A gladiator and a roman noble start an impossible romance as a natural disaster threatens the ancient city of Pompeii.
Let me state for the record that I think Paul W.S. Anderson is a fine filmmaker. He makes silly entertainments that are big on spectacle and have a good idea of how much money they’re going to make. Plus he made Event Horizon, so I’m always going to have his back.
And Pompeii basically follows suit. It’s one of the least subtle films I’ve ever seen, has a tone that’s all over the place and characters that make very little sense. But it hits the basic marks it’s supposed to by cobbling together Gladiator and Titanic and putting them in a volcano sized blender.
Some of the broad strokes even work reasonably well, the hero’s journey is fine and his interactions with a tiny group of main players (villain, love interest, ethnic friend) are exactly what you expect and happy in an efficient manner that flies in the face of the increasingly length of mainstream movies.
Anderson rockets through events and plot points, meaning that no matter how underdeveloped they are you’ll hardly have time to notice. My favourite moment was during a dramatic close quarters battle, with the emotional crescendo approaching… then the top blows off the mountain.
This frenetic pace is certainly never boring but it does mean those highpoints tend to be wasted. Anderson doesn’t know how to pace an important exchange, how to draw the audience into a moment and suspend them there. He’s all about delivering the next line of dialogue or special effect without a moment’s pause.
Ultimately its this pacing issue that robs the film of any real dramatic or narrative punch. It’s all entirely weightless, even as important characters fall in the extremely loud finale, it’s pretty hard to care about anything that happens to them.
Another element that’s missing is any sense of fun. While comic relief characters do get on my nerves there’s room for a little lightness, especially for a movie that starts with a massacre and ends with a massive volcanic eruption. Though Kiefer Sutherland does seem to be trying to draw out a giggle or too and Harington's abs are ridiclous enough to induce laughter. Otherwise,It’s fairly bleak stuff. And it’s also literally dark, with the visuals often obscured – especially through 3D glasses.
Anderson earned kudos for his impressive use of in your face 3D in his recent Resident Evil efforts but doesn’t bring the same oomph here. That said, the CG work is better than I was expecting for a somewhat cheaper epic, especially the flyovers of Pompeii. And when the pyrotechnics kick off, everything breaks down in a way that’s visually pleasing if a little flat.
Pompeii is a paint-by-numbers doomed romance with some unfortunately bloodless, heavily edited fights and a bloody great mountain blowing up at the end. And while it’s far from a classic it’s perfectly watchable, supremely unchallenging fare.