Paul W.S. Anderson's Pompeii was made almost exclusively for the type of person who will consider it a spoiler when I innocently announce that in the film Mt. Vesuvius does, in fact, really erupt and destroy the city of Pompeii.
If this sounds like I'm making fun of you, then you are actually the target audience for this otherwise uninvolving bordering on unwatchable 3-D extravaganza that somehow manages to turn mass destruction into an utterly apathetic affair. In fact, so irritating are the performances to be found in Pompeii that you might find yourself, like me, actually rooting for the volcano.
Mt. Vesuvius is, at the very least, the most compelling and emotionally resonant character in an otherwise bland story that only becomes even mildly interesting in its last 45 minutes as we begin to watch what we already know is going to happen unfold.
Oh, you can be sure that Anderson does his best James Cameron impression by throwing in a tepid romance and a series of unconvincing conflicts, but there's simply no denying that the only thing that really matters here is when is Mt. Vesuvius going to erupt and how awesome is it going to look in 3-D.
The film actually kicks off in a land far from Pompeii called Brittania where a small group of rebel Celts has apparently been messing with the dominant Roman empire by cutting off a key trade route. That doesn't go over particularly well and a Roman soldier named Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) shows up with the Roman army and mercilessly wipes them out leaving unintentionally leaving only a small boy as a survivor.
That small boy grows into Milo (Kit Harington), a savage fighter (HINT: Gladiator) enslaved for the entertainment of others. Eventually, Milo gathers quite the reputation for fighting and is shipped off to Pompeii which is, in modern terms, a lot like playing off-Broadway with room to grow. On his way to Pompeii, he encounters the lovely Cassia (Emily Browning), the well-to-do daughter of a wealthy merchant named Severus (Jared Harris) and Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss).
The two, as you might expect, make googly-eyes at each other because, you better believe it, even in 79 A.D. star-crossed lovers did make googly-eyes at one another.
As it turns out, Cassia has just returned from Rome where she has had an encounter that has obviously left her more than a little verklempt. Upon her return to Pompeii, a city which we learn isn't all that particularly fond of the Romans, we learn that her father is dancing with the devil in what is soon to be the ashen moonlight by courting a potential investment in Pompeii's growth by the aforementioned Corvus, now a high-powered Roman senator with an agenda of his own.
Just for good measure, Anderson tosses in what is designed to be a arch rival for Milo, an esteemed gladiator named Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a man who has been promised his long desired freedom if he wins what he believes will be his final fight against, you guessed it, Milo.
Nearly anyone who finds themselves regularly directing films such as Pompeii, such as Michael Bay or even Roland Emmerich, would tell you that in addition to having mind-blowing special effects it is absolutely essential to have at least one truly compelling figure with which the audience can identify even if their fate is already known.
For example, when James Cameron directed Titanic there was little question that the massive ship would, in fact, actually sink. While we may not have had full insight into who died and who lived, it was undeniable that there would be a tragic element to however Cameron chose to end his film. Cameron, and this may be the only time I've ever referred to the director as wise, was incredibly wise in focusing much of the film on DiCaprio and Winslet along with other secondary characters.
While Pompeii does purport to present a romance, far too little time is spent developing even a semblance of a relationship between Milo and Cassia and far too much time is spent emphasizing the trumped up political intrigue caused by Corvus's arrival. The end result is that we've spent maybe 10 minutes of screen time with Milo and Cassia when Mt. Vesuvius erupts and all hell breaks loose which leads, unconvincingly, to Milo's martyr-style behaviors of running across Pompeii to rescue his beloved.
I mean, c'mon, I find Justin Bieber's gangsta' posing more convincing.
Okay, maybe not.
It doesn't help that there's not a sincere emotion to be found in Pompeii, with a good portion of the film filled with horrific accents, I'm lookin' at you Kiefer Sutherland, and line-readings so inept that I felt like I'd stepped into a high school drama class and that might be insulting high school drama students.
Kit Harington, made up to look an awful lot like Orlando Bloom, certainly has the muscular posing down but fails to convey the necessary complexity that would make us truly appreciate his character and care about his journey. The same is true for Emily Browning, whose chemistry with Harington is less convincing than her chemistry with her beloved horse.
Kiefer Sutherland, who can be so incredibly brilliant on television, again seems to have stumbled into the wrong cinematic effort and vacillates between sleepy-eyed, apathetic, and auditioning for the Michael Caine role in a Jaws 4 remake.
The few times we think we're getting something resembling an interesting character, they seem to rapidly become nothing more than transitional characters designed to show us that something even worse is coming.
Anderson, whose main claim to fame comes courtesy of the Resident Evil films and 2011's The Three Musketeers, has never been known as a particularly complex director but here he's particularly disappointing even in his forte' of mindless action with 3-D imaging that is dark and muddy and a mass appeal PG-13 rating that practically guarantees the film will actually appeal to almost nobody.
While I will give Anderson and his team of writers credit for resisting the temptation of re-writing history or creating an unfathomable Hollywood ending, Fans of true camp may rejoice with the muttering of lines occasionally so godawful that you don't know whether to laugh or cry, such as when the big and brawny Atticus faces his fate by lifting his hands to the sky and shouting "For those about to die...We salute you!"
I'm still laughing.
For those about to go see Pompeii...I have warned you.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic