Ah, Pompeii. It's become a cliché for unwitting, inescapable doom, the fragility of life in the shadow of uncaring nature. And in Pompeii, opening today, Paul W. S. Anderson turns this tale of an ill-fated city into an accidental comedy that happens to have a volcano in it to absolutely no one's surprise.
The thumbnail sketch, which draws from so many well-worn tropes it's essentially made itself spoiler-proof, attempts to turn a "Gladiator Epic and Disaster Movie" Venn Diagram into a circle. Milo has spent his life as a gladiator, waiting to avenge himself against the Roman general who murdered his people. When he's brought to Pompeii, he has a fateful meeting with Cassia, daughter of Pompeii's most powerful family. (Will they fall in love?)
At the arena, he meets Bridgageous, a hardened fighter who doesn't like our hero. (Will they find grudging respect for each other that grows into devoted brotherhood just in time for Bridgageous to sacrifice himself for the white guy?) Cassia's under pressure because of a threat to her rich and influential family, who spend the movie unable to leverage either wealth or power. (Will she have to marry to save her family, or get a chance at freedom?) Milo's determination to avenge his family is rekindled when the Roman general appears in Pompeii to handle Imperial business. (Will he be pure evil, or an evil-cowardice alloy?)
And meanwhile, the camera passes dutifully over the crater of Vesuvius as the pressure builds. (Will it expl – yes, okay, yes, it completely will.)
Some of this, of course, is comfort food. A piercing study of class issues and the increasing globalization of the Roman Empire would probably be less popcorn-fun than a gladiator flick where supporting characters will always be able to stagger to their feet after terrible injuries to deliver one last cutting remark before going to that great ludus in the sky.
But as usual with Paul W. S. Anderson, the setup is ripe for camp delight. Unfortunately, his intermittent but insistent self-seriousness leaches away most of the potential fun. He managed a solid B-movie in Alien vs. Predator, where a steadfast Sanaa Lathan was so good at fighting xenomorphs that the Predators were impressed, but that was exception rather than the rule. With Pompeii, from the first moments that we pan across ash-draped corpses between quotes by Pliny the Younger, it's clear that he wants us to appreciate the drama.
It's almost too bad, since Pompeii has everything it needs to be a camp satire of gladiator flicks, down to the debauched noble drawling "You dragged me from a perfectly adequate brothel for this?" before he sees Milo fight for the first time, the sort of guy the movie knows you want to get eaten, drowned, or swallowed by a chasm. Sadly, the movie manages to get in its own way just enough to keep things stilted.
As Milo, Kit Harington, who must have been looking for a role in the sweet spot of "I already know how to stage fight, so this will save time in sword camp" and "I'd like to look angry instead of constantly petulant and half-smothered by my fur collar, and also maybe be a horse-tamer," does what he can with a paper-thin leading role, and makes a decent case for himself being a Colin Farrell-level movie brooder after he's killed off in season 18 of Game of Thrones. Emily Browning ably pulls off Cassia, a young woman who's assertive and good in a crisis while skirting the dreaded shortcut of "feisty." She also, conveniently, loves and owns several horses.
(If a handful of tweens don't stagger out of this movie deciding they want to train stunt horses, this movie was made for nothing.)
Their chemistry doesn't quite sell the city-wide tragedy it needs to, but at least they pitch their performances so that you know they're in the same movie. Not everyone does!
Sometimes, honestly, that's an improvement: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, whose intensity and self-awareness are both more than this movie really deserves, steals his scenes by giving every line his full weight while maintaining an air of mild bemusement that those are, in fact, his lines. Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss are, one assumes, lifted from their screentest for Rome, where they would have played the only decent parents on the entire show and were thus summarily cut from the season. And Kiefer Sutherland, who admittedly could do little else with what he was given, leans into every muttering threat and scenery-chewing outburst. (Not only is he the man who killed Milo's family, he's also the man out to marry Cassia – what are the chances? – and at one point he actually grabs her by the arm and snarls, "I'll break you!", which is right underneath "Tie her to the train tracks" in the Movie Bad Guy Cue Handbook.)
To a degree, this might all be forgiven—it's a bit lackluster and scattershot even for a gladiator B-movie, but Pompeii's also a disaster flick, to which characters are merely toys you get to melt or drown later. A painstaking Pompeii being buried by a staggeringly-rendered volcano could have made this movie the most gripping dramatization of the disaster since Forever Knight had that episode where the Roman general's daughter made him a vampire.
It's worth noting that apparently Anderson researched for several years to make the film as historically accurate as possible, from the streets of Pompeii to the masked chorus at the arena. And admittedly, there might be a little thrill for history buffs watching the extras of Pompeii crossing streets using the elevated pedestrian stones. But for all its background and its significant budget (the largest Anderson's ever had), there's no sense of visual impact to carry the movie along. Overhead shots of the city have all the grandeur of Google Maps, and the movie cuts so often to the roiling volcano that the audience burst out laughing during a very dramatically-loaded look toward Cassia's villa, way too close to the shadow of Vesuvius. And when disaster strikes, the obvious attempts to show the pathos of a city vanishing (waves engulfing the lighthouse) are undermined by moments of Milo and Cassia breathlessly gazing at one another as extras around them are struck in the head by direct-hit flaming rocks, which is exactly as hilarious as it sounds.
If Pompeii had given in just a little to moments like this, it might have been in I, Frankenstein situation, in which the self-seriousness creates a parabola of sublime comedy on which the movie gently coasts to an angel-gargoyle stop. Instead, Pompeii has a sense of being dutifully lost—determined to ignore its camp potential in favor of its most predictable and least engaging aspects, giving us a movie that's the cinema equivalent of reciting some Latin phonetically.