Principal Cast : Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Carrie-Anne Moss, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris, Kiefer Sutherland, Sacha Roiz, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham, Dalmar Abuzeid, Jean-Francois Lachapelle, Rebecca Eady, Jean Frenette, Maxime Savaria.
Synopsis: Towering over the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, is the dormant volcano Vesuvius. And in 79 AD, it erupted. This is that (mostly) true story.
An eruption of stupidity.
Okay, so we all get that Paul WS Anderson is a director of cinematic slop – he’s helmed all but two of the Resident Evil films, made Event Horizon the cult classic it has since become (or has it?) and has given us monumentally silly films like The Three Musketeers, Death Race and Alien vs Predator. Knowing the man’s ability to conduct cornball dialogue and hokey story-lines into something resembling D-grade cinematic fare, it should pre-empt the hatred of Pompeii’s on-and-off-screen disaster due to the simply fact that it’s him behind the camera. Even still, Pompeii is silly, spectacle driven Event Film-making that lacks the impact of a Roland Emmerich destruct-o-fest, or the subtle skill of a Spielberg masterclass, and so you exit a film such as this with expectations largely unmet even by Anderson’s own low standards. Nobody expects Oscar-worthy material, but you’d be forgiven for at least hoping that somewhere, somebody might be trying to make a good film.
The film opens with a Roman legion, led by General Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) massacring a tribe of Celtic rebels in England (Britannia, as it’s known), leaving only one survivor, a boy, Milo. Naturally, that boy grows up into a revenge-seeking beefcake in the form of Game Of Thrones star Kit Harington, because you always spell Harington with one “r”. Taken by his slave owner to Gladiator tournaments in Pompeii, Milo encounters young Roman woman, Cassia (Aussie Emily Browning), who he forms an instant attraction. Meanwhile, Cassia’s parents, father Severus (Jared Harris) and mother Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss) are given to submitting to the whim of Corvus, who arrives from Rome to invest in the rebuilding of a better Pompeii; Corvus’ ulterior motives include marriage to Cassia (naturally) and enjoying the fruits of his status as a Roman hero. Milo, meanwhile, meets fellow gladiatorial superstar Atticus (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje) and the two, while initially enemies, soon become friends through their mutual adversity. As Milo rises in prominence in popularity as a gladiator, both he and Atticus find themselves at the center of Corvus’ unfettered rage – Milo seeks retribution for his family’s death, while Atticus seeks his freedom from slavery. But the gradual realization that the nearby volcano, Vesuvius, is beginning to stir, means that nobody is entirely safe.
There are two things Pompeii is good for. The first involves plenty of beefcake men and hot women in silky robes swanning about the screen. The second, well, that’s a giant motherf@cking volcano set to explode on the Gods-fearing Italians who have no idea what’s coming. Retrospective glee at the imminent destruction of one of the Roman Empire’s great cities (outside of Rome itself, of course) is a salacious hook for this film’s success, and to a degree Paul Anderson pulls it off. Yes, the destruction that concludes the film is a pulsating, apocalyptic, death-n-destruction festival of carnage, pulled off with all the splendour that a mega-budget event film such as this can achieve. As with most films that rely on spectacle to succeed, however, the story and the characters around said spectacle are often secondary in the film-makers sights.
Paul WS Anderson’s films have never really been about character; instead, they’re usually paper-thin concepts intended to provide a slim scaffold for action and extravagant effects, and Pompeii is no exception. Kit Harington’s Milo (really, that’s the most Celtic name they could assign him?) is a hunka-hunka burning rage and revenge, a muscle-bound strong-n-silent type that women lust for, a prototypical Alpha Male (at least, in the mind of Paul Anderson it is) who is really just a misunderstood and maltreated angel of love. Yeah, right. Milo, for all his glowering rage and sulky, cheese-ball dialogue about how he’s gonna kill Atticus and get the girl, isn’t the most approachable character in the slightest, which makes his attraction to Cassia only that much more unbelievable, not to mention the fact that it’s reciprocated. Cassia, who is gorgeous thanks to Anderson’s casting of Emily Browning in the role (meeow!), is equally thin as a character – she’s a strong, independent Roman female, and is typically High Class in status, yet feels compelled to associate and empathize with those of a lower station than herself, even though it’s not explained and serves only to keep the story’s more absurd plot developments rolling along.
Kiefer Sutherland growls his way through a fairly demented Bad Guy character in Corvus with the conniving, snakelike charm only he can elicit – Corvus is a slimy douche, and you just know that by the end of the film he’ll be dipping his head in hot lava or meeting his end via the end of Milo’s sword (I’m not telling, you’ll have to watch it!), and of all the cast, it’s Sutherland who appears to be having the most fun. Sutherland is aided by Sacha Roiz, as Corvus’ lieutenant Proculus (sounds like a rectal exam, that name!), who personifies evil and arrogance like no other in the movie. Carrie-Anne Moss looks lost in a different film, Jared Harris does his best Lawrence Olivier as Cassia’s father, and Cloverfield and Evil Dead star Jessica Lucas is all busty beauty as Cassia’s Lady In Waiting (I guess that’s what you call it, right?) Ariadne. But it’s Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje (yeah, that’s a name I have to copy-and-paste) who provides the most heart and soul Pompeii has going for it. As Atticus, the embittered yet hopeful gladiator, Akinnouye-Agbaje is a magnetic screen presence who deserves far more than this film delivers – had he been the central character, perhaps it would have been a different movie, but it might have had a better balance between destruction porn and character development.
That said, Anderson waits as long as he can before pulling the ripcord on Vesuvius erupting. The story builds, builds, builds, setting the characters in play to have their final fates as impactful and as meaningful as it possibly can; this isn’t saying much considering none of the characters in the film are really that interesting. And when the volcano does explode, Pompeii traverses the chasm of empty sword-and-sandal actioner into a film even Roland Emmerich might be proud of: Pompeii delivers some of the better apocalyptic cataclysm action you’ll see in a 2014 film. The ground heaves, the sky goes dark with ash and flame, the sea recoils and explodes into a tsunami that pulverizes the seaside city: Pompeii delivers some awesome CG and sound design to elicit maximum bang for your buck as the volcano unleashes its horror on the characters we’ve grown to remember. While much of the film relies on green-screen and total CG visuals in the opening half or so, the cataclysm with which Pompeii concludes is a sonic and visual powerhouse of destruction and devastation, all seamless in delivery and polished in presentation. Any action junkie’s looking for a brain-free escape from the drudgery of their own office-cube lives might have a smile on his or her face after this one.
But Pompeii never delivers enough emotional depth to make the events of the eruption as powerful as they should be. Milo and Cassia – or Jack and Rose, if I put it in a more modern context, ha ha – are star-crossed lovers who have to fight to contend with their obvious class differences, only to find that volcanic fireballs and earth tremors opening up the ground beneath them makes no pretence of classism. Neither have the chemistry together to produce the inevitably tragic conclusion to their story (well, not too many people made it out of Pompeii, you know) with any strength, leaving what little midgets of romance or love to be found, languishing under the roiling earth of Vesuvius’ heart-breaking destruction. Pompeii mixes its popcorn munching destruction fun with a formulaic and rather insipid dramatic foundation that underwhelms more than it entertains. In many respects it’s as empty as any other big-budget Event Movie, even when it’s trying not to be, and I guess this is Pompeii’s biggest disappointment. Pompeii is silly, widescreen entertainment that will deliver minor thrills of destruction (although I have to say, trying to make this event evocative to modern audiences is perhaps a feat unachievable today, considering the time period involved) and is good for the simple pleasure of seeing Kiefer Sutherland chew up the scenery on this one. As for the rest – well, if you’re up for a wait to see any real destruction, skip to about half way through and then settle in for a fun time.