What a putrid mess. The trailer for Pompeii, Paul W.S. Anderson’s CGI shit-fest from earlier this year, promised viewers an exploding mountain. It never promised to be a faithful retelling of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 that destroyed the city of the title. But that’s all well and good. Paul W.S. Anderson does not do anything but spectacle. In the trailer, Vesuvius blows up and that’s what I paid to see. What I didn’t pay to see was a low-rent Titanic rip-off that made me wait 66 whole minutes for the good stuff. And that wait is a problem. Pompeii only runs about an hour and a half. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for the disaster portion of this disaster movie.
That’s the thing, though. Pompeii is not a disaster movie. A disaster occurs in the final act, sure, but this movie is a love story, I think. Yeesh.
Pompeii follows the trials and travails of a slave by the name of Milo (Kit Harington). Milo was the sole survivor of a Roman raid on his village in Britannia, being taken while still a child. As happens often in movies about barbarians, Milo becomes an expert with the sword, making him a valuable commodity for the gladiatorial arena, so off to the Italian peninsula he goes. On the way, Anderson makes sure to show the viewer how compassionate Milo is, by having him snap a horse’s neck. It was an act of mercy, believe it or not, but I can’t think of another movie that used euthanasia as character development. More importantly, though, this scene introduces us to Cassia (Emily Browning), who will be Rose to Milo’s Jack.
There’s a Rose, and there’s a Jack. What about Cal Hockley, Billy Zane’s bad guy? He’s there, in the form of an evil Roman senator named Corvus, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Not only is Corvus responsible for the deaths of Milo’s family and everyone in his village, he also wants to force Cassia to marry him. Sutherland gives viewers the first real howling laughs of the film as soon as he opens his mouth. At first I thought Kiefer was trying to speak with an English accent, but as the movie went on, I realized that, more than anything, it sounds like he’s trying to talk while sucking on a lozenge. I hope his throat feels better now. It is one of the more unique affectations I’ve heard in film.
Besides his enemy and his lover, there is also Milo’s friend, a fellow slave and gladiator by the name of Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Without a doubt, Atticus is the toughest guy in this flick. Pompeii earned a PG-13 rating, but between the bodies Milo and Atticus pile up, it could easily have been an R. When these two team up in the arena, the slaughter becomes paramount. Blades swing all over the place, slashing necks, faces, abdomens, limbs. Nobody is safe. But there’s hardly any blood. I had thought that this type of bloodless violence went out of style in the 60s, but I guess I was wrong. Of course, it could have been worse, but Anderson and company were shooting for that lucrative PG-13 rating. It doesn’t make the movie suffer any, for that matter. This would have been just as much a pile of shit if the violence was graphic, only it would have also had the potential to be a PTSD trigger. It’s probably better this way.
Sharp-eyed readers will notice that I haven’t mentioned the impending volcanic eruption since the second paragraph. This wait was nothing compared to how long Anderson holds out on the viewers. It does happen, eventually, and viewers are then treated to some less than spectacular aftermarket CGI. This is still better than the days of model work. There is no way traditional F/X could handle the demands made by this movie, but what is seen on screen is hardly a solution. The destruction of Pompeii, while grandiose, never crosses the threshold into believability. Even the street level vignettes fail to convey the desperate urgency of the moment. Just a casual reading of the history of the eruption and the destruction of Pompeii paints a hellish picture, one which lasted much longer than the half hour we viewers are given. But, again, this movie is not about Pompeii. Pompeii is merely backdrop for a meek love story that, believe it or not, never manages to get going. The only good news is everyone dies. Thank God.
Alien: Resurrection is better than Pompeii.