DIR: Paul W.S. Anderson • WRI:Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson • PRO: Paul W.S. Anderson, Jeremy Bolt, Don Carmody, Robert Kulzer, Martin Moszkowicz • DOP: Glen MacPherson • ED: Michele Conroy • MUS: Clinton Shorter • DES: Paul D. Austerberry • CAST: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland
As the film opens and the ash begins to fall delicately before our eyes, you can’t help but wonder – are they just picking settings for films that feature snow or snow-like substances so they can slap 3D onto it to convince the lowest-common-denominator audiences that their over-priced 3D ticket was money well-spent? Anyway…
Kit “You know nothing, Jon Snow” Harington is our hero, Milo, a Celt who witnessed the massacre of his people at the hands of the Roman Empire as a child. Hiding in a pile of bodies, Milo manages to escape death until he is caught and sold into slavery where he becomes a fan-favourite at the local gladiatorial games and is thus moved to Pompeii’s much more extravagant games. En route he briefly meets Cassia (Browning), a local aristocrat and all around free-spirit who won’t be shackled by class divisions and etiquette etc. Naturally, it’s love at first site for both of them and we begin a story or romance, intrigue, politics and revenge. Oh and the film cuts to a shot of the rumbling volcano about once every ten minutes or so remind everyone to not worry, act three will absolutely feature explosions.
On the face of it, it’s a fun conceit for a movie; what if Romeo and Juliet happened during the destruction of Pompeii? And also Gladiator was simultaneously happening. Now imagine such a film being made by someone like Paul W.S. Anderson. The mental image of a perfunctory, bland, occasionally schlocky affair that you’re having is pretty much spot on. Speaking of the Gladiator aspect, there is a certain morbid amusement in seeing a film that’s simultaneously trying to rip off both 300 and Game of Thrones but without the age-rating to pull off the almost operatic levels of violence and brutality from either. Never has there been a film with so many bloodless throat-slits and literally gutless eviscerations.
Probably the best that can be said is that the film isn’t as boring as it could have been. It’s got a surprisingly short running time and shambles along at a pretty swift pace. Since the last act of the film has to be nothing but explosions and Michael Bay-lite “phwoar-destruction”, it means the lifelessly generic character arcs get truncated to fit into, and be concluded by, the end of act two. This means there’s a decent ratio of sub-par, but not unentertaining, action scenes to lifeless melodrama sequences. Given that the whole film is marking time until the volcano can explode, neither of these aspects ever get a chance to outstay their welcome and become truly unbearable. It has to be stressed though, the film isn’t strictly speaking bad, just quite bland with the occasional moment of interest/weirdness. To those familiar with the oeuvre of the, ahem, esteemed director Paul W.S. Anderson, “bland with occasional weirdness” describes ninety percent of his previous work but here the weirdness is too few and far between.
The main problem is that for the first time since maybe Event Horizon, Anderson seems to be trying to make an actual movie and not just a thinly veiled excuse to indulge himself in ludicrous adolescent fantasies, mainly starring his wife (see: The Three Musketeers 2011 and the entire Resident Evil series, or the “Check Out My Ridiculously Hot Wife” franchise as some on the internet have affectionately dubbed it.) This may sound like a step forward but Anderson just isn’t a very interesting or note-worthy director (there’s one really nice shot of a tree with bodies hanging from it. That’s it, that’s the best to be said of his directing talents in this film. Well that and the inclusion of JJ Abrams-esque lens-flare in literally one shot of the entire movie, which, given the lack of any artificial light sources existing in this setting, makes so little sense that… you know what, nevermind.) At least with something like the Resident Evil films, especially the last two, the balls-out nonsense of the whole affair tended to reach a crescendo of such awful-schlock that it came right back around to being hugely entertaining again. One can’t help but wonder if he’d included Milla Jovovich in Pompeii, complete with her trademark slow-motion high-kicks, could it have saved this film the way she has the entire Resident Evil series.
Now that’s not to say Pompeii is completely devoid of amusing oddness, just that there’s disappointingly little of it. The most recurrent example however is Kiefer Sutherland, an actor you’d be forgiven for forgetting even existed, as the villainous Roman senator who both murdered our protagonist’s family and is trying to steal his love-interest. He’s completely dreadful, but dreadful in such a specific way that he ends up stealing every scene he’s in due to being so distracting. The best way of describing it is that he appears to be attempting a Jeremy Irons impression the entire way through and failing miserably. It’s an absolute joy to watch. Also amusing is whenever a big scene comes along that involves him shouting and basically turning back into the gruff, action-hero he’s known for playing, his voice just becomes Kiefer Sutherland again. Dreadful, but funny. Aside from that, there’s a couple of moments of attempted macho-ness that are adorably camp, the big pre-volcano final battle in the arena gets close to the levels of enjoyably over-the-top action Anderson has become known for and the film ends on a note of such astoundingly high melodrama that you can’t help leaving the film having a little chuckle.
To the film’s credit, one aspect it did try very hard in was historical accuracy. They apparently spent quite a lot of time mapping the layout of the city correctly and to anyone who knows their classical architecture, there’s a commendable level of attention to detail. With the exception of the costume design, there’s been very little sexing up of the setting to appeal to modern audiences which means the gladiatorial games come complete with all the goofy pageantry. And then the volcano erupts and they break the one rule of making a film about Pompeii, they utterly obliterate it. Never mind that the film is bookended with shots of the ash-preserved victims, they nonetheless leave very little to be preserved in the name of satisfying modern audiences’ demand for disaster porn.
Despite Anderson clearly trying to make a legitimate go of this, it still comes off as cynical and box-checking. The dialogue is stiff and clichéd. Fun actors like Jared Harris and Carrie-Ann Moss are given nothing to do and hardly any screen time until the movie gets bored and drops them. Everyone else’s performances are disinterested and lifeless. And, now this is a bit nit-picky, the sound-design is so weightless, especially in fight scenes. Everything sounds like a canned sound-clip that comes as part of a basic package with the editing software. But yes, once the volcano blows there’s some nice destruction, some delightfully absurd/over-the-top sequences and the CGI is genuinely quite good.
So on the whole what you’ve got is a decent final twenty minutes, a couple of good fights scenes and a mesmerically horrendous Kiefer Sutherland. No, no one is going to remember this film even existed in three months’ time but while it’s there onscreen… It could have been worse.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Pompeii is released on 2nd May 2014