Film Review – Pompeii
One of the worst things a film can be is half measured. Regardless of the subject matter, if it doesn’t fully embrace its approach, it will falter. If it’s supposed to be serious, then be serious. If it’s supposed to be a silly b-movie, then be a silly b-movie all the way through. When a film settles somewhere in the middle, our expectations as an audience doesn’t have firm ground to stand on. I’d rather watch a bad movie that knows it’s bad than one pretending to be something else.
Case in point: Pompeii (2014). Paul W.S. Anderson has directed a narrative that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Characters act in mind-numbingly dumb ways, to the point where we question if this is supposed to be a flat out comedy. I would be fine with that, yet Anderson (along with at least four credited screenwriters) sets a very serious tone. This leaves a feeling of imbalance. How are we supposed to take the intricacies of ancient Roman rule – along with a romance between unlikely lovers – and place it in the midst of one of the most legendary natural disasters in recorded history? Comparisons with Gladiator (2000) and Titanic (1997) will surely be made, but at least those filmmakers had deft skill over their material.
Anderson places the loosely constructed plot around what is obviously his bigger interest: blowing sh*t up real good. Credit has to be given at least to this point. When Mount Vesuvius erupts – throwing ash and fireballs into the sky over and over again – it’s quite the spectacle. The obliteration of Pompeii is what viewers will be paying tickets for, and in this regard they’ll get what they expected. Clearly all of this is done through CGI, but made believably enough. I assume most of the production’s money was funneled toward this sequence, and for the most part it works. However, there were instances when background actors are noticeably being hit by falling debris made out of rubber, and that brought about some good chuckles.
Other than the devastation, the problems here lie with…everything else. Anderson does not place enough attention in creating a cohesive storyline with believable characters. Even worse, we have to endure this painstakingly dull plot for the opening half of the film. Those thinking they’ll get the action right away will be shuffling in their seats, impatient for things to eventually pick up. When they finally do, everything that came before is (of course) tossed to the wayside. If such little regard is made to develop these characters and their backgrounds, why even take the time to focus on them?
For example: the romance between hunky slave/gladiator Milo (Kit Harington), and Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of well-established Pompeii merchants. I like Harington, he certainly holds his own as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, yet the only memorable thing about him in this film are his well-toned abs. His on screen chemistry with Browning is next to zero. I’m not sure if it’s in the writing, directing, acting, or a combination of all three, but Browning’s performance is, let’s say, “less than convincing.” She delivers her dialogue stiffly, with no hint of natural flow. The relationship between Milo and Cassia feels made out of spare parts awkwardly pieced together. The lone highlight of their love happens when they first meet, where Milo puts an injured horse out of its misery using his bare hands. Almost instantly, this puts Cassia’s heart all in a flutter. All you potential suitors out there: make sure you’re taking notes.
Milo is dragged to Pompeii to participate as a gladiator. He soon strikes up a friendship with fellow slave Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). This is a coincidence, especially since Atticus is one victory away from being a free man – which would technically make the two mortal enemies – but who keeps track of insignificant stuff like that? For poor Cassia, she is forced by her parents (Jared Harris, Carrie-Ann Moss) to be betrothed to the evil senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) in exchange for Roman support. Of the entire cast, Sutherland seems to be the only one who realizes the type of movie he’s in. He sports an unrecognizable accent, and struts about with big gestures, hamming it up with full on glee. At least it seems he was having a good time.
So there’s the love triangle, and some deadly battles taking place in the city’s amphitheater, all while Mount Vesuvius rumbles in the background, ready to blow. It’s strange that Anderson would spend so much time on factors no one cares about before he gets to the main event. That’s the problem with Pompeii: it tries to do multiple things, but does so in a mediocre way. When the volcano eventually goes BOOM, it comes more as relief than an act of terrifying suspense. You know you have a problem when you start rooting for the mountain to win.