Released 2014. Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. Screenplay by Janet Scott Batchler & Lee Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson. Starring Kit Harington, Emily Browning and Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje.
There’s really no spoiling this movie, but I suppose you shouldn’t read on to find out exactly how everybody dies in a giant volcano eruption if you want to see it first.
There’s something to be said for seeing a film under the influence. Not of chemicals (well, not necessarily), but of happiness and a lightness of heart. The two and a half hours preceding my viewing of Pompeii included a relaxing walk along a canal, a curious goat curry at an exciting new restaurant called Turtle Bay, five brightly-coloured alcoholic beverages (including one that I don’t even remember drinking but am assured that I did), and the astonishing news that my beloved Birmingham City FC had dramatically escaped relegation to Football League One with a last-gasp equaliser at Bolton. The day was sunny, my company effervescent. I was, you could say, in a state of light delirium.
Light delirium, it turns out, is precisely the state in which to place oneself before seeing Pompeii.
The opening moments of Pompeii are the most absurdly ill-advised I’ve seen since 2007’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. The latter introduced us to its purportedly family-friendly world with a scene of mass public hanging, including that of a child; the former gives us the brutal slaughter of an entire tribe, some gladiatorial murder, and just a soupçon of horse euthanasia. Tonally, the film is all over the place – it wants to be dark and atmospheric but it also wants to maintain a low age rating. On the one hand, we’ve got gladiatorial combat, hack ‘n’ slash swordplay, a girl being forced into marriage and, of course, a volcano erupting, annihilating a city; on the other, everything has to be tame, so the fights, with the exception of a few shots here and there, are dull, the characters all seem like they want to swear but because they’re not allowed to they just brood or throw tantrums, and the big romantic moment we build to is just a kiss. (Actually, the kiss is kind of sweet, but it’s in completely the wrong film.) And the worst part about this is that it worked. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End at least had a 12 certificate from the BBFC; Pompeii has a 12A and I really cannot understand how, even though the film holds back on so many things, it managed it. In fairness I suspect the film would bore a child rather than corrupt it but, nonetheless, the tone is so dark, violence is so fundamental to the film, that I find the decision genuinely perplexing.
That scene-setting horse death isn’t just for fun, of course – it actually forms cinema’s weirdest ever meet-cute, with our horse-whispering, coup de grâce-dealing hero, Milo the Slave (played by Kit Harington, a.k.a. TV’s Jon Snow From Off Of Game of Thrones) impressing some sort of nobleman’s daughter, Cassia the Nobleman’s Daughter (played by Emily Browning, a.k.a. We Couldn’t Afford Jennifer Lawrence), who understands that sometimes when a horse falls over and nobody’s willing to pick it back up the kindest thing to do is break its neck. But of course, they cannot be together, because she is a nobleman’s daughter and he is a slave (the clue is their names), and also because Kiefer Sutherland’s evil senator Corvus is trying to force Cassia into marriage with him while organising Milo’s murder in the upcoming gladiatorial games. It’s the classic tale. There’s not much of a burning desire between Milo and Cassia. Obviously they’re destined to be together, because she’s a bit of a free spirit and he has abs that I suspect would have taken my eyes out had I seen the 3D version, but their relationship doesn’t exactly grow or change. It just… is. We know approximately where it’s going because we’ve seen these films before, so the film doesn’t bother to elaborate.
The scene in which Corvus’s plan is put into action, with Milo and his fellow slaves chained up in the arena to be slaughtered, actually has some tension and jeopardy to it – it doesn’t matter how bad their dialogue is or how weak their performance, it’s hard to not stand behind a character when they’re being manipulated and murdered for show by a duplicitous bastard played by Kiefer Sutherland whose catchphrase is “Kill them all!” In the ensuing combat, Cassia, shocked and outraged, asks Corvus, “Is this what you call sport?” “No, Lady Cassia,” comes the smug reply, “this is not sport. This is politics.” It’s absolutely not enough to explain anything, but in the context of how terrible the film has been at explaining anything of its characters’ motivations it’s sort of enough to justify the scene and infuse it with some weight. I mean, Corvus is a politician! From Rome! Messing around in Pompeii, where he’s not wanted, doing politics! What a bastard, eh? This isn’t politics, this is murder, obviously! We can see it happening! Ooh, Corvus, you little minge. And so on.
Sutherland’s performance is by a distance the best in the film, because he’s hamming it up like he’s Jackus Bauerus in 24 A.D. and is clearly relishing the opportunity to do so. The characters are drawn so thinly and their dialogue is so poor that that’s the only reasonable way to treat the role. Every other performance is similarly one-note but lacks the virtue of farcicality, a shame given the talent involved. Some are extraordinarily amateur, and everyone at some point gives a series of unimaginative, emotionless line readings. Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss are given insultingly little to do so might be forgiven for phoning it in out of spite, and thanks to increasing filthiness Emily Browning’s hair exhibits more variety than her facial gestures. Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, portraying a gladiator who is one fight from earning his freedom, is given the laziest and most embarrassing dialogue of all, smack-talking Milo in their shared cell before their fight the following day. He’s served so badly by his script that he actually ends up quite sympathetic. (Milo says very little in return, Kit Harington apparently having decided that this shit is beneath him and he’s better off shooting people the occasional brooding glance.)
Tying this horror show together is the direction of Paul W. S. Anderson. The guy’s clearly an auteur, his influence felt in every random occurrence, every lazily-framed shot, every weak line reading. Nobody else could have achieved such shoddy results, even with $100m at their disposal. The occasional beautiful shot is either simple to achieve or still remarkably dull – an evening shot of a reflection in a lake, a CGI aerial shot of the city – and for the most part the camera is plonked down with the only intention to get the action on film in some form or other and no thought as to how it will look. Compositions are often not just lazy but ugly, as though Anderson’s doing it on purpose. There’s little sense of pacing or effective build-up to major scenes. Music cues jump in and out obnoxiously and underscore moments that really don’t merit them. Combat and action are cut with brutal rapidity, though it would be unfair to suggest that these scenes are devoid of excitement. Nonetheless, Anderson’s oversight of the film is bland, exacerbates an already terrible script, and makes decent actors look like they’re in a school play.
And what of the thing I have yet to mention, the thing that the title Pompeii surely implies more than anything else? Well, I once described the titular peak in Brokeback Mountain as being like another character in that film, a contrivance of critical sycophancy that still humiliates me to my core, but Mount Vesuvius really could be described as one of Pompeii‘s characters insofar as it moves very little and does absolutely nothing for most of the film. When it finally blew its top after a full hour of badly-paced plot, amateur direction and appalling acting taking place in its shadow, I was rooting for it more than any human. And it, like everyone else, is served extremely poorly by its director. There’s no real build-up to the eruption – we get a few small earthquakes now and again, and the occasional fly-over shot of its lava bubbling away to remind us that it exists, but the film’s first hour would be no different without those shots, and even when it finally has its big moment and gets to shoot fire and smoke everywhere, it still does so in the background somehow, without any fanfare. (There are character deaths that are similarly quick and low on impact when you would expect much bigger moments – it would be interesting if I weren’t so sure that it’s less a decision and more Anderson’s absolute incompetence.)
When it eventually goes, we’re treated to a series of things being shot out of the volcano at high velocity: first smoke, then fire, then rocks. The plumes of smoke, glowing orange at their bases with fire, all look quite pretty, and thankfully the film’s frailties don’t extend to its visual effects work, which is very strong. It’s tempting to say that the catastrophe in this film, just as in every other effects-driven disaster film, is made boring by overuse of CGI, but in fact some shots of the volcano’s eruption are visually quite breathtaking. In the midst of the chaos, characters start to rescue one another, bastards played by Kiefer Sutherland get their comeuppances, and the mother of all pyroclastic flows hits a man in the head. Pompeii improves over time, if only because everything that’s terrible about it is wiped out by a natural disaster, and it’s undeniable fun if seen in the right frame of mind with the right company. It’s bad but it’s not Transformers bad – it’s not harming society with disgusting attitudes or pornographic sensibilities. It’s just rubbish. My friend Jose described it as the perfect straight man – it provides setup after setup for jokes to be made at its expense. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
In conclusion, the Bahama Mama was my favourite cocktail, with mild but sweet flavours and a smooth, slightly viscous texture, sort of an alcoholic smoothie. I liked the raspberry thing I had, despite it being nothing more than boozy fruit juice, and the mojito was a bit sharp and for some reason full of leaves. The goat curry was tasty though a bit too spicy for my liking, and you can’t go wrong with banana fritters for dessert. All in all, Turtle Bay is clean, roomy, friendly and doesn’t really get anything wrong.
4/5 – Would definitely go back for cocktails.