Strangely enough, no one has made a movie about the destruction of the ancient Roman town of Pompeii in 55 years (famed Italian director Sergio Leone did it last, in 1959). Too bad, then, that director Paul W.S. Anderson bungles the job with his Pompeii, which spends an hour rattling through the most stock, cliché-ridden melodrama imaginable before getting to the main event. And even then, Anderson’s heavily CG-dependent eruption of Vesuvius carries little weight because we don’t care what has gone on before it.
You could argue that every disaster epic – and Pompeii has been called the original disaster story, although the upcoming Noah might have something to say about that – is really about the catastrophe itself, with minimal attention ever paid to the characters or story. That’s probably true, but Pompeii doesn’t even try: the screenplay, even with four credited writers, settles more or less on James Cameron’s Titanic template, with a few add-ons: Cassia (Emily Browning), daughter of a wealthy Pompeii businessman (Jared Harris), is also the object of desire for the arrogant and corrupt Roman senator Corvis (Kiefer Sutherland). But she only has eyes for Milo (Kit Harington), a buff young gladiator who – shocker! – watched his family die at Corvis’ hands years ago.
The story seems tired before it even begins, and it doesn’t even seem like Anderson or his actors are interested in it either. The “dramatic” scenes drag along, simple filler until the director can get to the next gladiator battle, and the story doesn’t so much reach a crescendo – as the best disaster movies do — as merely just stop so that the fireworks can start. It doesn’t help that Anderson’s cast have either little to do or offer. Harington (Jon Snow on Game of Thrones) is all abs and mournful expressions, but is barely given any dialogue to recite, while Browning has the same glazed expression on her features that she did in Sucker Punch a couple of years ago.
The supporting players acquit themselves somewhat better. Sutherland’s cheeks are practically bulging from all the scenery he chews, but at least he’s entertaining in a borderline campy way. Adewale Aginnuoye-Agbaje stands out as perhaps the best and most interesting character, an African gladiator whose trust in the Romans’ promise of freedom after one last battle slowly curdles and turns to noble rage. We also like seeing Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) as Cassia’s parents, even if they too are given little more to do than look concerned.
But let’s face it, guiding strong performances out of his actors is not Paul W.S. Anderson’s strong suit – in fact, I’m not exactly sure what his skill set is as a filmmaker, except for his uncanny ability to keep the utterly mediocre Resident Evil franchise going. It’s clear that Anderson wants to aim higher with Pompeii, but he simply doesn’t know how to do it or even how to turn this bland material into something dynamic.
Even when the volcano blows its top, you might think the director would feel more at home. But sadly, Pompeii suffers from John Carter syndrome: it may be the original, but we’ve seen this stuff so many times by now that it holds no shock or awe for us. It also doesn’t help that so much of the film’s explosive third act is CG-intensive – the rivers of digital lava just aren’t convincing. And who in their right mind would stop running from an erupting volcano, with flames and lava surging all around them, to have a sword fight as Sutherland and Harington do? (Maybe a couple of Jedi Knights…)
If the story didn’t seem so rushed and drawn out at the same time, if we were given a cast and characters we could really care about, Pompeii the movie might have managed to say something profound about the what it means to be alive and human in the face of nature’s indifferent and destructive force. But when the movie itself is indifferent about that, why should we be bothered? For all its flame and ash, Pompeii barely musters any heat at all.