Movie Review – Pompeii (2014)
One day director Paul W.S. Anderson is going to make a decent movie. Unfortunately, that day hasn’t yet arrived. Anderson, best known for his work on the Resident Evil franchise, has had a decidedly checkered filmography, filled with less than successful films that have never really won the hearts of critics or moviegoers. That said the man has his fleeting moments of creativity but has never been able to successfully translate these into a full feature-length film. His newest movie Pompeii is truly indicative of this as it vacillates from instances of extreme yet, unintentional, hilarity to visually captivating spectacle that easily rivals movies from director Roland Emmerich.
Game of Thrones alum Kit Harington plays Milo, a Celtic slave who has been captured and brought up as a gladiator to satisfy the whims of the Roman populace. Orphaned from young, Milo is a man of few words but his skill with a shield and sword is legendary and before long he is sent to the Roman city of Pompeii to compete in the local arena. As fate would have it he meets Cassia (Emily Browning), a young noble woman who is returning to her home town after a tumultuous year living in Rome. It goes without saying that there are immediate romantic sparks between Milo and Cassia but the two come from two vastly different walks of life that conspire to force them apart.
Cassia soon finds herself betrothed to a vile Roman Senator by the name of Corvus (Keifer Sutherland) who, basically schemes his way to the arrangement by threatening the safety of her parents (Carrie Anne-Moss & Jared Harris) while poor Milo’s life is put in danger as he and his newfound gladiator friend, Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), face off against insurmountable odds in the arena. Of course, all this goes on as everyone is oblivious to the fact that the nearby Mount Vesuvius is about to erupt.
To say that Pompeii is largely a giant mish-mash of Gladiator, Titanic and 2012 would not be far from the truth as it certainly contains more than superficial elements lifted from those films. From the obvious gladiator fights in a giant coliseum that end with someone actually giving a thumbs up signal to the almost beat-for-beat recreation of the romance subplot that occurs while a disaster strikes, Pompeii never bothers to hide that fact that it is “borrowing” from a host of other movies. In fact, the film seems to revel in highlighting exactly this feature as it no doubt wants audiences to feel a pang of nostalgia for those movies in hopes that they somehow translate to Pompeii.
There’s actually a strong argument to be made that audiences love familiarity since they have now essentially been accustomed to or, as some would say brainwashed, into expecting tropes and narratives to play out in a certain manner. Pompeii is, at its heart, nothing more than a traditional disaster film in the vein of The Towering Inferno, Airport or Titanic where characters are introduced piecemeal to audiences before they are all placed in a life-threatening situation. The “fun” from these films therefore, comes in trying to figure out who will exactly die and who will manage to survive while the calamitous event plays itself out.
However, the biggest problem with Pompeii is one that actually plagues many of these disaster movies and that is that the film only really works when it is stimulating your ocular senses and it completely misses the heart because the characters are not at all believable or memorable. A good disaster movie needs to be populated with characters that audiences can empathize with to the point that they actually hope and pray that they survive the ordeal. If this element is missing, the only factor keeping them entertained is the pure spectacle of the disaster itself and this rarely can engage for the full running time.
Pompeii is essentially split into two halves, the first half doing nothing but introducing its large cast of cardboard characters and the second part of the film where the actual volcano erupts and wreaks its wrath on the city and its inhabitants. It’s pointedly obvious that Paul W.S. Anderson has focused far more on the film’s second half that actually is filled with some impressive action sequences nearly all having to do with the Volcano’s fury raining down on the doomed city. Not only does he fill the frame with tons of fireballs and blankets of ash but he also manages to weave in a visually captivating mini-tsunami that is certainly unexpected. Since the characters have been long established by this point, Anderson can concentrate on putting them through a series of life-threatening sequences that are actually well-shot and executed with some degree of visual finesse that also generate a high degree of tension.
In contrast, the film’s opening hour is incredibly turgid and slovenly paced filled with dialogue that feels very much like it was lifted from a first draft screenplay. It has always been said in many circles that a good director can somehow elevate mediocre material but Anderson is clearly not up to the task here as audiences have to suffer through increasingly hackneyed scenarios designed to force the romantic subplot to kick into higher gear but it comes across as nigh unbelievable. Pompeii’s romance between Milo and Cassia certainly takes its thematic cues from Titanic but unlike James Cameron’s masterpiece it never is allowed sufficient time to build into something authentic and, in some ways, it feels very much like a Disney movie of yore where the couple comes together on the flimsiest of connections.
The stark dichotomy of quality between both halves of the film exceeds the narrative as even the special effects and directorial/editing is vastly different. The actual volcano eruptions feature mostly state of the art visual effects yet they are prone to lapse into some downright pedestrian green screen use that is incredibly obvious to a fault. The first half of the film has some decent sets but more so than not it is also obvious where the physical objects end and the CGI begins.
As for the actual directing issues, Paul W.S. Anderson really displays a Jekyll and Hyde mentality especially when one compares the numerous gladiator combat sequences with the volcano eruptions later in the film. Each melee sequence featuring Kit Harington and his gladiator colleagues is far too edited for its own good as shots come at a rapid-fire pace that rarely fit together and comes across as a series of randomly connected moments. Anderson rarely cuts to medium or long shots which are used to establish the overall environment meaning the action is reduced to quick cuts of people slashing or falling over with no sense of space.
It is also bewildering to watch Anderson and his editor basically cut shots off too soon in certain instances so that they appear truncated. While some of this can be attributed to purposely editing violent moments out to keep the PG-13 rating it also gives the impression that the filmmakers didn’t know beforehand what rating they were aiming for thus had to overcompensate in ripping footage out at a later date.
Actor Kit Harington has won some critical praise for his work on the HBO show, Game of Thrones but here in Pompeii he’s decidedly straitjacketed by the tired material that casts him as the cool but silent type hero meaning that all he has to do is remain straight-faced and emotionless for virtually the entire film. Harington might have commanded the screen in Game of Thrones yet his Milo feels very much like a low-rent and underdressed Jon Snow whose only real claim to fame is his incredible physique.
As his love interest, Cassia, Emily Browning isn’t particularly captivating either and her passivity makes her character even more of a dead weight resembling the trope of yet another “princess” that is trapped in a castle that has to be saved by the strapping young hero. Those who know Browning from her past work will probably wish she somehow morphed into Babydoll, her character from Sucker Punch and proceeded to kick serious ass. Alas, this never comes to pass and she spends most of the film reacting to others and events around her rather than being proactive.
As the primary antagonist, Keifer Sutherland has a field day playing the scenery-chewing Senator Corvus as a man who simply exudes everything wicked and immoral through every labored line of dialogue, wardrobe change or facial expression possible. It is as if director Paul W.S. Anderson basically told him to out ham William Shatner as Sutherland turns in an incredibly broad performance which telegraphs his intentions as if he were wearing a giant fifty-foot neon sign that flashed the words “EVIL” for the entire film. Then again hammy as it might be, at least Sutherland looks as if he understands how ridiculous the role is and decides to just let his inhibitions loose whereas both Harington and Browning decide to go in the opposite direction and underplay each scene.
With the three members of the main cast all acting on different ends of the spectrum, it is up to Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje to pick up the slack as Atticus, the honorable gladiator champion that is one fight away from gaining his freedom. Yes, you can probably guess his fate once you hear that he is near retirement yet he manages to easily command the screen not only with his formidable physique but also because his Atticus is really the only character that audiences can easily cheer for.
With Pompeii, director Paul W.S. Anderson tries his hand at a grand disaster film but much like his previous work really cannot make the material fly for the entire running time. In his defense, he is working with an obviously stale script, filled with rough soulless characters but a director needs to be able to transcend the material he is given. The latter half of the film, once the volcano erupts, is easily comparable to other recent disaster films and shows that Anderson can weave visually arresting sequences together but there’s just no denying that the characters drag the film down in virtually every facet.
At the end of Titanic there were many moviegoers left bawling in their seats due to the emotional roller coaster ride of a narrative that James Cameron managed to concoct. These viewers probably left the cinema thinking primarily of the doomed love story between Jack and Rose. As for Pompeii, many will leave only thinking of how the cool the volcano appeared when it erupted and forget that there were even human actors involved. That is not what you want. Good try Paul W.S. Anderson but you’re not there yet.
** out of ****
2014, USA, 105 Minutes, FilmDistrict/Constantin Film, PG-13
Directed by Paul W.S.Anderson
Screenplay by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson
Produced by Paul W.S. Anderson, Jeremy Bolt, Don Carmody, Robert Kulzer, Martin Moszkowicz
Executive Producer Peter Schlessel
Music by Clinton Shorter
Cinematography by Glen MacPherson
Production Design by Paul D. Austerberry
Kit Harington: Milo
Emily Browning: Cassia
Kiefer Sutherland: Corvus
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje: Atticus
Carrie-Anne Moss: Aurelia
Jessica Lucas: Ariadne
Jared Harris: Severus
Joe Pingue: Graecus
Currie Graham: Bellator
Dylan Schombing: Young Milo
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