by Philip Price
I've never been a big fan of director Paul W.S. Anderson as I've never even seen a single ‘Resident Evil’ movie (though he's only directed three of the five) and while I did rather enjoy his 2008 re-make of “Death Race” that was as much due to the fact it starred Jason Statham as anything else. In light of that film and all of the facets that his 2011 ‘Three Musketeers’ interpretation had going for it I was rather interested in seeing how it turned out, but I couldn't even make it through the entirety of that flick when I rented it at home and I doubt I would have made it through “Pompeii” either had I not been sitting in a theater. The story of the city of Pompeii is no doubt a fascinating one as what occurred in the aftermath of Mount Vesuvius exploding in 79 AD and wiping out the entire city, killing 2,000 people, within a matter of moments and leaving everything covered in several feet of ash and rock, allowed those moments in time, those moments of fear and humanity to be captured, frozen in time and preserved for thousands of years creating a mystery around the city. It would be impossible not to delve into the stories that exist under the ash, but Anderson is not the director I would have chosen to create what is inherently an epic because once his name was attached it became immediately clear what type of film this would be and the final result proves nothing if not the fact he is a predictable and safe director. While it is only of my opinion, it would seem this kind of story lends itself to that of a gritty realism and an opportunity to ask and address bigger questions such as at the end of the world, what are we? As well as investigating the human element of survival and of meaning under circumstances completely out of our control. Instead, Anderson makes the whole point of this film feel like a reason for the 3D technology to exist because watching fireballs zoom by and crash into ancient cities is more entertaining than story or character development. I'm all about having fun at the movies and being completely wrapped up in the outlandish worlds of pure popcorn entertainment, but “Pompeii” doesn't so much have a story as it does serve as an excuse to blow shit up on the biggest scale possible. It is a disaster movie that keeps its promise in terms of action, but only skims the surface of what the circumstances of these events bring to the lives of those who suffered under them.
We begin in northern Britannia in 62 AD and are introduced to a young Milo who watches as his father is killed by Roman soldiers and his mother is lined up in front of Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) only to be cut down by his sword. Little Milo gets away and is picked up by a gang of travelers that take him to the capitol of Britannia where we meet him 17 years later and he's grown up to be Kit Harrington. He displays lightning fast quickness in his fighting skills and has become well-renowned for his them which end up getting him a ticket to the bigger show in the bigger arena that resides in the city of Pompeii. On his way to Pompeii the band of slaves Milo is entangled with are passed by a decorated carriage coming from Rome that becomes stuck in the muddy road due to the breaking of one of the horse's legs. The passenger of this carriage just so happens to be Lady Cassia (Emily Browning) the daughter of some of Pompeii's wealthy merchants as played by Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss. In a meet-cute moment Milo breaks the neck of Cassia's horse to relieve it from the pain it was suffering while leaving an undeniable impression on the young lady. Of course, their longing stares would never be able to come to any kind of fruition as he is a slave and she is of a proper, wealthy family that will of course be somehow contrived into an agreed upon marriage with gasp! the man who killed Milo's entire family! You guessed it, ol' Keifer as Corvus comes riding back into town with an agenda that has him investing in Cassia's father’s plans to re-build much of Pompeii, but only if Severus (Harris) allows him a moment alone with Cassia. So it seems Cassia and Corvus have a history and he might be the reason she was in such a hurry to return home from her year abroad in Rome; the very journey that put her on course with Milo and his gang of gladiators? That's the one. Don't worry though, this isn't all love story and melodrama as Milo gets a pal in Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who he will seemingly have to kill for half of the film to survive, but you know how things go; mountains explode, Romans don't keep their promises and Milo discovers there can be good in other people, but the thing is he doesn't discover that, he just stands there, brooding.
If there is something good to be said about “Pompeii” it is that it at least starts out strong and contains a few moments of truly striking imagery that don't seem overly rendered by CGI. The opening sequence, while bloodless in its massive amounts of violence, has a nice texture to it and even the follow-up engagement between Milo and his first opponents on screen are well-staged, frenetically shot, but with an atmosphere to boost the down-trodden, pessimistic nature of his existence. Once the film begins to move towards the titular city though, things begin to fall into comfortable standards and the story feels no more compelling than watching spliced together action scenes from other movies while the inevitable events of what motivate this film to exist happen in the background and we watch as there is nothing they can do, but continue on in their tortured ignorance that is only going to get worse. We get zero development as far as the love story goes and the chemistry between Harrington and Browning is non-existent, not at any fault of the actors, but because they are literally given two, maybe three scenes where they meet one another, see one another and then ride off on a horse together only to be captured almost immediately to figure out they love one another dearly. There is hardly any dialogue exchanged between the two and Anderson isn't a subtle enough director to allow the simple things like expressions on their faces or longing looks in their eyes to linger and put emphasis on the emotions being conjured up inside of them. Ultimately though, what doomed “Pompeii” from the start is the seeming lack of any real investment from Anderson in this story. He saw an opportunity to make a big, action adventure and he jumped on it, but even though it took three screenwriters (THREE!) to come up with this re-hash and mish-mash of parts from “Gladiator,” “Titanic” and any other sword and sandals epic or star-crossed lovers story you can think of you still can't artificially muster investment from the storyteller no matter how hard you try; and when there is no passion and only someone going through the motions, there exists no compelling nature for us to want to watch it or even bring it to the screen in the first place.
The bad thing is, I really wanted to enjoy “Pompeii” and I wanted it to light all of my senses on fire (no pun intended). I wanted to become interested in these people and the insurmountable odds they would be facing, I wanted a good throw-back to the time period in which it was set with extravagant yet gripping performances and maybe even some riveting moments of emotion coupled with the site of pure destruction. It could have been so much and I hate to dismiss the movie so harshly because it wasn't everything it could have been, but even if Anderson had no ambition behind his project I doubt he wanted it to turn out as boring and as rote as this concoction of clichés did. If we want to talk about extravagant yet embarrassing Sutherland is the first one to point a finger at. He puts on a funky accent and carries himself with a slight feminine hint that suggests he truly thinks he is coming off as if participating in a great Shakespearean play when in reality he just makes himself and all those around him look silly. Silly is a big problem here as the gravity of the situation calls for a seriousness yet the cheap looking costumes, sets and sometimes even the special effects render the whole of the film, well, silly looking. This is especially true in the first fight in the arena of Pompeii where Milo, Atticus and several other slaves are chained to an island and forced to fight an army of soldiers. It is a laughable exercise with not an ounce of blood to be seen when a character swings their sword and bad acting all the way around as people just seem to fall left and right no matter if they were hit with anything or not. Whether it is actually due to the acting or poor choreography (though probably a combination of both) it all just ends up looking cheesy and again just cheapening the entire experience. As I've never seen an episode of “Game of Thrones” (I know, I need to jump on the bandwagon) I didn't have much to go off as far as what to expect from Harrington, but he does fine enough staring at Browning and fighting when commanded. He really has nothing else to do and I doubt in the long run in his quest to be a movie star this little film on his resume will cause any harm. The same cannot be said for Browning though who now seems relegated to these kind of low-brow, period pieces that are made for the masses but typically fail to be seen by very many. She could very well break out more with an indie sooner or later, but she seems comfortable where she is and who's to argue with that? The likes of Harris and Moss are as wasted as the strong imagery of seeing someone or something walk through smoke. If this is the only feature that comes from the tragedy of Pompeii we would have been better off leaving it buried.