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Review: Paul W.S. Anderson's 'Pompeii' Starring Kit Harington & Emily Browning

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by Kevin Jagernauth
February 20, 2014 9:43 AM
10 Comments
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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.

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+]



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10 Comments

  • Keith | February 23, 2014 7:38 PMReply

    Apparently free speech isn't respected here as I posted a critical comment of the reviewer's poor grammar and it was pulled. Don't know how long this one will stay, but my comments stand. If you are going to review a movie and be critical of the script you should be able to do so using proper grammar. This movie is not an F+ by any stretch. My family and I all enjoyed it in spite of its predictable plot and methodical direction. Movie C+, review F-

  • TheNuge | February 23, 2014 3:40 AMReply

    There are many things to critique about this film. Citizen Kane it ain't. But you have at least one key fact exactly 180-degrees wrong: "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."

    You would lose that wager.

    The Batchlers originated the story and script. Every story beat that you criticize in your review was added in later drafts--including the "Titanic" ending. Fellowes was hired late in the game to do a dialogue polish to make the script sound more British. (The original writers are American.)

    It's probably too much to expect a blogger to rely on actual reportage, but I think it's not unreasonable to hope that you would rise above mere conjecture--especially when it's completely wrong.

  • BOO | February 21, 2014 5:33 PMReply

    F+ WTF most people only have F. I mean all the C's and all the D's should be enough options for a bad movie.

  • James | February 20, 2014 5:33 PMReply

    Such a shame, Polanski's aborted film, with the same title, would have been amazing. It was from Robert Harris's bestselling novel and the script was great. It sounds like this film borrowed both the aqueduct/control of water plot and the basic love story from it, which is even more of a shame, as Harris's piece was a really clever homage to Chinatown and it was an inspired idea for Polanski to direct it. Appears they just appropriated Harris's basic concept and grafted Gladiator onto it, meaning nobody will ever film Harris's novel now.

  • TC Kirkham | February 20, 2014 12:27 PMReply

    An "F+"? What the hell kind of grade is an "F+"? ROTFL!

  • Petra | February 20, 2014 12:02 PMReply

    I just saw Pompeii and thought it was an over the top hoot. The review is much too harsh. It's a fun B movie time waster with lots of eye candy. Reminded me of the old sand and spear epics of the 60's crossed with Gladiator updated with today's CGI. Kiefer is a riot in it. All that is missing in his performance is a moustache to twirl.

  • T | February 20, 2014 11:42 AMReply

    Can't recall the last time I saw an "F+" grade for a movie on this site, maybe there was recently, maybe not. But Yikes...

  • james | February 20, 2014 9:58 AMReply

    I know it's a movie and all, but wasn't Pompeii wiped out by a pyroclastic flow (i.e. gas and rock moving at 700 km/h at 1,000 °C)? I just don't see how anyone has time for a post-eruption lovestory...

  • K | February 20, 2014 3:58 PM

    Recent studies show that Herculaneum, which was in much closer proximity to Vesuvius, was utterly annihilated by the fierce pyroclastic flows in mere minutes. Pompeii, its inhabitants, and its neighbors were destroyed at a relatively slower pace with heat surges occurring every few minutes to the tune of 250 degrees Fahrenheit or so. Previously, it was believed the ash coverage was the sole killer but that was just kicking them while they were down. Source: Wikipedia.

  • Manni | February 20, 2014 10:50 AM

    There was plenty of time after eruption, but most people spend that time slowly dying in their homes, intoxicated by fumes, last goodbyes etc...

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