Pompeii

February 25, 2014

PompeiiEmilyBrowningKitHaringtonLSSonyPictures

Seeing the British Musuem’s Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibit in 2013 was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.  That might sound over the top, but even beyond my fascination with ancient Rome and my more general history nerd impulses, there was something incredibly profound in glimpsing a world that has been dead for almost 2,000 years, and one that was so remarkably preserved.  Beyond the stunning sculptures and paintings of the nobles you had amusing graffiti, a funny comic strip of a bar brawl painted on a wall, and stick-figure gladiators drawn on a frescoed wall by some children.  It’s alien and strange but familiar, and the biggest takeaway from the exhibit for me was the seemingly trite but actually quite profound feeling that humanity shares certain basic things in common and, despite millennia of world-changing events, there’s a familiar connective tissue that binds us.  The charmingly banal things stay the same, it turns out, and that’s a humbling thought.  

Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii has no interest in the day-to-day of Pompeian life, or of anything approaching “the living” in general.  It is, however, banal in that very specific way that only a grandiose epic can be.  The flimsy story that exists solely as an excuse for volcanic mayhem involves “The Celt” (Kit Harrington), a gladiator brought down from the provinces for a festival in the titular doomed city, and Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of a local wealthy noble (Jared Harris) hoping to impress a visiting Senator (Kiefer Sutherland).  The Senator, Corvus, not only harassed Cassia when she was in Rome but he also just so happened to kill The Celt’s entire family many years earlier.  Attempting to list all the films and TV shows that Pompeii pulls from is a waste of time.  There’s nothing original story wise here, other than maybe the fact that part of it boils down to the shady world of real estate investment.  It doesn’t really matter though.  Everything about the story is telegraphed from the start and it’s not the sole reason this film exists.

That sole reason is spectacle on what is now considered a mini-epic budget.  A number of gladiatorial bouts satiate the audience thirst in the first hour or so before the mountain blows its top and all hell rains down.  The gladiator battles are probably the most well executed segments here as far as action goes, just for their clarity and respect for geography.  It’s the closest we get to Anderson’s strong suit, which would be his particular digital stylings that have been the love of his ardent critical defenders.  I’ve never been convinced – aside from a few scenes in some of the later Resident Evil entries, the only film of his I’ve genuinely liked is The Three Musketeers, where his sense of whimsy complements the silliness of the plot and the characters rather than distracting from it.  Pompeii is functioning largely on a more straightforward level, and though it seems his fans have seen this as a step back, I think he handles it quite well.  It’s a terrible script, of course, but he never dwells on anything too much and that is why, I think, it largely works.

The key to being derivative is to understand that you’re being derivative and never belabour any of the things you’re ripping off.  The love story works more or less because there isn’t really a love story.  They catch each other’s eye on the road to Pompeii and he puts a horse out of its misery. The next day they share an absurd late night horse ride.  That’s the extent of their romance until the finale, and because it never bogs the film down it’s actually kind of affecting – when the world is ending then surely some brief connection is all that would matter anyway.  The set up of villains and secondary villains for big final fights isn’t really a problem either because the fights are fairly well done.  Harrington and Browning play it straight, as they should, but the simplicity of the enterprise gives some heft to their brief but doomed love story.  Basically, if you’re not going to bore us with badly drawn characters than just sketch them and let beautiful people briefly give the moon eyes at each other and it just might work out.

Elsewhere there’s a bunch of non-characters aside from Sutherland doing something that I can’t quite explain but it’s entertaining nonetheless and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje breathing life into the most intriguing person in the whole picture, even if it’s a variation we’ve seen done better in Starz’s Spartacus series.  Jared Harris and Carrie Ann Moss are given less than nothing to do but Anderson still manages to pull a brief, sweet moment when you realize how they’re going to be immortalized in the plaster 1900 years later.

Pompeii is about as dumb as movie as you can expect to see without it being outright offensive.  The action scenes early on are good, and the volcanic eruption is a lot of dreadful fun, and that’s all that really matters in the end.  Anderson’s use of 3-D is still better than most others working in the industry, and certain shots (the swords and bodies of the murdered Celts dangling from the tree stands out) are about as good as you can expect from the medium.  I suppose I could get angry about the wasted opportunity here – mass spectacle and real tragedy could have combined for something genuinely moving – but I appreciate that it went completely the other way.  It’s fleet-footed and functional fare, and I’d rather that than a bloated attempt at overt profundity that bores me to tears.  Sometimes simplicity is the best way to go, and Pompeii is about as simple as it gets.

-M

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