I’ve always thought that the story of Pompeii was prime material for a big budget motion picture. Without getting too deep into the history, Pompeii was a Roman city nestled at the base of Mount Vesuvius. In 79 AD Pompeii and its inhabitants were decimated when Vesuvius suddenly erupted sending tons of ash and volcanic rock showering down. At the time somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 people lived in Pompeii. Obviously it’s a sad and tragic story and I’m surprised that modern Hollywood hasn’t tackled it before.
Enter Paul W.S. Anderson and his succinctly titled “Pompeii”. Not exactly my first choice to direct such a potentially intriguing project, and once you start watching this film you quickly realize that this isn’t the smart and engaging historical epic it could have been. Instead it’s a silly and cliched exercise featuring numerous borrowed plot points and loads of cheese. It’s the kind of film you’re used to getting from Anderson – not totally unwatchable but far from being as good as it could have been.
“Pompeii” plays like a poor man’s “Gladiator”. The problem is here we have no Ridley Scott, no Russell Crowe, no engaging and emotional story, no epic feel, none of the things that made “Gladiator” such a good film. But its clear aim is to be an action film first and foremost. The story starts with a flashback that shows us a young boy witnessing the brutal deaths of his parents on the battlefield at the hands of the Romans, particularly their evil field leader Corvus (Keifer Sutherland). Jump ahead 17 years later. The boy, whose name is Milo, is now a man and has been raised as a Roman slave and gladiator. Milo (played with the emotion of a brick by Kit Harington) and his unmatched fighting skills are noticed by his slave owner who then takes him to Pompeii to fight in their gladiator arena.
On the way there Milo catches the eye of the Pompeii governor’s daughter Cassia (Emily Browning). Can’t you see where this is going? Forbidden love springs up between a beautiful woman with status and a lowly slave with six pack abs and nice hair. We’ve seen this many times before. But what makes this worse is that the love story is so rushed and underdeveloped. The characters are already flimsy and then to have practically no attention given to building up their relationship. Everything about their love for each other feels phony and false.
In addition to being a “Gladiator” wannabe and a lightweight romance, it also becomes a revenge flick once Corvus shows up in Pompeii. Milo certainly hasn’t forgotten the man who slaughtered his family and added fuel comes in the form of Corvus’s affection for Cassia. And once Mount Vesuvius erupts it becomes a CGI heavy disaster movie. Oddly enough Vesuvius takes a back seat to all of the other stuff going on. Occasionally director Anderson throws in a brief scene to remind us of the ominous mountain, but for the most part its threat is terribly underplayed. And even when the eruption does happen the film wanders all over the place and the disaster element feels wasted.
Even more disappointing are the special effects. You would think that this film would at least provide some spectacular visuals. Well, there are moments that look really good, but there are just as many that are underwhelming. Quite frankly sometimes the effects look cheap and they resemble a television show instead of a motion picture with an $80 million budget. There are other glaring issues such as the clunky half-baked dialogue that spells out every thought and every emotion for the audience. We are rarely allowed to feel or think for ourselves. We are rarely allowed to glean emotional information from the character’s actions. It is all told to us.
Yet it’s funny, despite all of these gripes “Pompeii” still isn’t as bad as it could have been. There is an old fashioned quality to it that made it at least entertaining (in an odd sort of way). Also at just over 100 minutes it doesn’t drag itself out and overstay its welcome. Unfortunately its blunders are aplenty and it’s impossible to take anything the film does seriously. It copies off of so many overused storylines and none of the performances are good enough to energize the film. It’s a subpar concoction that is easy to digest, but you won’t care if you ever go back and taste it again.
VERDICT – 2 STARS