Pompeii (2014)

So there’s this thing called Game of Thrones, and I don’t watch it. But not wanting to skip out on the moment, that is the final season premiere, and really just hoping to clear the DVR, I turned to another estimable Kit Harington production, Pompeii. Scratch, it’s just a second rate swords and sandals picture that takes place on the eve of the city’s destruction. Wikipedia notes, however, that it’s a “romantic historic disaster” and this is a genre I didn’t know existed but now kind of love. The movie is an example of aiming high and only halfway getting there, but its mishmash nature is also what makes it enjoyable.

For starters, the main characters are laughably miscast. Kiefer Sutherland as the manipulative and vicious Roman senator Quintas Attius Corvus? I’m more likely to believe that Thomas Kirkman, his accidental president character in Designated Survivor, held a night of “government through the ages” role play and he drew the short straw. Harington is slightly better as Milo, the lone survivor of a Celtic tribe slaughtered by Corvus and then sold into slavery. I can get behind the idea of the actor transforming into a gladiator because Harington’s entrance is marked by his very formidable abs, but he doesn’t seem so ferocious when the record shows that gladiators like Russell Crowe existed. Emily Browning is also slight, and Cassia, the governor’s daughter and Milo’s love interest, looks like she might tip over at any moment. Others are more fitted to their part though. Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss have a regal touch as Cassia’s parents, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje passes as Atticus, the seasoned gladiator who joins Milo against the slave traders and Corvus.

This hodgepodge of looks and accents strangely makes it easier to embrace the spectacle that director Paul W. S. Anderson presents. This is, after all, just expensive dress up with loads of gory swordplay and a cataclysmic natural event. The characters are secondary to the action, and gladiatorial fights get the better share of the attention. These don’t boast sophisticated choreography, but there are a few flourishes and the face-offs in and out of the arena prove well-paced and appropriately bloody.

With the eruption of Mount Vesuvius casting a shadow over things, the film aims to create a mood of doom and gloom, though perhaps too much gloom. Shoddy lighting design means a wasted scene early in the film when someone is swallowed up by an earthquake. Thankfully the better part of the effects involve raining fireballs and gushing tsunami waves and don’t take place in the dark. The last half hour is pure disaster movie chaos, which isn’t great if you want a more human account of the eruption’s devastation. We get masses of people running one way to avoid being crushed to death and then the opposite way to avoid being swallowed up by the sea, but there is nothing that conveys the personal. If you’re looking for affecting tragedy, you’ll do better to reflect on the frozen images found at the actual ruins.

The characters might have inspired more feeling if they weren’t so generic. They are better vehicles for the action than for an emotive story, and even Milo and Corvus don’t seem too antagonistic. Milo snarls with rage once he sees Corvus, who has come to Pompeii on official business and to chase Cassia, but there’s not much effort to build up this rivalry. They end up hacking at each other out of duty and over a girl. Instead, the story relies on the forbidden romance between Milo and Cassia for a little heartbreak. They share a scene that is similar to one in the Star Wars film Rogue One, except that the latter film made me cry and this one made me think about what movie to queue up next. The only characters who came close to conveying trouble or loss were Cassia’s parents, who do a lot with their little screen time.

Released: 2014
Prod: Jeremy Bolt, Paul W. S. Anderson, Robert Kulzer, Don Carmody
Dir: Paul W. S. Anderson
Writer: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson
Cast: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019