Pompeii exemplifies the much- mocked Hollywood trend of mashing together the concepts of two earlier popular films to describe whatever derivative hack job constitutes this one. In this case, it’s Titanic meets Gladiator, with the setting of the latter plugged into the romantic drama of the former. James Cameron and Ridley Scott did it better. A lot better. Under the direction of beloved/reviled grindhouse auteur Paul W.S. Anderson, we get nothing but misplaced pomposity and a very threadbare foundation.
A campier approach might have saved him. How can you not giggle maniacally when Kiefer Sutherland shows up as a villainous Roman Senator, or the young-lovers-from-different-worlds giving up halfway through their escape and returning to home base? A little arch fun inserted in the proper amounts could have created a great bad movie with this material. But its stiffness and inability to crack a smile make it just a bad bad movie, which is no fun at all.
You probably know the storyline pretty well by now, and while Anderson takes significant liberties with history, you can’t call a movie Pompeii and not have a volcano blow up somewhere in the middle of it. The movie plays the eruption as the barely disguised wrath of the gods, wiping away just and unjust alike beneath it. Foremost among them are the star-crossed lovers Milo (Kit Harington) and Cassia (Emily Browning). He’s a Celtic gladiator destined to die in the arena; she’s a Roman aristocrat disgusted by all the filth and politics back in the capital. One look at his sensitive putting down of an injured horse – with his bare hands no less – and she knows he’s the boytoy for her. Pity the skeevy Senator Corvus (Sutherland) has his leering eye on her, as well as considerable leverage with her parents. It looks like she’s going to have to marry the rich old creep instead of the hunky slave boy, unless some random act of god can intervene. Sound familiar?
The love triangle feels like a distraction in the face of the real purpose of the exercise, but it does serviceable if unexceptional work, especially considering the intense goofiness of the plot. We believe these two are in love and we can see some humanity in their dilemma, despite the fact that they really do follow the Titanic play book beat for beat. Add to that a suitable sense of spectacle from Anderson’s effects crew – rendering the ensuring disaster in agreeable if not mind-blowing terms – and Pompeii pulls itself up to a basic level of competence by default.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t add up to much. Not stinking isn’t the same as doing well, and while Pompeii doesn’t quite stink, neither does it give us anything worth remembering. The plot never strays from the predictable, the performances never rise above workmanlike and the effects are merely diverting instead of awe-inspiring. It just kind of sits there, making you wondering why you aren’t watching the real movies that this one borrows from so brazenly.
And that in many ways is even worse than falling flat on your face. A real dog can be the most wonderful thing in the world under the right circumstances. Pompeii only needed a slightly bigger sense of absurdity and a few key players in on the joke. As it stand, it’s just another latter-day swords-and-sandals epic: too full of itself to respect, but not outrageous enough to really love. Of all the films made in this genre since Gladiator revived it 14 years ago, this is one of them. Considering the director and the delicious potential of this premise, it doesn’t deserve such forgettable results.