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Non-Review Review: Pompeii

Pompeii is a cliché love story nested inside a cheesy b-movie sitting inside a good old-fashioned disaster movie. None of these elements are entirely successful – in fact, there are points where the love story is downright painful – but Paul W.S. Anderson manages to construct a reliably pulpy (if entirely predictable) action adventure. While by no means exceptional – it’s a mess from both a plotting and a thematic perspective – Pompeii does look as sound quite nice. As with a lot of Anderson’s films, there’s a sense that the director is more interested in his action sequences than the characters trapped inside them.

Setting the town alight...

Setting the town alight…

Left to his own devices, Paul W.S. Anderson is very good at constructing action sequences and set pieces. He may overuse tricks like slow motion or sped-up film, but you always have a clear idea of what is going on in a Paul W.S. Anderson film, even if it’s not visually unique or innovative. As such, the best sequences in Pompeii are those driven by effects – CGI-fueled spectacle and apocalyptic imagery. There are a number of awe-inspiring moments as the film demonstrates the raw power of Vesuvius.

However, the film is less good at depicting the monstrous horror of the event. Anderson handles action sequences very well – and the eruption of Vesuvius provides a nice jolt of energy to the film. However, there’s a sense that Anderson is treating the disaster as nothing more than a standard Hollywood peril. There’s no weight or gravity to the film. As our characters attempt to flee, it plays almost like a video game. Barriers – both natural and human – exist solely to delay our heroes and hold back their escape.

Cue tasteless air pollution gag...

Cue tasteless air pollution gag…

While we get a checklist of obligatory disaster movie sequences – a crowded harbour; the rich trying to buy their escape; children almost trampled; the strong trying to force their way out – it all feels curiously rote. Pompeii never confronts its audience with the reality that almost every single man, woman and child in the city died as the result of a freak accident of nature. The opening quote from Pliny the Younger conveys a sense of apocalyptic dread better than the rest of the movie.

The biggest problem is arguably that Anderson never gets us to care about the people inhabiting this world – starting with the central characters. The strongest Paul W.S. Anderson films are those with the best cast. Event Horizon is a delightfully pulpy science-fiction horror elevated by perfectly pitched performances from Lawrence Fishburne, Sam Neill and Joely Richardson. Unfortunately, Pompeii lacks a strong ensemble to help carry a weak script and direction focused more on action than actors.

Do you like movies about gladiators?

Do you like movies about gladiators?

Keifer Sutherland and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje do a better job than most of their colleagues. They embrace the fact that the movie is populated by walking clichés and powered by questionable logic. Playing the slave warrior Atticus, Akinnuoye-Agbaje recognises that his character is a cliché. Atticus is the man who has lost everything, but stands on the edge of a new life. Pompeii is so wonderfully paint-by-numbers that it opens with Atticus only fight away from retirement. So, you know, nothing better happen in Pompeii tomorrow or anything like that.

Akinnuoye-Agbaje recognises that the character is a very familiar archetype, but he gives Atticus a powerful sense of dignity. He even sells the obligatory “back story sequence”, where Atticus explains who he is and where he came from. It’s a scene that is easy enough to predict, and one that would be easy to overplay. This is – after all – Atticus’ big character moment. Instead, Akinnuoye-Agbaje underplays it, selling the scene as something that shapes his character without defining him.

Not a lot of people know this, but Corvus invented the "pointy gun" gesture...

Not a lot of people know this, but Corvus invented the “pointy gun” gesture…

Atticus is a character who is fairly underdeveloped by the script, but Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays this to his advantage. Unburdened by the “doomed love across class lines” love story, Atticus serves as a more effective witness to the decline and collapse of Pompeii. Trying to escape rather than seeking revenge or attempting rescue, Atticus is able to get swept up in the disaster as it occurs. One gets a sense that Pompeii would have been a stronger film had it focused on Atticus and Akinnuoye-Agbaje.

While Akinnuoye-Agbaje is more effective due to his understatedness, Keifer Sutherland clearly decides that a delightfully over-the-top historical disaster movie like this needs a bad guy with a questionable British accent, and so spends most of the movie wandering around in a white cape and some pretty spiffing armour while relishing every campy evil decision the character makes. It is a little redundant to have a villain like this in a disaster film, and Corvus is so bland he barely registers. And, yet, Sutherland has great fun with the character.

A model villain?

A model villain?

There are points in the film where it seems like Sutherland is only a few seconds away from bursting into a villainous laugh or catchy Disney villain tune, so delightfully and one-dimensionally evil is Senator Corvus. If you’re asking why a Roman Senator played by an American actor has a dodgy British accent, you’re in the wrong film. After all, Pompeii relies on an extraordinary number of coincidences to power the plot.

A number of coincidences are necessary to get the plot moving – in movies like this, allowances must be made. It makes sense for our hero, the Celt, to bump into beautiful Cassia as both journey to Pompeii. It’s maybe a bit of a stretch that Corvus – who has been stalking and harassing Cassia – finds an excuse to visit Pompeii within the same day. Things are getting a bit tenuous by the point we discover that Atticus is one day away from freedom. It feels a little contrived that Corvus just happens to get involved in a business venture involving the father of his love interest.

He's got a horse outside...

He’s got a horse outside…

However, there are points where these sorts of plotting short cuts become contrived coincidences. What really snaps any sense of credibility is the revelation that Corvus murdered the Celt’s family all those years ago. (And half a continent away.) It’s a decision which makes the day that the Vesuvius erupted seem special or key or important. It makes it seem like fight was pushing some sort of trigger. All of a sudden, the day that Vesuvius erupted was not a regular day that turned into a disaster, but a fateful day that was always going to be important.

The problem is simple. The script isn’t strong enough to support these twists and turns. These all feel mighty convenient. The decision to construct a gladiator story inside this disaster story is an interesting choice (one wonders what a “last day in the life of Pompeii” might have looked like), but it’s the trite love story that really undermines Pompeii. Emily Browning and Kit Harrington have no real on-screen chemistry, but the romance between the slave and the socialite is so forced that it’s hard to believe any couple of actors might have elevated the material.

It's safe in the city... to love in a doorway...

It’s safe in the city… to love in a doorway…

The script for Pompeii is a thematic mess. The sense of fate gives a bit of weight to the Celt’s observation that his gods are wreaking a terrible revenge on the Roman Empire. Certainly, the film spends more than enough time documenting and charting casual Roman barbarity – Rome is treated as a society primed for decline and collapse. Cassia returns to Pompeii from Rome observing that the winds are changing and corruption has taken root. So Pompeii seems to position the eruption of Vesuvius as some sort of signal of this collapse. (This is, of course, a somewhat questionable connection to make to a real disaster that killed thousands.)

However, Pompeii is also careful to distinguish Pompeii from Rome – stressing that the city had a vocal group of citizens opposed the influence of Rome itself. At the climax, the Celt finds himself fighting as the champion of Pompeii against the champion of Rome. The entire colosseum sides with the Celt. It seems very strange for Pompeii to makes the connection between the eruption of Vesuvius and retribution against the Romans while portraying a city state proud of its independence from Rome itself. It feels like the script never makes the connections strong enough to support this already questionable position.

Blood and sand...

Blood and sand…

Still, Pompeii works quite well when the script pulls back and allows Paul W.S. Anderson do his thing, rendering epic disasters and impressive action sequences. None of these sequences are iconic or enduring, but they are effective. And that is perhaps the best thing that can be said about Pompeii.

11 Responses

  1. glad i did not see it, most movies nowadays are not that brilliant

  2. Was very dumb from the beginning, which is exactly what I expected from a Paul W.S. However, what did begin to work well was once, as morbid as I may sound, people started getting all sorts of killed due to that volcano eruption. It was not only when the movie really kicked its energy up to a whole new level, but also when I could see it having fun with itself. Good review Darren.

  3. I agree with you and Dan, the movie was only good when the mountain blew it’s top ha ha! Well written review man!

  4. I really liked your review. I am on the fence. It was not one of Anderson’s better movies but I really enjoyed seeing one man’s take on his version of what may have happened in the last hours of Pompeii, all criticism aside. I enjoyed Emily Browning’s performance in the movie. I have enjoyed all her work since Sucker Punch. It was awesome to see Vesuvius erupt. It was also very sad at the end even though you know that everyone had died. No one could have ever gotten out. Not even by boat not by air. Yes, I did shed a tear or two, because I am like that. Nevertheless, the archaeological finds and the history surrounding Pompeii are always interesting to me. Again, great review! Thanks so very much for posting this! Have a good one!

    • Thanks for the comment, Heather! And I do think that the film might have worked better had it focused on that “no one gets out” element. When the film hammered home the scale of the catastrophe, it was actually fairly decent.

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