With a reported budget somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 to $100 million dollars, there is no doubt where the money went in “Pompeii,” with the ancient Italian city laid to no uncertain waste in Paul W.S. Anderson‘s film. When you plunk down your $12, you will get the destruction you were promised. But it’s too bad it’s such a repetitive, unengaging, glaringly digital experience and worse than that, you’ll have to sit through the disaster that is the rest of the movie, a turgid gladiator drama, with acting so wooden, we’d wager that the script co-credited to “Downton Abbey” scribe Julian Fellowes (who we can only imagine saw his draft thoroughly rewritten by the other three writers on this into something more pedestrian) is good for kindling. Lots of things burn in “Pompeii,” but nothing resembling drama, tension, excitement or entertainment.
Attempting to forge the doomed romance of “Titanic” with the buff bods and wacky accents of “Gladiator,” “Pompeii” probably has the strangest meet-cute you’ll see on the big screen all year. When Cassia’s (Emily Browning) carriage headed from Rome and into Pompeii becomes stuck in the mud, causing one of her horses to fall over and become severely injured, the handsome, totally buff slave Milo (Kit Harington), walking in a chain gang alongside the road offers to help. Reluctantly unchained by his jailor to assist Cassia, he humanely kills the horse with his bare hands to ease its suffering, sending a flush through Cassia. “I can’t believe he had the strength to do that,” Cassia breathily tells her best pal Ariadne (Jessica Lucas). “Didn’t you see his muscles?” she replies. The heart certainly works in mysterious ways.
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For the next little while, “Pompeii” dully gets the creaky plot into place. Cassia’s father Severus (an almost heartbreakingly emasculated Jared Harris, the lone decent element of the film), has a great plan to build aqueducts for the citizens of Pompeii, but he needs the support senator Corvus (a smarmy Kiefer Sutherland, undoubtedly signed up to get this Canadian production a tax credit). Corvus agrees but has had his eye on Cassia ever since Rome, and essentially forces her hand in marriage by dangling the lives of her parents and the plans her father in front of her like a cat with a mouse. Meanwhile, Milo and the rest of slaves are preparing to fight in a big gladiator showdown, where he’ll square off against Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who is one fight away from being becoming a free man, according to Roman law. Will Milo and Atticus, pitted against each other by The Man, eventually become allies (even though they’ve only spent a couple days together, and much of that time as opponents sworn to kill each other)? Will Milo cross paths with Cassia again? Will Corvus get his comeuppance? Will Mount Vesuvius explode? Have you ever seen a movie?
It takes a patience testing eternity of time to get to the explosions, because let’s face it, no one is watching a Paul W.S. Anderson movie for a drama about engineering plans (which this movie spends a bizarrely long amount of time on establishing even as we know it’s all for nothing). And you can sense Anderson impatiently going through motions, and perceptibly holding back on the green screen effects (the fake backdrops in this film are glaringly noticeable, and not particularly well rendered) because he knows he’s going to spend all his coin on the extended climax. So no surprise “Pompeii” roars to life once the big gladiator main event begins, all while a volcano is on the edge of erupting in the distance. And when it does, buildings crumble, fireballs fly through the sky, and Anderson gets to make a chase movie in an increasingly destroyed Pompeii as Milo goes to rescue Cassia, Atticus goes to get a boat, and Corvus keeps lingering around long enough to be the End Boss after everyone is done nobly outrunning tsunamis, dodging fire from the sky and stopping for random bouts of hand-to-hand combat as the city turns to ash around them. Priorities, people.
And in writing, that all sounds like a perfectly decent B-movie popcorn experience. And perhaps it could be, but not with Anderson behind the camera. A filmmaker who is never quite aware of the campiness of his own films, he approaches “Pompeii” with a solemnity not befitting either the hammy script or the video game cut-screen special effects. That actors are uniformly left hung out to dry because Anderson isn’t a director who demands performances, so much as someone who requires them say the lines that will get the plot moving to the next stop. If you do watch “Pompeii,” bring an iPod, because you won’t be missing much and at least you’ll be spared the strident score by Clinton Shorter. But your eyes won’t deceive you that yes, you are watching a filmmaker crudely put together a movie with all the grace of a preschooler using their pudgy fists to awkwardly fit square pegs in the square holes. “Pompeii” is less film and more a coloring book, where Anderson stays in the lines and maxes them out with lots of CGI.
The story of Pompeii is a great myth and tragedy, and one with a certain horrific irony too, with the citizens brought to their death the day after Vulcanalia, the festival of the Roman god of fire. But none of that is felt or even acknowledged in the film save for one moment where Anderson pauses to consider the carnage and loss — only to continue the carnage and loss with the same excitement of finding new ways to destroy ancient buildings and pixels of people. By the time the credits roll, you’ll at least leave the theatre content with knowledge that there’s no chance there will be a sequel. [F+]