorta' kinda' attempts to address the first three films' problems. While it can't hope to be as smoothly entertaining as “Extinction” was, on account of Paul W.S. Anderson's total inability to reel his juvenile bullshit in, at least its better than the first two “Resident Evil” movies. [5/10]



Thursday, May 23, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)




By 2010, many video game adaptations were still weird flops. However, enough of them had become commercial successes for a major studio to take a risk on one. In 2009, Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney acquired the film rights to the “Prince of Persia” video game series. The game developers who rebooted the once forgotten series would be intimately involved with the film's development. (That Disney would make this adaptation was fitting, as their “Aladdin” was doubtlessly an influence on the reboot.) “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” was positioned by the studio as the next “Pirates of the Caribbean,” a live action adventure film that would launch a long-running series of highly profitable blockbusters. It didn't quite work out that way.

During the ancient days of the Persian empire, wise King Sharaman adopts a homeless street rat named Dastan after seeing the boy perform a brave act. Dastan becomes one of the princes of Persia, seeking adventure out with his royal brothers. The king's brother, Nizam, learns the neighboring kingdom of Alamut is going to act Persia. The royal forces attack the city, captures beautiful Princess Tamina, with Dastan grabbing an ornate dagger. Soon afterwards, King Sharaman is murdered and Dastan is framed for the crime. He goes on the run with Tamina and learns that the dagger allows the user to travel a few seconds back through time, enough to undo a fatal mistake. He soon discovers his uncle killed the king and is seeking the magical sands that power the dagger for his own nefarious purposes.

As I said, the creator of the “The Sands of Time” game, Jordan Mechner, wrote the first draft of the script. It was re-written by a trio of screenwriters, so I have no idea how closely the finished product reflects Mechner's ideas. However, I suspect many of his ideas were maintained because “Prince of Persia” is way too invested in its own lore. Convoluted mythology drives the plot, often dump on the viewer in weighty monologues. Certain criteria must be met by various parties for the plot devices to function properly. Just like in a video game, the characters spend the whole film chasing after a power-up. The power-up's ability is finite, forcing the protagonist to collect more magical fuel. It's all very boring, another video game movie that feels more like playing a video game than its own experience.

I don't know if the movie's mythology is full of shit or if it just fails to get the viewer invested in its nonsensical lore. The lack of a likable protagonist is a big problem for “Prince of Persia.” Prince Dastan has no problem raiding a clearly peaceful city at the beginning of the film. Immediately after his father dies before his eyes, he has to go on the run, leaving no time for mourning. He spends most of the first hour acting selfishly. His attempted romance with Princess Tamina does not humanize Dastan or the princess. She comes off as stuck-up know-it-all, deriding Dastan for his perceived lack of intelligence. Yet the humiliating things the script does to her next – enslaved by bandits, killed off before the inevitable time travel re-do – come off as mean-spirited. The whole movie feels like that, characters repeatedly dying and then being brought back via magic, in a way that is both needlessly nasty and saps suspense.

Perhaps the film was hoping the charms of its cast would make up for the lack of likable characters. This was Jake Gyllenhaal, a respected performer with more indie cred than mainstream success, making his big attempt at being an action star. He adapts a cheesy British accent, perhaps to make up for the obvious fact that he's not Persian, and smugly smirks his way through most of the film. Gemma Arterton is spellbindingly gorgeous as Princess Tamina but can't breath much life into the hopelessly dull dialogue she's given. Ben Kingsley, making his second appearance this month, once again goes weirdly subdued when playing a cartoonish villain. Alfred Molina largely steals the show as a proto-libertarian bandit, given most of the film's funniest lines.

“Prince of Persia” was directed by Mike Newell. With the exception of the fourth “Harry Potter” film, Newell is better known for dramas, making him an odd pick for a big adventure movie. This is reflected in the film's supremely tacky action sequences. There's a lot of slow motion in “Prince of Persia” and not just during the time reversing shots. Dramatic flips and big sword fights become overblown with cheesy slow-mo. Yet many other shots are awkwardly framed, spearings happening just off-screen or stabbings occurring at odd angles. The CGI is not well integrated either, especially during the big swirling sandstorms or various projectiles that leap towards the viewer's face. The general clumsiness peaks during a hilariously dumb moment where  a minor villain suddenly enters into frame.

As I said, Disney had high hopes for “Prince of Persia.” The film was given a prominent May release date. McFarlane Toys produced a whole line of action figures, targeted at both kids and collectors. Alanis Morissette recorded a pop charts ready song to go with the movie. There was even Lego sets. However, the general lackluster quality of the film and a controversy surrounding whitewashing kept American audiences away. “Prince of Persia” flopped domestically but did better overseas, making it one of the highest-grossing video game movies... But the film still fell short of earning a profit, meaning this dull film would not spawn a dull franchise. [5/10]