In the year 79 A.D., Romans ruled the known world, gladiators battled to the death for the amusement of others, and clichés walked the Earth unhindered by things like subtlety and nuance. Or at least that’s how it feels when watching director Paul W.S. Anderson’s (the Resident Evil series, The Three Musketeers) action/romance/disaster film, Pompeii.
Movie tropes and clichés aren’t always bad in themselves. In fact, Hollywood has proven repeatedly that a straightforward story pitting good versus evil is the key to box-office gold. But without a few twists to those oh-so-familiar plot devices, the final product can come off as hollow, more about the idea of a character’s journey than the journey itself.
Pompeii plays like a checklist of overused ideas.
The film begins with a young Celt named Milo (played by Game of Throne’s Kit Harington) witnessing the massacre of his tribe at the hands of a Roman legion, led by the centurion Corvis (Kiefer Sutherland) and his lieutenant Proculus (Grimm’s Sasha Roiz). Seventeen years later, a grown Milo is the top gladiator in Londinium. Although still a slave, he catches the eye of powerful people, who send him to Pompeii to fight its champion, the undefeated Bridgageous (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
Along the way Milo meets Cassia (Emily Browning), daughter of wealthy merchant Lucretius (Jared Harris) and Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss). It is, of course, a forbidden love. When Corvis turns up in Pompeii with the intention of marrying Cassia, whether her father likes it or not, all the characters are brought together. Then Vesuvius erupts and it all goes to Hell as the city burns.
Most of the story’s most painfully predictable moments occur before the film enters this “Oh my God, we’re all going to die” phase. Since the real highlight is the eruption, the film tries to quickly connect us to the characters so we have some semblance of a vested interest … before the action completely takes over and leaves little room for any development.
Then Vesuvius erupts and it all goes to Hell as the city burns.
Sutherland tries to channel his most dastardly, but comes off as a Snidely Whiplash-like villain, whose only motivation becomes the pursuit of doing evil things. Evil villains are par for the course in action movies, but his story is so unbelievable you have to wonder if there was more to it that didn’t make the final edit.
If anything the city might be more believable than the characters that inhabit it. Streets teeming with people and varied architecture lend a real sense of life to the city of Pompeii. When the volcano erupts and rains down upon its doomed citizens, the effects become the star of the film. 3D is an often overused technique, but it works well for this film, creating layers of depth. Ash falls in front of the lens as well as in the background, and smoke moves hypnotically through the sets as fiery rocks pummel down. Pompeii was filmed with 3D in mind, and it shows.
In that sense, Pompeii is actually a success. If anything, maybe there should have been even less character development to give the film’s real star – the volcano – more screen time. Regardless, the effects are spectacular, and make Pompeii and enjoyable spectacle at times.
The single biggest issue with Pompeii may simply be that it is too short for its own good. The film’s 105-minute running time is not long enough to develop all the characters and plot points, and even the eruption could have been expanded. The effects help disguise the underlying lack of substance, but ultimately Pompeii still lacks the emotional weight a film like this needs.
(Images and video © Sony Pictures)