All directors are entitled to step out of their comfort zones every now and then. At the very least, they’re entitled to attempt it. In 2011, Paul W.S. Anderson, known primarily for his action-laden video game adaptations, made his first ever foray into literature with his 3D, steampunk version of The Three Musketeers. The results were less than successful, not just because of the exaggerated stunts and amateurish dialogue, but also because Anderson just couldn’t shake his video game proclivities. Now with Pompeii, which is also in 3D, he delves for the first time into history – or, to be much more accurate, historical fiction, the real-life 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius playing second fiddle to a cross between a Sword and Sandal film and a romantic melodrama.
Does Anderson succeed this time around? To an extent, yes. He definitely achieves better results than he did with The Three Musketeers, and in general, the film is more entertaining than The Legend of Hercules, Renny Harlin’s brush with the Sword and Sandal genre, released only this past January. However, Anderson certainly could have tried harder to make the plot as engaging as the special effects. As is the case with so many disaster movies, many released during the 1970s, the human drama that introduces the film is virtually forgotten by the conclusion; at that point, it’s almost entirely about the spectacle of glorious destruction. Nevertheless, there’s no denying the impact of said spectacle, which is, I’ll be the first to admit, somewhat enhanced by the process of 3D. Somewhat, but not enough that it’s worth paying extra for.
Narratively, the film aspires to be in the same league as James Cameron’s Titanic, with a fairytale romance between a poor boy and a rich girl set against the backdrop of a real-life disaster. Pompeii is, of course, not even close to being in the same league, in part because Anderson and his screenwriters don’t make enough of an effort with its fictional aspects, but mostly because it just doesn’t have the same sense of style. This time around, the poor boy is Milo (Kit Harington), a slave who, as a child, witnessed his entire Celtic tribe slaughtered by Romans. The rich girl is Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of Pompeiian rulers (Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss). As Cassie returns home from a year-long visit to Rome, she finds herself immediately drawn to Milo, the only slave in the accompanying chain gang with enough human decency to put a lame horse out of its misery.
Cassia’s father, in need of someone to invest in a project to revitalize Pompeii, turns to a Roman senator named Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). It’s established in the first major scene that he oversaw the siege of Milo’s village and personally killed his mother, and it’s now known that his investment in Pompeii directly correlates to his lust for Cassia. Here is a villain so lacking in subtlety that even his British accent is overemphasized. Meanwhile, Milo is forced to become a gladiator and forms something between a rivalry and a friendship with a champion named Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who’s under the impression that, if he wins just one more tournament, he will finally earn his freedom. He intends for Milo to be his last victim. Milo, naturally, sees things differently, but more to the point, he understands that the Romans will never keep their promise to Atticus.
Meanwhile, Mount Vesuvius looms in the distance, and earthquakes are occurring more frequently than they once did. The volcano finally erupts during a climactic gladiator match, at which point Atticus realizes that Milo was right about the Romans. The arena collapses. The sky is quickly blackened by ash and smoke. Gigantic chunks of molten rock pummel the city. Large shelves of land collapse into the sea, taking villas with them. The harbor, along with a sizeable portion of coastal buildings, is destroyed by a gigantic tsunami. And then there’s the cataclysmic pyroclastic cloud, which incinerates absolutely everything in its path. In real life, hundred of bodies have been unearthed from ancient ash deposits, and their impressions have been cast in cement. Death throes frozen in time.
This film need not be approached from the angles of historical or scientific accuracy, although I’m sure dedicated vulcanologists will find Anderson’s depiction of the eruption deeply flawed. Be that as it may, general audiences should find the latter half of the movie entertaining, if for no reason other than the thrill of watching a city get destroyed. I wonder, though, if anyone will respond to or even notice the poignancy of the final scenes, considering the message that death is the ultimate equalizer; there’s no distinction between the wealthy elite and the mistreated poor when it comes to nature’s fury. The issue with Pompeii is that this message doesn’t carry through the entire film; it’s delivered only after a buildup inspired by romance novels and adventure epics, at which point it’s revealed to have not mattered in the slightest.
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