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'Pompeii' Is Old-Fashioned Fun

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire February 21, 2014 at 12:08PM

Rain of CGI fire notwithstanding, Paul W.S. Anderson's last-days adventure is a deliberate throwback.
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Kit Harington in 'Pompeii'
Kit Harington in 'Pompeii'

February pickings are traditionally slim, but the reviews for Paul W.S. Anderson's Pompeii are some of the most interesting of the year, albeit less for their observations on the sword-and-sandal disaster spectacle than what they reveal about the range of critical perspectives.

In one corner are the detractors, those who see Anderson's CGI-heavy epic as a torturous slog that moves with the speed of molten rock; in the other, those who praise Anderson's flair for staging action, especially in 3D. Somewhere in the middle are the ones for whom Pompeii is camp, intentional or otherwise, a goofy spectacle that's fun as long as you don't take it seriously.

The pans, frankly, aren't much fun, and seem to be premised on a tone-deaf reading of the film as a historical epic rather than a high-styled adventure. (Hint: A movie in which sweaty, semi-clothed men dive into the sinkhole created by an earthquake is giving you just a hint that scrupulous accuracy is not top of the list.) Here's NPR's Ian Buckwalter:

Pity that beyond those pyroclastic missiles, Anderson seems to want us to see his film and its hackneyed romance -- basically Titanic with swords and sandals -- as a serious-minded historical epic. If there were a hint of a sense of play or humor in the filmmaking, beyond a briefly amusing moment of comeuppance for a foppish slaveowner, Pompeii might be a fun February diversion instead of a dull, eye-rolling slog.

On to the qualified praise. Miami Herald's Rene Rodrigues says Pompeii is "nowhere near good, but it’s quick and to the point and, although obviously aimed at teens, just fun enough to keep grown-ups entertained, if not always in the ways the filmmakers intended." In Variety, Peter Debruge is more specific about its potential demographics: 

While hardly high art (and without so much as a fossil record of the aborted project once slated for helmer Roman Polanski and scribe Robert Towne), Pompeii certainly recognizes what mass audiences want from a Game of Thrones-style sword-and-scandal saga, delivering especially high marks as either a sudsy indulgence for teenage girls or a beefcake offering for gay men.

Miriam Bale in the New York Times and Keith Phipps at The Dissolve both look past the film's theatrical release to its inevitable conversion into meme. For Bale, Anderson "displays his mastery as a director in the sword-fighting scenes... [b]ut the glares and eye rolls that bookend these scenes are what make this film both GIF-ready and campy fun," while Phipps gripes that Anderson's champions overlook the fact that his "talents are usually in the service of films that seemingly don't try to be good in any other way -- like AVPAlien Vs. Predator and the most recent Three Musketeers remake -- and that screen-grab-friendly, Tumblr-ready surface pleasures don't add up to filmmaking."

Perhaps the most surprising agnostic is the A.V. Club's Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a self-identified "vulgar auteurist" who has mounted some of the most articulate and compelling defenses of Anderson's oeuvre. While some critics lament Pompeii's sketchy love story, Vishnevetsky argues that the film spends too much time on cookie-cutter characterizations and not enough engaging the director's visual imagination. At least it's saved by the final act:

Rather than going the Roland Emmerich "big tableaux of destruction" route, Pompeii reduces the disaster to a series of steeplechase set pieces, fiery debris raining into the 3-D foreground as the characters scamper over bodies and ruins or try to outrun a ship that’s been forced inland by a tidal wave. Like its director’s horror hybrids, Pompeii values self-determination over survival, which makes for better, brisker, less convoluted genre storytelling.

And then there are the more robust appreciations, who seem to get that for all its computer-generated destruction, Pompeii is an old-fashioned movie at heart. RogerEbert.com's Glenn Kenny notes notes that the film's version of fading-empire debauchery is more tame than that on display in Cecil B. De Mille’s 1932 The Sign of the Cross, but that "the action scenes are choice, and once the clouds of ash and shooting fire and churning seas start up, Pompeii achieves a momentum that most sensationalist studio fare can’t touch."

In the Village Voice, Alan Scherstuhl praises the film's "crisp, brutal, and stirring" battles, and observes: "The choreography is about killing and blocking rather than heroic poses, and Anderson distinguishes himself as the rare action director who shows us real bodies in real space in real reaction to each other, who prizes legibility over quick-cut dazzlement, who stages his fights with comic-book zeal rather than puffed-up graphic-novel miserableness."

And at Vulture, Bilge Ebiri goes all in:

That’s not a particularly original story, but it gallops along at a nice clip, with the good guys appropriately gallant and breathless and the bad guys appropriately smug and snarly. Soon enough, axes and spears and bodies are flying through the air. And whether it’s elaborate gladiatorial battles or a chariot chase through a burning city, Anderson directs with precision, rhythm, and ruthlessness -- he has an eye and an ear for violence, for the visceral impact of a kill. At his best, he creates action sequences in which you feel anything might happen, even though you usually know how they’ll turn out. And the ones in Pompeii are more engaging than those of any superhero movie I saw last year.

To that, I'd add only that Anderson uses 3D's ability to enhance compositions in depth for the purposes of story as well as action: When the younger version of Harington's character watches his Celtic family slaughtered by the Romans, his body seems to float in the foreground, physically as well as emotionally displaced from the trauma he's witnessing. There's a subtle eloquence to such moments, and a real style to the filmmaking and the dialogue, more akin to the tongue-in-cheek adventure serial tone of Raiders of the Lost Ark than the grim death march of The Towering Inferno. I wouldn't make grand claims for it, but Pompeii is as great as a movie can be without being especially good.


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