Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.
Starring Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Jared Harris, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham, Carrie-Anne Moss and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.
When a lowly gladiator is sent to Pompeii to fight in the arena, a series of tales play out amidst the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
With the evolution of effects in movies, including the much-covered integration of CGI, it seems like there’s much less room for what is known as the classic good bad movie. What would Roger Corman do with such realistic effects? How does good storytelling, as well as directorial technique, get a chance to flourish and evolve with a bolder, bigger brother taking most of the screen time? This is an exaggerated question, of course. Many movies mix them both well and it seems to be a debate born from convenience when the real question should be placed at the feet of the people at the helm.
With relationships already established, Pompeii decides to build on big, beautiful spectacle. If it’s not huge or nice to look at, Paul W.S. Anderson doesn’t want to know about it (which at times relates to characters). Pompeii fits the mould of an Anderson film in that it’s extremely well polished and full of nice looking shots. Everything’s very smooth, with fight scenes shot and edited to give a slightly cagey feel. You’re not so much given a master swordsman’s POV as you are an audience member in the arena, unknowing but still appreciating the technique as much as you can.
It’s unfortunate that none of the imagery on display is memorable or anywhere near iconic and that, despite the fact this review is being written less than an hour after the film was watched, all that can be remembered is a lot of smoke and made up people yelling things at each other.
How can any tension be built from a story where you know the ending? When Milo (Kit Harington) gets dragged to Pompeii to fill the gladiatorial bill with his skill, other stories intertwine to create a narrative around the volcano we as an audience know will erupt. Politicians vying for power, daughters reuniting with families, lovers meeting and life and death battles all play out at the foot of the volcano. It’s a nice way of playing it, with the survival of everyone not even hinted at which means the narrative can do away with cliché tropes we’ve seen in disaster movies before. It’s really just about people trying to live their lives and nature not having any of it.
A problem with some disaster movies is that not enough respect is paid to the actual disaster. Films like 2012, while having spectacle to spare, just seem like a hodge podge of horrible things happening while too much time was spent on melodrama. That one film is pointed out, but it could be said for many more. Pompeii, on the other hand, almost gives the volcano a full personality. Instead of stepping up and becoming the heroes they were all along, the characters merely do what they can before they’re overtaken by what they think is the end of the world.
But, unfortunately, the stories found within actually suffer from a lack of tension. While it’s understandable and indeed a quality that you know what will happen in relation to the disaster, every sub-plot plays out how it’s been seen before. Protagonist avenges his people and finds his love interest, the bad guy is murdered (in a way that perhaps resembles a boss battle) while his underling is killed off by a minor good guy. It drags the film down, but probably not as much as this paragraph suggests.
Performances are a mixed bag. Keifer Sutherland as Corvus seems to channel Jeremy Irons in a nicely over the top performance. Not quite scenery chewing, but big enough that you believe his character’s egotistical nature. Bold statements are made with a voice that almost pushes all the letters together. This is a man who believes he is a fine wine among dirty water, and the most powerful man in Rome.
Harington, as well as Emily Browning as Cassia, on the other hand provide a couple of pretty young things as opposed to charismatic performances to draw a watching audience in. A little flat amongst the other actors, if their characters weren’t front and centre from the nature of the script we wouldn’t care a jot for them. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Atticus gives a muscular performance, filling the frame and drawing the eye even when face to face with a literal force of nature. But with the impending disaster we know it going to happen, it seems to have been a step too far for those in charge to make us truly care for any of them.
As suggested before, the effects are fantastic. It’s a bit of a shame that this standard of imagery has become the norm in movies and in some ways overlooked, because the recreation of Vesuvius’ eruption, from its initial rumblings all the way through to sky-blotting finale, is almost breathtaking. Huge plumes of smoke hang in the air, fire rains down on the city and it thankfully never stops too long for any one sub plot to take over.
Pompeii does the spectacle well. It does the real life disaster of Mount Vesuvius a bit of justice, at least in terms of visuals and shock and awe, but as a story it falls short. Probably from a combination of it being a documentary presented without the facts and because the stories and characters are something we’ve seen before, it provides enough to be a good filler of time.
By no means is it a great movie, but neither is it necessarily a bad one. It is, as much as this phrase should be maligned, a good bad movie. It’s something that can fill a bit of your afternoon, with enough sustenance to get you to the finish line no problem. It almost seems content with knowing what it can be and not attempting to reach for delusions of grandeur.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★
Matt Smith – follow me on Twitter.