Based on the true story of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in CE 79, Pompeii (2014, dir. Paul W. S. Anderson) is a disaster film in every sense of the term. We follow Milo (Kit Harington), a Celtic gladiator who as a child witnessed the murder of his entire family and tribe by the Romans who were conquering the area, including one Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). Now all grown up and with an unquenchable fighting spirit, Milo finds himself in Pompeii to show off his gladiator skills in the arena. On his way there, he meets the beautiful young noblewoman Cassia (Emily Browning), who is drawn to him after witnessing his affinity with horses. Unfortunately, Cassia is betrothed to Senator Corvus, and Milo must navigate this difficulty as tragedy strikes the historic city.
This film starts with a quote attributed to Pliny the Younger:
In the darkness you could hear the crying of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men. Some prayed for help. Others wished for death. But still more imagined that there were no Gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness.
The presence of this quote is the smartest thing about this film.
Where can I begin? This film isn’t a total train wreck, and there are elements of it that make it watchable at best. I think Pompeii suffers from a common problem that affects films that depict well-known historical events. Everyone knows how this story is going to end. As a result, there just isn’t any tension despite the amount of conflicts that Paul W. S. Anderson and the three screenwriters (Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Jordan) attempt to shove in at every opportunity.
There was a vast array of things that I found really clumsy about this film. The gladiator fight scenes are edited in a choppy, almost comic book style; as if each fighting move consists of each panel in the comic book, if that makes sense. The fight scenes are difficult to observe because there’s no fluidity, and the choppiness and abruptness is extremely distracting. The fighting is also fairly cartoonish, particularly during the big gladiator fight in the arena in Pompeii, where I’m sure that certain moves were exaggerated to take advantage of the 3D that this film employed during its cinema run. The editing is really poor, and there are several instances of random slow-mo that are paradoxically funny rather than dramatic. Kiefer Sutherland seems to just be phoning it in with his lazy performance as the villain Corvus. Carrie-Anne Moss and Jared Harris put in appearances as Cassia’s noble parents, but they’re barely noticeable, and Carrie-Anne Moss’s accent is just horrible. Finally, the camera is always panning up to the apex of Mount Vesuvius as if to remind us about what’s going to happen at the end of the film, which was needlessly repetitive and kind of annoying.
The dialogue is also predictable and cheesy. Kit Harington hardly has any lines, which almost makes sense as his character is the strong and silent type. However, once you notice this fact, it becomes quite awkward to watch. It’s clear that he’s in this film due to the Game of Thrones factor, and also to show off his magnificent torso, which we’re treated to a couple of times. The development of the romance between Milo and Cassia is awkwardly transparent, and also predictable. I suppose the theme of this film is general predictability. Lastly, a lot of the eruption segment of Pompeii is historically incorrect, but I suppose you can’t just show a film consisting of everyone dying of smoke inhalation, because that would be boring.
I quite like Emily Browning as an actress though, and her accent was flawless throughout this. Let me tell you a story about the time I met Emily Browning. A couple of years ago, my friends and I used to go and get crunk at this one nightclub all the time because it was a great Thursday night destination and it played ace music. Emily Browning used to go there. I have danced next to her on a number of occasions, but no one bothered her because it was a place where people were too cool to be excitable around celebrities. One day I was visiting a tailor (random) with my friend who needed some jeans shortened. I wanted to grab some water and the tailor let me know there was a kitchen in the building somewhere. The building is really old and beautiful, and the kitchen was in the most far away of places in relation to the tailor’s rooms. It was up some stairs, down a hallway, through another room, down some stairs and around the corner, and there was a kitchen sink. And who was standing at the sink? Emily Browning. It was probably one of the weirdest moments of my life. Anyway, that’s it.
You probably didn’t expect that little story in a review of Pompeii, but there it is, I probably won’t have another chance to share that here because it isn’t really relevant to much else! Back to the review!
I’ve been to the actual city of Pompeii (or what remains of it), and one other way in which this film disappointed me was that there was no exploration of it. Not much was shown of what the city might have looked like, except for when the whole thing is getting destroyed. I think the film lost out on a great opportunity to show what the city looked like before and after, to make viewers really care about the destruction of such a wonderful place. But as it is, no one really cares because of a) the inevitability of the destruction, and b) we’re not shown what we miss out on after the destruction has occurred.
Things I liked about Pompeii? I quite like Adewale Akinnuove-Agbaje, who plays Milo’s gladiator rival, Atticus. Every time he calls Milo the nickname “Celt”, it sort of sounds like “Kit”, and that provided some amusement. Some of the effects of Vesuvius erupting were also quite impressive, but in terms of the effects as the eruption affected the city, not so much. Even though the romantic development was questionable, Kit Harington and Emily Browning do seem to have some good chemistry. It’s just a shame that their story wasn’t better explored.
Even though Pompeii gets much more interesting after Mount Vesuvius starts working its magic, half the problem is that the film doesn’t know what to do with itself before the eruption happens. Not only is the editing choppy and the dialogue cheesy, the general build-up of tension and story development is also stunted and ineffectual. But there are a couple of things to enjoy about this. Firstly, the fact that you can visit this city in real life and forget about the mediocrity of this film. Secondly, we all just got treated to some great shots of Kit Harington without a shirt on. And that’s probably all this film will ever be remembered for.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film at Amazon!