In his latest disaster-adventure film, Pompeii, director-producer Paul W.S. Anderson of Mortal Kombat and Death Race 2 fame attempts to bring to modern audiences a classic tale of love and laughter from the streets of doomed Pompeii. Rather like the ending, the movie’s calibre fails to surprise movie-watchers, who are treated in equal measure to enterprisingly aggressive articles of explosive 3D magma and the apparently unironic dialogue of a high-school drama class.
I’m a sucker for most movies set in ancient Rome. I’ve probably seen Gladiator a dozen times. The idea of another movie about Roman gladiators fighting for their freedom in the pale glow of an adulating crowd, while not original, nevertheless presents certain exciting opportunities for plot-driven orgies of violence. And, truth-be-told, Gladiator itself was perhaps not the most original film in Russell Crowe’s repertoire.
Pompeii has a promising start. Young Milo’s tribe of Celtic horsemen are brutally murdered by a group of inexplicably angry Romans, led by Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and aided by his brutal minion Proculus (Sasha Roiz). Although it rather resembles that scene in Lord of the Rings in which the procession of orcs that is kidnapping two curly-haired hobbits is slaughtered by the horsemen of Rohan, it sets the scene nicely for a brainless romp through fantasyland.
We’re then bounced forward a decade to Londinium, where the boy Milo has grown into an ab-tastic Jon Snow, sold into slavery, and forced to fight. Perhaps unsurprisingly, vengeance has stayed somewhat on the young lad’s mind and a sort of muted anger seems to be his main character trait. That and the abs.
Eventually, our hero is whisked along to Pompeii to fight in bigger, better arenas than the humble Britons can offer at the time. Along the way, he brutally murders a horse belonging to a rich woman, who takes the act as an opportunity to fall head-over-heels in love with the gentleman in question.
The rest of the movie proceeds almost entirely as you’d expect it to. Milo fights a number of ridiculous opponents, upsetting the Romans, who are, through marvelous coincidence, led by the same man who murdered his family. Eventually, the volcano erupts and kills everybody, putting them and the audience out of their collective misery.
Now, I will admit, the sets are fantastic. I could barely believe it wasn’t filmed in Rome itself, rather than a soundstage in Toronto somewhere. The computer-generated images and costuming are superb. If you want to get a feel for an ancient Roman city and the people who dwell there, this movie paints a far more authentic picture than Gladiator.
Unfortunately, the volcano presents a more exciting and nuanced character than any portrayed by human actors. Will it explode? Won’t it? What was its relationship with its mother like? Perhaps unsurprisingly for an Anderson movie, allusion is painted with a deft and subtle brush—scenes of both action and love are interspersed with shots of bubbling magma, tossing and churning like witches’ brew. We are, it seems, being slowly pushed toward the uneasy feeling that something bad is going to happen here. And indeed it does.
And the real problem with the movie (aside from its unfortunate plot, based around the love of two absolute strangers who share almost no screen-time whatsoever and possess no particular on-screen chemistry) is the writing. It’s embarrassingly reminiscent of George Lucas. I almost expected a wistful criticism of the graininess of sand. It felt vaguely like an attempt at a historical classic—Ben Hur, perhaps, or Lawrence of Arabia—but with no real depth. In the final moment of confrontation with his clan’s murderer, Milo seemed poised to burst forth with, “You killed my father; prepare to die!” However, of course, he didn’t. But what else could he say? Ultimately, Pompeii is as unsatisfying for audiences as it is for our heroes, who would no doubt have preferred to honeymoon somewhere a bit more clement than under a field of magma.
I rate it two out of five dead Romans.