Editor’s Notes: Pompeii is now open in wide theatrical release. For an additional perspective on the film, read Derek’s review (20/100).
Plot, structure, pacing, characters worth caring for, eliciting believable and good performances from actors and action sequences that make sense are not strong points for director Paul W. S. Anderson (not to be confused with one of the best living and working directors Paul Thomas Anderson). Nevertheless, he has attempted to make what would essentially be his Titanic (1997) by setting an impossible love story against the backdrop of certain doom. The only difference is that there were actually survivors of the Titanic tragedy, leaving at least some room for hope.
Plot, structure, pacing, characters worth caring for, eliciting believable and good performances from actors and action sequences that make sense are not strong points for director Paul W. S. Anderson…
The story is of Milo (Kit Harington of Game of Thrones), a Celt whose parents were murdered by Romans during an uprising and therefore grew up a slave and gladiator in the outer provinces. He became known for his speed and brutality, taking only minutes to dispatch three to four attackers. His talent of course attracts the eye of his owner and he’s shuttled off to Pompeii to compete there. Along the way, he encounters noblewoman Cassia (Emily Browning) because she is passing by in a carriage and a horse pulling it breaks its leg when the carriage gets stuck in the mud. He offers to help and snaps the horse’s neck. She sees this as a kindness and has a look of love at first sight. He creepily looks back at her and the romance has begun.
Upon reaching the coliseum, he meets Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Mr. Echo from Lost) who needs to win only one more battle and under Roman law he will be set free. Of course Milo is scheduled to be his opponent. After a training exercise where Atticus saves Milo’s life from a vengeful co-gladiator (whose brother Milo killed while fighting in the provinces), the two are taken to be pimped out to the noblewomen. Cassia sees him and when her horse goes berserk because of the tremor activity (a precursor for the volcano eruption that no one seems to be concerned about), she decides that Milo is the only one who can calm the horse. He does, and they ride off for a minute then he’s captured by Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) who has designs on Cassia himself (he’s in town under the auspice of investing in redesigning all of Pompeii as a vacation resort for the Emperor and the rich of Rome).
After that, a whole bunch of stuff happens to get us to connect with doomed characters that have no charisma and less chemistry. Countless fights with sharp objects that yields only trickles of blood in close-up shots of hands but not spraying out like a sword-slash across the jugular or decapitation would (examples of both are replete throughout the film). In fact, there is more visible blood in the epics of the 50s and 60s than there is in this film. They don’t even try to get away with nudity instead of blood, it’s all just lifeless. I’m not saying blood and boobs would have made the film good, I don’t think anything could have done that, I’m saying that in order for us to believe what we’re seeing, at least make an effort.
To be honest, Pompeii is no worse than you would expect it to be. It’s an action movie set with the backdrop of a natural disaster from which no one involved survives.
The actors do their best with what they are given, which isn’t much. Considering that two of the three screenwriters were responsible for at least a few drafts of Batman Forever (1995) before Akiva Goldsman (who is responsible for the absolute worst film released so far this year: Winter’s Tale) rewrote it, you know you’re not getting A grade material. The actors are given a lot of dialogue to speak that says absolutely nothing. There are exchanges that could have been half the length and still gotten across any message that was trying to be conveyed. Case in point: in a scene set in a holding cell containing Milo and Atticus after their training session and Atticus saves Milo’s life and Milo asks why Atticus saved him. Atticus gives a paragraph long speech about the honor of gladiatorial death in battle and how no gladiator should die from being stabbed in the back and that since they are to fight the next day, he wanted to kill him. It should have gone like this:
Milo: Why did you save my life?
Atticus: Because it is mine to take tomorrow.
The writers also make no attempt to show the love that’s blossomed between our attractive leads, they just make them say it and that’s it. It’s all so superficial that if it were ice, it would break under the weight of a feather. There is nothing to indicate love other than she thinks he’s cute and he knows she thinks he’s cute.
Then there’s Anderson. This guy couldn’t direct his way out of a wet paper bag. There is no coherence of scene placement or assembly at all. The scene between Milo and Atticus I mentioned above? That seems to take place over a 24 hour timeframe since they start the conversation after the incident with the horse, a cut scene to the next morning comes in with life starting and such, then we cut back to the two in the exact same positions as before continuing their conversation and suddenly its night again. His staging and framing are also dreadful. There is a point when people are running to the harbor to escape the volcano spewing fire rain on them, when suddenly great waves descend upon the city. Of course this would happen due to the earthquakes, this is a realistic thing that would happen, but then everyone runs toward the volcano then everyone in the entire city disappears for a fight between Milo and Corvus. They either evaporated or decided, as a city on the whole, to just go inside and wait it out. The streets are utterly deserted. People wander in and out of frames, address obvious green screen and he gets so little emotion out of his characters that it feels like you’re watching Vulcan Theater.
To be honest, Pompeii is no worse than you would expect it to be. It’s an action movie set with the backdrop of a natural disaster from which no one involved survives. It’s a stupid premise because there’s no reason to root for anyone. You know everyone dies. The least (and I mean the very least) Anderson and company could have done was make an involving story about interesting people so we would feel bad when they inevitably die. This was not that story. The equation for this film is: Spartacus (1960) + volcano - emotion and believability = Pompeii.
[notification type=”star”]20/100 ~ AWFUL. The equation for this film is: Spartacus (1960) + volcano - emotion and believability = Pompeii.[/notification]