I have only ever seen one of the films Paul W.S. Anderson directed before Pompeii, 1997’s Event Horizon. It’s probably his most critically well-received work, but that’s not saying much, and some would regard me as lucky to have missed out on the perceived dross of Mortal Kombat, AVP: Alien vs. Predator and Resident Evil and its various sequels.
While critically-derided, Anderson’s films still appeal to a certain mainstream audience and often make their money back. While I believe audiences deserve and now look for more in their blockbusters, in the current movie environment you can see why people keep giving Anderson money to make film: his movies aren’t challenging, are easy to market, middle-of-the-road stuff; they’ll make a bit of money and few waves – mindless vanilla. Anderson’s done the same again with Pompeii – it’s not terrible, but it’s not good. In the end the most damming quality is its mediocrity – better to try and fail than just aim for safety.
Pompeii takes the best action and what have become Roman-period clichés and mixes them in with a good dose of destruction for good measure. It’s like a B-Movie version of Gladiator directed by Roland Emmerich. In fact it’s extremely similar to Gladiator for most of its first half – we get a hero (Kit Harington as Milo) whose family is killed, is left for dead and swears revenge. He becomes a slave, then a gladiator (named ‘The Celt’ rather than ‘The Spaniard’), and is taken from the provinces to Italy to be shown off by his new master. Here he befriends a black fellow gladiator, leads men to victory against the odds in an arena battle meant to kill him, and challenges the might of Rome represented by the man who ordered his family’s deaths (in this case Kiefer Sutherland as a former general turned Senator rather than the Emperor himself in Gladiator). Senator Corvos’s plan to kill Milo (who’s loved by the crowd) is however interrupted by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and it becomes a disaster survival movie. Along with these glaring similarities you get a healthy measure of poor, obvious or clichéd scripting – the ‘savage’ with a heart of gold who falls in love with his better, or lines like “you came back for me” and “you killed my family”.
All of this has the effect of making you remember how you enjoyed Gladiator and wished you were watching it instead. It’s very strange that they chose this as the story to tell. Clearly they wanted to make a movie that involved the eruption of Vesuvius, but they could have done anything, made any original or interesting story, but they didn’t, they cobbled something together from other parts. There’s not even any reasoning in the story itself, like the slaves being taken from Londinium to Pompeii to fight for no reason, the town just crowbarred in.
It’s a shame really because there’s talent in the cast that they could have done something with. I’m still undecided on the merits of Kit Harington but he brings a lot of good will with him from Game of Thrones. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje brings heart to his role of fellow gladiator Atticus, but Emily Browning is reduced to a helpless heroine and Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss are completely underused as her parents. They’re given little to work with thanks to a poor, cliché-ridden script. Tropes can be indulged knowingly and a film still feel fresh and exciting, but that’s not the case here. Kiefer Sutherland is the one who’s given too much screen time, the role of villain Corvos one he never convinces in, while struggling with an accent that often makes him sound as if he has a mouth full of marbles.
Anderson’s direction is fine, just by-the-numbers, but the 3D is completely unnecessary, only serving to make the fight sequences harder to see and to allow the occasional flaming ball of rock to fly at the screen. What saves the film just the one star of complete indifference is the ending. It’s certainly not one I would have expected from Anderson and not one you would assume from this type of film. However, it merely makes the rest of the movie’s dull conventionality stand out all the more.
Starring: Kit Harington, Kiefer Sutherland, Jared Harris, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Browning
Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson
Released by: Icon Films
Runtime: 104 mins