2014’s Pompeii is perhaps the first major Hollywood blockbuster which feels like the low-budget “mockbuster” version of itself. Indeed, if a none-the-wiser viewer ever stumbled upon this schlock while channel-surfing, they would likely assume that it was produced by the SyFy Channel or The Asylum. In theory, a filmic retelling of the Pompeii disaster with modern visual effects and a $100 million budget should be an easy home run, but this project was overseen by Paul W.S. (Waste of Sperm?) Anderson, late of The Three Musketeers and multiple Resident Evil movies. The movie founders right out of the gate, with woeful scripting and an uninteresting story destroying any potential for this to be the next Titanic. Running at barely 90 minutes, Pompeii is mostly concerned with bland political turmoil and a forced love story, reducing the volcanic destruction to a mere footnote. Unfortunately, none of the story elements are able to gain full traction under Anderson’s watch.
As a boy, Milo (Kit Harrington) witnesses his parents being murdered by powerful Roman senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), who decimates Milo’s village in the process. Forced into slavery and raised to be a gladiator, Milo winds up being sent to Pompeii to participate the local gladiatorial games which are actually overseen by Corvus. Bonding with fellow gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Milo also catches the eye of beautiful noblewoman Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of Pompeii ruler Severus (Jared Harris). Unfortunately for Milo, Corvus has eyes for Cassia as well, seeking to coerce her hand into marriage and have Milo killed in the games. As the drama unfolds, the nearby Mount Vesuvius begins to erupt, threatening to destroy the city and kill everyone, causing mass hysteria.
Unfortunately, the script wastes too much time on scenes of forced conflict and a love story which makes precisely zero scene. Literally, Milo and Cassia only fall in love because the screenplay demands it. Titanic made it clear that Jack’s adventurous, spontaneous spirit endeared him to Rose, but here? Milo and Cassia spark to each other when he takes a dying horse out of its misery. Okay then. Moreover, since both characters are so underdeveloped and one-dimensional, it’s impossible to believe the romance, let alone become invested in it. Pompeii labours through countless subplots, hoping that all the interminable build-up will result in fully-rounded characters, but Anderson fumbles it up. (In fact, Milo and Atticus are a far more entertaining on-screen pair than Milo and Cassia, and Pompeii would have been infinitely more interesting if there was no romance and the story simply involved the exploits of the two gladiators.) Rubbing salt in the wound is the ending, which aspires to be powerful but fails to earn the right. Instead, it’s laughable.
Pompeii wants to be a merger of James Cameron’s Titanic and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, but Anderson is neither Cameron nor Scott – rather, he’s a boorish director incapable of understanding basic cinematic principals like nuance. Whereas Titanic carefully examined the mayhem aboard the ship as it sank, scenes of Pompeii’s destruction are in very short supply. It takes over an hour for the eruption to begin, for crying out loud. There’s maybe five minutes of footage of panicked denizens being obliterated by the mountain before Anderson shifts focus to yet another gladiatorial conflict and an uninteresting chase through the fiery city streets. Such scenes are utterly tedious compared to the volcanic fury that movie-goers would expect to see in a flick called fucking Pompeii. And while most of Anderson’s cinematic output is R-rated, Pompeii is a PG-13 endeavour, a decision which harms the entire experience. Although the destruction is violent enough within the restraints of its MPAA certificate, the majority of the movie is about bloody gladiator battles, none of which are particularly exciting or even coherent due to herky-jerky photography and awkward editing. Bleeding seems to be optional for characters, as well, and the whole enterprise would be far more entertaining if the matches were closer to Gladiator in terms of violence.
Despite its budget, Pompeii feels astonishingly cheap on occasion. Admittedly, there are a number of impressive money shots once Vesuvius awakens, but it appears that the entire budget was saved for the half-hour of volcano mayhem, hence the preceding two acts look oddly low-budget, more like a television production than a major motion picture. It certainly doesn’t help that Pompeii was shot digitally, and even lacks the polish of something like Game of Thrones, which looks far closer to cinema quality than this malarkey. It’s a shame, as filming on 35mm could’ve given the production a far more expensive feel. Making matters worse is the woeful acting right across the board. Harrington seems to be from the Sam Worthington school of nondescript action heroes (and yes, I’m aware Harrington is great on Game of Thrones), while Browning is an utter blank slate. The pair are supposed to represent the movie’s heart, but they’re complete dullards who share more of a sibling connection. Sutherland, meanwhile, is a special kind of terrible, though Akinnuoye-Agbaje is at least fun.
Pompeii is a tremendous wasted opportunity. In the hands of a superior moviemaking team led by a genuine visionary, we could have been given the definitive cinematic portrayal of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, but instead we’re left with this disappointing tosh. It’s clear that Anderson wanted Pompeii to be a change of course for his directorial career, but he can’t bring it together in a substantive way, with rushed storytelling and insufficient breathing room for proper dramatic growth. A few minutes of halfway impressive spectacle are simply not enough if the rest of the movie is as drab as this. In the end, this is a bad movie which would’ve been a lot more fun if only it were worse. See, because of the PG-13 rating, it feels too tasteful when Anderson should have ramped up the sleaze and the violence. That sort of approach would’ve resulted in at least a guilty pleasure rather than the boring cheese-fest that we’re left with.