Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss
Disaster films rely on two things to succeed. When the crunch comes, everything has to be destroyed in an enjoyable fashion. It would be a fairly odd film that went straight in at the punchline though so there has to be a little preamble to try and make the audience warm to characters who are about to be put through the wringer. When it comes to destroying things, Pompeii does a nice enough job proving the estimated $100m budget wasn’t entirely wasted. It’s everything else that’s found wanting.
It would take an impressive degree of ignorance to remain completely oblivious to the fate of the city of Pompeii. Building it next to a volcano was always going to have downsides after all. Director Paul W.S. Anderson doesn’t start his story on the west coast of Italy though. Instead, we head to Britain to watch pantomime villain Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) massacre a village of Celts who’d had the temerity to rise up against Rome. Except he missed one, young Milo escaping the slaughter.
17 years later, grown-up Milo (Kit Harington) has become a deadly gladiator who impresses enough to get shipped to Pompeii to ply his trade. On the way he meets Emily Browning in full simpering mode as the aristocratic Cassia and befriends the reigning champion Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) when he arrives. Oh, and Corvus has popped up to try and make off with Cassia. The scene is well and truly set with love, friendship and revenge all in town in time for the show.
Anderson is on record highlighting the degree of historical accuracy his film displays. However, he’s admitted that for the purpose of making a feature film, the length of time it takes Vesuvius to destroy Pompeii has been truncated. Now that’s perfectly fine; it’s a film after all. In his zeal to fit things neatly into the running time though, everything else has been truncated, often laughably so.
Take Milo and Cassia’s passionate love affair. He meets her on the road and breaks a horse’s neck. Not bad as far as first dates go. Then later on he takes slightly less drastic action and calms her still living horse. Inexplicably the two ride off into the surrounding countryside pursued by Milo’s owners, presumably just to check out the view. With this bizarre act of defiance that effectively finds him sentenced to death, their unwavering love for each other is thus established.
This is the approach taken to every relationship. One act, often not a very comprehensible one either, is all that’s needed. Perhaps Pompeii has to rely on these bold gestures. It’s not like the dialogue is going to help them out. The screenplay calls for a never ending series of declamatory statements read out as if the actor is auditioning for an amateur Shakespeare in the park production. Impressively, this even carries over into the scenes of devastation where Milo and Corvus put aside survival instinct to scrap away in-between bold threats and falling lava.
In the lead role, Harington at least does his best. It’s not that he’s a bad actor. It’s just that anyone would struggle to compete against those abs. He delivers his lines in a passably sullen manner but Harington is mostly there to pose just long enough to allow his impressively sculpted stomach and gleaming muscles to catch the eye. Akinnuoye-Agbaje is called on to do pretty much the same without the added burden of having to occasionally pretend to be in love. There’s also solid support from Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss as Cassia’s parents even if Browning herself fails to do much more than pout or look sad – although that seems to be about all her character is actually expected to do.
The stand out performance, and not necessarily for good reason, is Sutherland’s. There’s much fun to be had attempting to work out what accent he’s using. Impersonating a classically trained British actor attempting to play a Roman, he bulldozes his way through scenes, an unremittingly evil force set up to be pretty much everyone’s number one enemy. Horrific person though he may be, it’s fair to say that Corvus wears age well. He appears not to look a day older despite 17 years having passed since we first catch sight of him burning Celtic huts.
All this is just filler until the fun starts. When Vesuvius explodes, it rips apart the coliseum and sends gigantic fireballs crashing down onto the unfortunate city, impressively rendered in several overhead shots. The terrified townsfolk flood towards the harbour only to run back the other way when an actual flood bears down on them, massive waves sinking ships and drowning everyone in sight. Anderson even throws in a couple of nice touches as individuals stroll out into the line of fire to get knocked down by stray rocks.
It’s a shame that the destruction lasts for so little time. Having had to endure such a ridiculous set up, it would have been nice to get a bit more time with the volcano, the one part of Pompeii that actually is worth watching. The city of Pompeii and its tragic fate will continue to live on as an extraordinarily well preserved wonder. The film on the other hand will not.