by Kathie Smith
My cinematic reference to Pompeii prior to Paul W.S. Anderson’s gladiator-Harlequin romance was an emotionally devastating sequence in Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954), which I recently watched. In that film, George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman play Alexander and Katherine, a couple whose relationship is strained to the point of snapping. On the heels of an argument that ends in Alexander suggesting a divorce, a friend, oblivious to their quarrel, insists on taking them to a Pompeii excavation site. The couple reluctantly agrees and, as they watch the workers uncover the bodies of a man and woman frozen in time from Mount Vesuvius’ violent eruption two millennia ago, Katherine breaks into tears. It’s obvious that she feels the gravity of her own mortality and a short life squandered on recent bitterness and disappointment.
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Producers: Paul W.S. Anderson, Jeremy Bolt, Don Carmody, Robert Kulzer, Martin Moszkowicz
Writers: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson
Cinematographer: Glen MacPherson
Music: Clinton Shorter
Cast: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Lucas, Kiefer Sutherland, Joe Pingue, Sasha Roiz, Currie Graham
US Theatrical Release: February 21, 2014
US Distributor: TriStar Pictures
In Anderson’s Pompeii, we are granted a similar vision—a man and a woman caught in a passionate kiss as they are overwhelmed by the elements of fire and ash. It’s a finale that induced a pang of regret that made me think of Katherine and a remorse for time wasted on a trifle. Katherine’s grief speaks to something universally human in failed expectations and may be something that is difficult for any of us to avoid. Mine is much easier to bypass altogether: take a nap, shovel your sidewalk, watch the Olympics, go see The Lego Movie—nearly anything would be better than 98 minutes spent on Pompeii. Promises of big budget entertainment in a historic apocalypse of grand proportions are dashed with lackluster action and effects with an equally pallid story to match.
In a needless attempt to anchor the film with historic provenance, Pompeii opens with a quote from Pliny the Younger (a Roman civil servant best remembered for leaving a written historical record of the eruption of Vesuvius) and the Roman slaughter at the Rebellion of the Celtic Horse Tribes circa 62 BC. Young Milo survives the attack by feigning death only to see his mother, father, and everyone in his village ruthlessly killed on the orders of Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). Flash forward 17 years and Milo (Kit Harington), now nicknamed the Celt, has been enslaved as a gladiator and making a name for himself with his nimble fighting skills in coliseums. He also has the soulful eyes of a doe, abs of shiny marble, and the sympathetic skills of a horse whisperer. By coincidence, the carriage of Cassia (Emily Browning)—the young, beautiful daughter of an aristocratic family in Pompeii—passes Milo and his fellow slaves when the carriage’s horse falls and injures itself. Milo demands to help the horse, Cassia agrees, and he humanely puts the animal out of its misery. Glances are cast, amour blossoms, and Cupid defies the boundaries of class and seals their fate.
Other plans are afoot, however. Milo has been marked to fight with the champion gladiator of Pompeii, ensuring his death; and corrupt Corvus, now a senator, has come to force Cassia to marry him. Predictably, at the height of tragedy for both Cassia and Milo, the mountain speaks. Trudging through this wanky soap opera has you begging for destruction, but who knew the geographic pyrotechnics would be an equally monotonous slog. There’s ash, earthquakes, balls of fire flying through the air that exist only as silly little obstacles for our love-struck couple trying to find each other in the chaos. And every now and then, as if an afterthought, projectile objects or floating particulates make lazy use of 3D.
To throw admiration at the technical achievements—flashes of visual grandeur in CGI-enhanced aerial shots and seafaring disasters—is no more than grasping at straws to find something engaging in this lump of coal. Anderson has proven his abilities in the art of camped-up action diversions with Event Horizon (1997), Resident Evil (2002), and Alien vs. Predator (2004). Masterpieces they are not, but their vim and vigor seem like a walk in the park when compared to the belabored bore of Pompeii. With the appearance of a tasty appetizer for fans looking forward to 300: Rise of an Empire or even Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, Pompeii is about as flavorless as they come. While this film spars with McG’s absurd 3 Days to Kill for box office gold at the multiplexes, summer blockbusters can’t get here fast enough.