Pompeii

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Release: Friday, February 21, 2014

[Theater]

No warning. No escape. No plot. No problem. . .

. . .at least, to an extent. The thing about disaster films is that not a great deal is expected out of them, so it’s a little difficult to believe anyone who says they left the theater having seen one and felt nothing but disappointment. Were these people expecting some profound statement on the human condition whilst entire populations descended into chaos, or that certain and total annihilation metaphorically signaled “the beginning of something new” for all those involved?

Expectation levels for the genre are (or should be) uniformly pretty low: as long as big shit explodes in spectacular fashion, and a cute guy has a chance to meet (and maybe even finally kiss) a cute gal, everyone should go home happy. The forced romance that appears in virtually every story involving a natural catastrophe proves these sorts of things aren’t the entertainment one seeks out for a cerebral exercise. By that token its also proof that disaster films are orgies in which the eyeball gets to participate.

But for Pompeii, I’m going to play devil’s advocate and risk undermining everything I just have argued for above. This film had real potential to rise above the smoldering ashes of typical special effects-laden action films. Is this the one that can buck the trend?

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Given that this one is based on real events and that its first half concerns itself with the lives of slaves who are converted into bloodthirsty gladiators, there was hope. However, a certain level of dissatisfaction comes from the fact that the solitary goal of the film then becomes showing how destructive Mother Nature can be by building up a romance and destroying it just as quickly. If we can’t appreciate that an entire city is about to be scorched into the ground (literally) perhaps there’s a chance we feel empathy towards a young love about to go down in flames. . . . (Sorry for the pun. I was actually really hoping to keep this one free of those, but. . . guess not.)

Milo (Kit Harington) bore witness to his entire family and townspeople’s butchering as a wee lad, at the hands of the terrible Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and Proculus (Sasha Roiz). Subsequently sold into slavery as an orphan, Milo would know no other life than misery. That’s until a horse changes everything. That’s right, a horse. No, not the Trojan thing that tricked a bunch of stupid people into lowering their guard, but the kind that falls over when the carriage it’s pulling hits a convenient pothole in the dirt road. Milo requests that he be let off the chain to help the horse and get the high-ranking officials, including the token girl Cassia (Emily Browning), on their way to the festival that’s ongoing in the beautiful bay area of Pompeii, a town tucked into the foothills of an ominous-looking volcano — Mt. Vesuvius.

Milo’s single act of kindness scores him some brownie points with the beautiful daughter of Pompeii’s ruler Severus (Jared Harris) and wife, Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), a development intended to create the romantic heartbeat of this ill-fated story. However, this is a woefully underdeveloped relationship that distracts from an otherwise action-packed affair. It’s so poorly realized in fact, that in one fell swoop my theory is confirmed that the only two things needed in the disaster film are dramatic explosions that cause bystanders to go flying into things that you really don’t want to go flying into, and the compulsory romance element. But this is a romance without romance at all. It doesn’t help that neither the acting nor the script are very sturdy.

What’s more to the point here, though, is that director Paul W.S. Anderson chooses to introduce historical weight to the proceedings and then bails on the idea at the last second. Gladiator battles may extend into the ending moments, but they exist at this point just as an excuse to show the badassery set against an even more badass backdrop. Watching Milo (a.k.a. ‘The Celt’) duke it out with his sworn enemies in Corvus and Proculus while fireballs are falling like bombs around them is entertaining to a certain degree. But the fighting is academic knowing that this mountain has just blown its top.

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Other options Anderson might have explored include the politics of Roman Emperor Titus (who never makes an appearance in the film) and how the town of Pompeii is directly impacted by them; or how about the devastation and its impact on the Roman empire? Even the nature of Milo and Cassie’s so-called love affair and how it goes against the grain of relationships in this hostile society could have been intriguing if we were shown specifically why it was a forbidden love and not just told that it was so. For all of the attention the director gives Harrington and Browning, he doesn’t know how to make them matter in the slightest. Hence the disappointingly quiet conclusion.

With that said, it’s a simple-minded outing and because it is, there shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Pompeii is nothing more than middling. The marketing for the film blasted any hopes of this being an accurate rendering of a terrifying time in Italy’s colorful history. When the promotional poster features a couple kissing before an erupting giant like Mt. Vesuvius, we knew we were being duped before the duping officially began. All the same, the film upholds at least part of the bargain: the action sequences are intense. When the volcano decides to rain all over everyone’s parade (or Senator Corvus’ rigged gladiator battle, if you rather) the action is relentless until the end.  As well, the sparring and fighting earns its keep, even despite the glaring lack of blood and gore that should accompany any gladiator fight.

So the disaster film that is Pompeii is ultimately predictable and frustratingly lackluster in equal doses but it finds a way to maintain interest in the action/adrenaline department. As well, the eruption effects are impressive. This is no Dante’s Peak, Volcano or other volcanic activity-related films whose CGI now look embarrassing by comparison.

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Recommendation: Genre fans will find the last half of the film quite entertaining, but even these folks are sure to find the many cracks in the story disappointing, maybe even irritating. Given the set-up in the first hour, the climax is less than it should be, considering we know what exactly awaits this town when the mountain/gods eventually lose its/their temper. This is a pretty easy one to avoid, at least until it becomes available for streaming.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “The slave that lives earns their freedom.”