Review: Pompeii

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 21 February 2014
Category: Reviews Comments View Comments


The story of Pompeii, Vesuvius, and Herculaneum (and Oplontis and Stabiae) is captivatingly culturally infused in multiple generations the way the Titanic and dinosaurs are, yet, surprisingly, Hollywood hasn't really plundered the topic, which is ripe for all sorts of storytelling. Enter director Paul WS Anderson, who finally tackles the topic in Pompeii, and in 3D.

PompeiiIn 79 AD Vesuvius is on the verge of an eruption that will catch the population of Pompeii, a thriving provincial town in the Roman Empire, unaware. Meanwhile, a Celtic slave who has been trained as a gladiator and is brought to the town to entertain its Roman guests during a festival falls in love with the daughter of the town's wealthiest businessman. Pumice rains down, lava flows, steam erupts, ash flurries... will our hero and his ragtag group of friends save the damsel and survive the apocalypse?

Unfortunately, and with everything at its disposal, the best Hollywood is able to give us in 2014 is a plodding, emotionally disconnected wannabe epic that feels as though it was made by people who wish they knew how to make Spartacus. We're offered a very thin story and the usual unimaginative checklist of storyline points that could easily be made into a drinking game. The only saving grace is the special effects and production design but the result is an experience that washes over you and which you begin to forget as soon as you leave the movie theatre.

The story opens with Milo (Kit Harington), a Celtic child, ending up in slavery after his village in Britannia is decimated by the Romans in 62 AD, led by Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and his right-hand man Proculus (Sasha Roiz), who deftly, and brutally, have been quashing the entire Celtic rebellion.

Interestingly, there's no reference to the earthquake - bar discussions about building magnificent new infrastructure, which the Romans seemed to do routinely anyway - that occurred in Pompeii in the same year, which decimated the town to such an extent that 17 years later, in 79 AD when Vesuvius erupted, some of the damage hadn't yet been repaired. The filmmakers missed a massive opportunity here for foreshadowing and to set up something more interesting than the "Corvus is evil and Milo wants revenge" storyline that you know is going to be at the heart of whatever comes next.


As an adult Milo, now an accomplished fighter, is marched off to Pompeii to compete in its arena as a gladiator during the Vinalia festival (bizarrely chosen over the real-life festival of Vulcanalia that did take place the day before the eruption). As the Celts were born horsemen Milo, who is the last of them, is therefore able to put his horse whisperer talents to good use, which impresses Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of wealthy Pompeii businessman Marcus Cassius Severus (Jared Harris). Cassia, we soon learn, has essentially fled the corrupt excesses of Rome, and the unwanted advances of Corvus in particular, to return home to the more upstanding, less political, far happier Pompeii.

(This is a good enough point at which I should mention that none of the erotica and erotic art, for which Pompeii is famed, makes any sort of appearance in this movie. It's completely sanitised, bar a brief scene during the festival when the gladiators are offered for the evening to any lecherous women with big enough purse of gold. In fact, the entire town, which reportedly had a population of approximately 20 000 (of which around 16 000 died in the eruption), comes across as far too upstanding, quaint, rural, and naive.)

Once in Pompeii Milo is thrown in with the existing gladiators, which includes the imposing African slave Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who is on his way to his 100th victory in the arena. Should he succeed, he has been promised his freedom under Roman law so he's very motivated but has developed quite a Zen disposition, and sense of fairness, from having been incarcerated for so long and managing to survive everything that has been thrown at him. It is therefore decided that Atticus' showdown should be against Milo, in the presence of Corvus, now a senator, who arrives in Pompeii soon after Milo and Cassia to do business with her father (how convenient for the Milo plot) and to wrangle a way to get Cassia's hand in marriage.


There are about three female characters in the film who get to serve as more than just background filler (Cassia, her friend/handmaiden Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), and her mother Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss)) but, to the story's credit, they're all tough, smart, and really do have control of the men around them. For the most part, though, it's testosterone posturing in the form of politics or gladiators and, once again, we have missed opportunities in the plot for more intrigue and more complicated character dynamics.

The politics part is badly written and uninteresting but the gladiator part will satisfy anyone who loves a sword-and-sandals moment. All the physical fights are well choreographed by Jean Frenette, who worked on 300, and were superbly filmed and edited. The plot also finds any excuse to insert another one at any remotely possible moment so audiences have a lot to look forward to and enjoy.


The score is by Clinton Shorter but, unfortunately, I can't say that I remember much about it - the music, while appropriate in style, served as nothing more than background audio. There were no stand-out tracks or moments that were particularly heightened by amazing music that just stays with you even after the movie is over. This was disappointing to me as this is a genre that's incredibly well suited to a fantastic score and it was something that I was looking forward to. Additionally, and strangely, tracks by Joseph LoDuca, from both Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena and Spartacus: Blood and Sand, also appear in the score. If the movie already had a composer, why was this necessary?

Apparently the filmmakers - led by director Paul WS Anderson, with director of photography Glen MacPherson, production designer Paul Denham Austerberry, costume designer Wendy Partridge, and visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi - spent six years researching Pompeii but the minutiae of which they are apparently especially proud is easy to miss and doesn't make an impact. In fact, there are a few establishing shots that seem forced and almost based directly on imagery that's in Wikipedia's Pompeii entry.

For me, the only case where their research really paid off was the moment of the tidal wave, which occurred in the Bay of Naples during the eruption but which seems to be lost in the traditional telling of the story of Pompeii in favour of the more exciting volcanic eruption. I actually thought it was a Hollywood hyperbolic disaster moment until I did some research afterwards and discovered that it had actually also taken place.


The overall visual presentation of the film is still gorgeous, however, (lack of famous mosaics and a more debauched environment aside) and it's unfortunate that all this skill and effort was matched with such a lacklustre storyline. The characters are utter cardboard and one has absolutely no emotional investment in anything except, perhaps, Atticus' struggle to earn his freedom as you sit through the entire movie waiting for the climax - the eruption of Vesuvius - which you know is coming so there's no surprise. Instead it's the anticipation of what, exactly, the filmmakers are going to be able to do with it. Will it be as spectacular as your childhood imaginings?

The petty, pompous politics and snide characters become irrelevant because you know they're going to die one way or another and you have no emotional investment in them. Even the "good" characters aren't really given enough time for the audience to warm to them and feel some sort of connection. You just don't care. The chemistry between Milo and Cassia is barely there and the love story is thin, though its existence makes him do the dumbest things because he's a Really Upstanding Guy. (Perhaps, therefore, that's more accurate than I'm giving them credit for.)


Carrie-Anne Moss has a few great moments but is otherwise wasted (similar to Rene Russo as Frigga in Thor: The Dark World), serving, too often, as little more than decoration on her husband Severus' arm , though we know their personal dynamic is actually far more balanced. It made it hard to see her as anything more than Carrie-Anne Moss in period clothing, though I had the same problem with Kiefer Sutherland - I just couldn't quite immerse myself in the character. Instead I always saw him playing the character, rather than inhabiting the character, which he did throughout the movie with a growling, chewy attempt at a British accent that I think was supposed to be sneering and menacing but really is just incredibly odd and distracting.

Unfortunately, there's too much in this movie that's a disappointment. It is not the Pompeii movie I have been waiting for. The special effects are well done and worth seeing on the big screen (though not necessarily in 3D, which doesn't add much to the experience) if you are a disaster-movie fan but don't expect an engaging story. It seems as if this is another half-baked Hollywood movie in which audiences can only get half of what is necessary for a memorable, thrilling experience. Instead we're offered a fun distraction for an hour and a half that then becomes instantly forgettable.


Pompeii is written by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Julian Fellowes, and Michael Robert Johnson, is directed by Paul WS Anderson, and stars Kit Harington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris, Joe Pingue, Kiefer Sutherland, and Currie Graham.

The review screening was courtesy of Nu Metro.
Pompeii goes on circuit today in both South Africa and the US.

Tags: #screen Opinion
Rating: 5/10

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