The destruction of the Roman city of Pompeii in 79 AD is one of the most famous and theatrical natural disasters in recorded history. When Mount Vesuvius erupted with biblical fury, it showered the city in fire, brimstone and ash, and buried the neighbouring city of Herculaneum under an avalanche of boiling hot mud. Since the town was excavated, we have been hypnotised by the haunting plaster casts of the dead - citizens of Pompeii who died where they fell fleeing the fury of the volcano, their forms preserved in the ash. Hollywood has given the event a cursory glance on occasion, mainly with B-grade sword-and-sandal spectacles, but never the big budget treatment. This year that finally changes, with Paul W.S. Anderson’s ‘Pompeii’. But will it do the event justice, or stick to schlock melodrama?
Captured as a boy from his home in Britain after watching his family slaughtered, slave Milo (Kit Harrington) becomes a lethal gladiator to survive. His skills in the arena have him sent to the prestigious games in Pompeii, where he meets Cassia (Emily Browning), a native aristocrat returning home after a complicated visit to Rome. An affection begins to blossom between them, much to the annoyance of corrupt Roman senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). Milo uses his position in the arena to defy the Romans who murdered his family, but when Vesuvius begins to erupt, it becomes a race against time to rescue Cassia and escape the city before they are all wiped out.
‘Pompeii’ already has one considerable factor working against it, and that is its director, Paul W.S. Anderson. Unlike his namesake (the phenomenal but not related Paul Thomas Anderson), this particular Paul has made a career with B-grade genre pictures (including the 'Resident Evil' franchise). This already makes him an odd choice for the film, but at least he has the technical know-how to ensure that ‘Pompeii’ is a visually interesting film. The filmmaking is predictable but not horribly so, and the eruption looks impressive (and really, what else are we here for apart from Kit Harrington’s abs?).
And yet its visuals are nowhere near enough to save the film, which thanks to an utterly atrocious screenplay, ends up being a rather dull car-crash. If the narrative sounds familiar, that’s because it is almost entirely derivative of other (and better) Roman epics. Take away the volcano, and it might as well be ‘Gladiator’ (2000), even down to the imposing ethnic sidekick (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and the whole "a gladiator who defied an empire" conceit. There are even visual moments that seem ripped straight from Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, and they are so often that you can’t quite get past them. The love story is obvious and badly developed, and the secondary characters are barely alive they’re so dull, so when the Big Event finally arrives you’re quite happy for the volcano to pop them off one by one. And then there’s the eruption itself, which is relegated to the background against the pathetic romance, robbing it of much of its spectacle. It also fiddles with history far too much, changing historical details to boost the action (A tsunami? Really?) and ignoring Herculaneum entirely. One could level the same criticism at ‘Titanic’ (1997) of using a great disaster as the context for a fictional love story, but the romance and disaster worked in tandem beautifully in that instance and never at the cost of historical accuracy. ‘Pompeii’ just feels like a derivative gladiator action film with the eruption shoved in as an afterthought.
‘Pompeii’ just feels like a derivative gladiator action film with the eruption shoved in as an afterthought.
It doesn’t get any better with the performances, which are across the board relatively anaemic. Jared Harris and Carrie-Ann Moss look totally lost as Cassia’s vacant parents. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as fellow gladiator Atticus lets his deep voice and impressive physique do most of the work, but doesn’t have an ounce of subtlety. Emily Browning does nothing with the promise she’s shown in previous films, but she hasn’t much to work with other than to stand around looking pretty and staring lovingly at Kit Harrington. Kiefer Sutherland goes full melodrama as Corvus with a performance so camp it’s almost enjoyable, with the most impeccably awful British Villain accent. Surprisingly, Kit Harrington emerges as one of the highlights of the film. Those only familiar with him as the surly Jon Snow in ‘Game of Thrones’ will be surprised by how much wit and charisma he has, and even amongst the statues that are his co-stars, he excels considerably. He’s not the strongest leading man, but he comes pretty close (and is certainly better than Sullivan Stapleton in ‘300: Rise of an Empire’). He doesn’t look too bad in his gladiator gear either.
This month we’ve gotten not one, but two potential guilty pleasures set in the ancient world, but while ‘300: Rise Of An Empire’ is overtly preposterous and a lot of fun, ‘Pompeii’ is just a dull imitation of better films with an important historical event half-heartedly thrown in. It might look impressive, but by the time the mountain blows, we don’t care enough about these people and their city to sympathise with them. Worse still, Paul W.S. Anderson completely mishandles the big event itself, making it more of a whimper than a bang. In one respect, this film leaves the door open for someone else to tackle the eruption of Pompeii in a manner worthy of its place in history. In another though, we’ll still have the memory of this one like a bad aftertaste.