Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson
Premise: Set in the days of the Roman Empire, a gladiator (Kit Harington) and his lover (Emily Browning) try to escape Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupts.
What Works: Whatever his other faults as a filmmaker, Paul W.S. Anderson does action and spectacle pretty well as seen in Death Race, Alien vs. Predator, and the better installments of the Resident Evil series. When the movie finally gets to the volcanic eruption and the chaos that ensues, Pompeii features several impressive set pieces as the characters engage in chases and fights amid the flaming debris. Pompeii is also admirable in the way that it subverts some of the clichés of disaster movies. This is especially true in the ending in which the filmmakers opt for an unconventionally bleak conclusion.
What Doesn’t: The ending of Pompeii is spectacular but the movie takes forever to get there and the hour-plus of screen time before the eruption is mostly a bore. The movie introduces its main character in a prologue that borrows heavily from Conan the Barbarian in which the villain of the film, a Roman general played by Kiefer Sutherland, slaughters the hero’s village. That should set up a revenge plot but the filmmakers don’t develop that conflict and the backstory is ultimately irrelevant to the rest of the movie. Instead the filmmakers flash forward seventeen years, in which the orphaned boy has become a gladiator fighting in the arena of Pompeii. By chance he meets the daughter of Pompeii’s ruling couple, played by Emily Browning, and the two of them fall in love after being around each other for all of five minutes. At the same time Sutherland’s Roman general, now a senator, visits Pompeii on a business trip in which he is courted by the city’s economic and political power couple, played by Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss. They intend to persuade the senator to make an investment in the city but what exactly he is being asked to invest in is never explained nor are the stakes of his choice, so the whole subplot is without consequence. The political subplot remains unclear despite the fact that the filmmakers dedicate a lot of Pompeii’s running time to it, much more so than the love story. But when Mount Vesuvius finally erupts the political subplot is voided and all the movie has left is the romance, as the star-crossed lovers try to escape the city. But despite the elaborate chases and stunts, the finale of Pompeii is uninvolving because Kit Harington and Emily Browning have no romantic spark and their love story is a series of flat and absurd moments. The romance begins when she sees him break the neck of a lame horse; apparently barehanded animal euthanasia gets her hot under the collar but it’s hard to tell what either of these characters are feeling since Harington and Browning are about as emotive as a pair of statues. The rest of the movie does as little as possible to develop the romance. These characters don’t do anything to earn or substantiate their love. Despite structuring the narrative in a way that makes the love story critical to the movie it’s clear that the filmmakers had no interest in it. The advertising campaign for Pompeii would have viewers believe it is Titanic on a volcano but actually it is Gladiator on a volcano and filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson shameless rips off Ridley Scott’s film well as Wolfgang Peterson’s 2004 picture Troy. Pompeii is vastly inferior to these movies, almost like a direct-to-video knock off from The Asylum studio. Its action scenes never come close to the craft and showmanship of Scott and Peterson’s work nor does it feature engaging characters in a compelling drama. Instead the movie is full of one-dimensional characters spouting lines of dialogue that sound like a thirteen year old boy’s idea of macho.
Bottom Line: Pompeii is a pretty terrible film. The movie isn’t quite in the so-bad-it’s good category because so much of it is so bland and its flourishes only remind the audience of other and better movies that we could be watching instead.
Episode: #480 (March 2, 2014)