How Bad Is…Pompeii (2014)?
Before Geostorm there was another famous disaster of a movie, Pompeii. Sifting through the rubble, can we find anything of worth in the destruction?
Disaster movies are generally of dubious quality. A few classics exist, such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, but mostly we get big dumb spectacle flicks like 2001, Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. Since you know they’re not Citizen Kane going into them, it’s often baffling to see when one becomes a total pariah. Pompeii, directed by Paul W. S. Anderson (Resident Evil franchise, Mortal Kombat), was just such a film.
Pompeii bombed in the United States and got buried under a ton of volcanic ash from critics. Looking at the components, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the film was located on a fault line. It starred Kit Harrington, who was popular for his Game of Thrones role but had never proved he could sell a movie. Paul W.S. Anderson has really coasted on his Resident Evil series, and has only made two films that banked over 50 million dollars in the US. Lastly, historical epics are a dead genre. If history has taught us anything, it’s that you DON’T MAKE HISTORICAL EPICS. That aside, how bad was it?
Young Milo witnessed his home destroyed and his family wiped-out by the invading Roman army, led by General Corvus. Sold into slavery, Milo grows up to become a brutal and efficient gladiator. As his fame spreads, he is sold to the coliseum in decadent Pompeii. He is part of a special celebration that the governor hopes will woo financial support from important donors in Rome – including Corvus, who is now an influential senator. Looking forward only to revenge, Milo sees an end to his quest in sight…but rumblings from nearby Mt. Vesuvius bode ill for his plans.
What Went Wrong?
Do You Like Movies about Gladiators?
Pompeii may have started out as a natural disaster movie but it wound up being mostly about gladiators…or more precisely, Gladiator. The revenge journey of Milo hits most of the same beats as Ridley Scott‘s better known epic. The characters who surround him are thin clones of characters from Gladiator, to a degree that becomes laughable. This leads to two problems.
First, those looking for a movie about fireballs and rivers of lava are going to wonder why we’re spending 2/3rds of the run time on a mopey Celtic kid and his revenge boner. Second, the obvious cribbing from Gladiator is going to make Pompeii look like a cheap imitation. It’s like showing up to a Halloween party wrapped in toilet paper and having to stand next to a guy who bought a thousand dollar recreation of Boris Karloff’s Mummy suit. You’re going to look like a fool.
The Humanity! (or Lack Thereof)
Another problem with Pompeii being mostly a character driven story instead of a pure spectacle flick is that you have to write better characters. Gladiator had great characters like Maximus and Commodus who are memorable all these years later. I doubt anyone remembers the name of ANY character from explosion-fests like 2001, San Andreas or Volcano. Unfortunately, Pompeii doesn’t have any characters worth remembering either.
Kit Harrington’s Milo is sullen and brutish. Sure, it makes sense given his back story, but as the main character you’ve got to do a little more to get the crowd on your side. Emily Browning doesn’t do much as Milo’s love interest, despite being fun to watch in American Gods. Her M.O. is pretty much the same as Harrington, being peevish and sulky. Solid actors like Carrie-Anne Moss and Jessica Lucas are given nothing to do but die bravely. Keifer Sutherland plays Corvus like a mustache-twirling silent film baddie, and deserved the Golden Raspberry nomination he got. The only high point is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who puts in work as a veteran gladiator named Atticus, who tries to humanize Milo. The problem is that he smacks of a carbon copy of Djimon Hounsou‘s character from Gladiator, so we’re back to that whole problem.
A Disaster Unfolding in Slow Motion.
There are some high points of action in Pompeii, but you have to eat a ton of vegetables before you get to see the steak. I can remember two, maybe three gladiator fights, which is pretty paltry given how much this movie is playing the copy Gladiator game. Once the mountain blows its stack, there are a couple nice moments of calamity, though they sometimes come off as comedy rather than tragedy. One bad guy looks like he’s going to get away by ship until you notice a giant fireball on the horizon. Yup, he gets splatted in a one-in-a-million shot that’s hilarious. Most of Visuvius’ kills happen this way, like a Road Runner cartoon.
Besides the few shots of high octane, the rest of the film idles by in personal vendettas and Roman politics. Even the Romans knew Roman politics were boring as all hell…that’s why they came up with gladiators in the first place!
What Went Right?
Let Them Fight!
While Pompeii does dawdle on the gladiator story for too much of the run-time, at least it has some pretty good fight scenes. The early fights that show how deadly Milo is are fun to watch in the same way that seeing Russell Crowe just tear his opponents to shreds out of scorn were fun. Atticus and Milo have some good sparring sequences where we see that the cagey veteran has plenty of reasons why he is the top dog, while also making their friendship/rivalry feel justified. Finally, there are a couple of fights that take place amidst the chaos of the eruption, leading to scenes that feel like some of the highlights of Revenge of the Sith’s sword fight on Mustafar.
I was a bit shocked to find out that Paul W. S. Anderson was the director of this movie. I have enjoyed several of his flicks, like the early Resident Evil films, Mortal Kombat, and the sword fighting sequences in The Three Musketeers. That being said, he primarily makes video game movie adaptations. He’s no Uwe Boll…but he’s no Wolfgang Petersen either. To his credit, Pompeii looks like a proper big budget action movie.
The special effects in this film are quite solid. Anderson shot on cameras tuned for 3D, and while I didn’t see it in that medium, the shots are well composited and have a nice cinematic quality. Using lesser known actors may have saved the studio some cash that got plowed back into special effects, since the film did have a pretty hefty price tag. At the end of the day, Pompeii isn’t a bad looking movie.
Not Afraid to Go Dark.
Another notch in Anderson’s belt is that he doesn’t hesitate to off his characters. So many disaster movies have no teeth because the studio won’t let you kill a named character. Wave after wave of CG nobodies get swept under the waves, but somehow anyone with name recognition manages to avoid disaster after disaster. In Pompeii, non-spoiler spoiler, everyone winds up dead. It’s a historical tragedy notable for how total the devastation was. To have our heroes ride off into the sunset would have been a slap in the face. Anderson may save the most cinematic moments to send off a named character, but be sure that everyone gets on the wrong side of the mountain sooner or later.
How Bad Is It?
Pompeii isn’t a horrible film. Sure, Keifer Sutherland chewed the scenery heavily as a cliched villain and Kit Harrington and Emily Browning mostly pouted through their scenes, but it wasn’t enough to make me change the channels. That’s right, I caught Pompeii on cable TV…where the film feels right at home to be honest.
There’s just enough action and spectacle to keep your attention, and frequent commercial breaks take your mind off of how slow and ponderous the plot becomes in the middle. Despite a bloated budget, this film seems destined to be the kind of action flick that gets heavy rotation on television. I know the week I caught it, it felt like AMC wasn’t showing anything else besides Pompeii! If you happen to see it while scanning the channels, it’s not going to make you regret your time. I just can’t see going out and renting it on purpose – go watch Gladiator for the hundredth time instead.