The influence of Titanic, which resulted in a number of romantic disaster films in its immediate wake, is apparently still lingering today with the arrival of Pompeii. This film takes Titanic’s basic structure of a romance forming between a penniless young man and an upper class woman to the backdrop of a real-life tragedy, while a nasty older man also vies for her affections. In addition to Titanic, the other best picture winner Pompeii is blatantly taking cues from is Gladiator, which itself led to a brief resurgence of historical epics. Maybe this should have come out ten or so years ago?
Director Paul W.S. Anderson has been something of a critic’s punching bag for a while now, but he made Event Horizon, and Death Race was OK, but there is the whole Resident Evil series and such. Well, he might not be all bad, but he’s certainly no James Cameron or Ridley Scott, as Pompeii makes abundantly clear.
It begins with a group of Roman soldiers led by Kiefer Sutherland’s ridiculous pantomime villain slaughtering a load of rebellious Celts. One child called Milo manages to escape by playing dead after his parents are killed in front of him. Many years later, Milo’s grown into a hunky gladiator (played by Game of Thrones star Kit Harrington) who’s exceptionally good at killing people. His performances in small arenas in lesser territories bring him some attention, and soon he’s whisked off to Pompeii for the larger crowds (change the cities around and it’s so far, so Gladiator). Part of the travelling group is Cassia (Sucker Punch’s Emily Browning), the young daughter of the city ruler. The obnoxious Milo also possesses apparent horse whispering skills (!) and gains her attention using them. Even though the couple have next to no interaction with one another, she seems quite taken with him, it must be the abs.
The shameless Gladiator riffing reaches new levels of transparency come Milo’s big fight in Pompeii. It’s a recreation of a famous Roman victory, put on for the enjoyment of a blatantly evil Roman ruler who killed the hero’s family, in which gladiators playing Romans vastly outnumber those playing their opponents. Yet, through their fighting skills, the underdogs turn it around and for the surprising victory, earning huge cheers and popularity from the crowd. And just to make sure it was totally obvious, the vengeful hero is teamed up with an African gladiator who becomes his friend.
The whole of Pompeii is populated with laughably terrible dialogue, often sounding like some cheap soap opera, many of the characters even sound like petulant or drippy school children. All the plot developments are predictable and the bland central couple lack any chemistry to make their insipid romantic feelings seem plausible. The only actors who seem to be trying are Sutherland’s villain, who’s so overdone he can’t be taken seriously, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Oz), but even he can’t make his awful lines sound commanding. The landscape consists of clearly CGI buildings that don’t look particularly real no matter how many sweeping aerial shots Anderson puts in.
Pompeii, like several recent Hollywood efforts, also is severely compromised by having a PG-13 rating. There were clearly rules enforced upon it in regards to what violence can be shown. Now this story begins with massacre, features a couple of big gladiatorial fights, and ends with a city being destroyed. A significant proportion of it involves depicting violence. However, it seems that they were allowed to show blood only on weapons after the fact, so whenever someone is killed with one, which happens numerous times, it’s completely bloodless. It really takes a lot out of the fights, they might as well be hitting each other with sticks, and also renders it unclear to the audience as to whether someone’s been killed or not. It a prime example of the idiotic nature of American (and other) ratings boards; hack as many people to death as you like, as long as there’s no blood when you do it. There’s nothing wrong with a wholesome, family friendly epic, but you can’t tell a story about Roman gladiators without the violence. All the fights in Pompeii just come across as incompetently made as a result of this self-censorship.
Still, at least you know the volcano’s going to explode, and Pompeii doesn’t make you wait until the very end, with all the final act dramatic scenes taking place while it erupts. There are only briefly impressive shots of the volcano though, as we witness the soulless CGI buildings crumble in its wake. You know from the outset that everyone’s going to die, and you just won’t care.