There are many valuable lessons to be learned from Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii, but for me, the biggest was the realization that I can’t watch this kind of ancient-world hooey without wishing I was watching Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), which is funnier, has songs and is more honest. (The same thing happened when I recently had to slog through the 1963 Cleopatra.) Otherwise, the biggest lesson here is that it is unwise to build your city at the foot of a volcano. This might seem self-evident, but it was not so obvious to the city planners involved here. The message, however, is clear: Don’t do it, unless you want your city turned into fodder for bad disaster movies. Other points of educational value include the fact that ancient Britons spoke like modern Brits, while ancient persons of color tended to speak like Reggae stars. Ancient Romans, on the other hand, spoke like Royal Academy of Dramatic Art grads, unless they’re played by accent-free Carrie-Anne Moss or unable-to-classify Kiefer Sutherland. These things are not taught in schools, so appreciate them.
Of course, the whole reason for this movie is to watch a lot of CGI-death-and-destruction as Mount Vesuvius erupts all over the city of Pompeii — a kind of ancient Italian seaside resort. The film presumes you know this is in the offing, but in case you don’t, the poster features a beefy gladiator and his slit-skirted squeeze in what would seem an ill-advised clinch while Pompeii is destroyed. In fact, Mr. Anderson even teases us with a shot of Vesuvius bubbling away in its crater. (Anderson probably thinks this is foreshadowing.) That, unfortunately, doesn’t mean that we don’t have to wade through about an hour of plot, intrigue and romance — punctuated by the volcano’s gastric rumblings — to get to the main event. I would not call it time well spent.
All of this, with its improbably pretty — albeit undoubtedly smelly — people, would have been far less tedious if it didn’t take itself seriously. But, oh, does it ever. The film is both a revenge yarn and a romance. The revenge comes in the form of our strapping gladiator hero, Milo (Kit Harrington from TV’s Game of Thrones), who wants to get back at evil Roman Senator Corvus (Sutherland), who ordered Milo’s people slaughtered back in Britain. Milo is being transferred to Pompeii as gladiatorial entertainment when he meets female lead Cassia (Emily Browning, Sucker Punch). Her carriage has a mishap injuring one of her horses, and Milo wins her heart when he snaps the ailing horse’s neck with one twist of his large and sinewy muscles. This would play better if both Harrington and Browning weren’t so completely lacking in charisma. And it would be easier to take any of it without groaning if the dialogue didn’t include things like, “Why so serious?” and “Kill them! Kill them all!”
Oh, there’s more, but who cares? We’re waiting for that lava to flow. And when it does, it’s good enough at doing what it does as it oozes and belches its way to its grim ending. I will note that Ignatiy Vishnevetsky — a critic I admire, even if I have trouble spelling his name — makes a fairly solid case for placing Pompeii within Anderson’s oeuvre. In itself, this suggests that Anderson perhaps deserves the title of auteur. That, however, should serve to remind us that auteur status doesn’t mean that the films are any damned good, merely that they bear a distinct directorial signature. Always remember that Ed Wood was an auteur, too. Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, disaster-related action and brief sexual content.
Playing at Carmike 10, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.