Despite being one of the largest natural disasters of the last two millennia, the topic of Pompeii is the newest hip thing. A few months back we got a song by British pop band Bastille playing all over the radio, which makes me cringe every time I hear it. In addition to that, just this past Friday audiences were treated to a big budget, special effects extravaganza directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, the guy that brought us Resident Evil. But is the big screen Pompeii worth your time?
The story follows Milo, played by Game of Throne's Kit Harington, who comes from a band of Celtic Horse Men. The entirety of the clan is killed by a platoon of Roman soldiers, with Milo being the only one to survive. He runs away where he is captured by nomads and sold into slavery, forced to fight as a gladiator in the arenas. He becomes so successful, under the "stage name" of The Celt, that he is brought to Pompeii in his shot at the big leagues.
Essentially, Pompeii is full of as many blockbuster movie tropes it could think of. You have Milo, the "last of his kind", which, when you look at characters like "The Last Krytonian" or "The Last Timelord", just automatically implies that he will be more powerful than most people. He meets and falls in love with the daughter of the governor of Pompeii, impressing her with his horse-whispering abilities. His earns the respect of his main rival, Atticus (played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Adbaje, who tapped into his character of Adebisi from Oz to prepare for this role), through his frank expression of opinion and amazing fighting technique. Against impossible odds, Milo seeks revenge against the man who ordered the death of his family, all under the threat of an actively erupting volcano. It's a lot for one movie but in the end, manages to make things work.
Harington does well as Milo, but it's not much that we haven't seen in his Jon Snow. No, scratch that. One main difference between Pompeii and Game of Thrones is that Harington isn't draped in the black cloaks of the Night's Watch and is able to show off his impressively-sculpted muscle mass. He's got a great ability with a sword and can handle the intense fight scenes but seems to lack any kind of emotion. All of his scenes are played with the same straight-faced intensity, which really goes a long way to water down the performance. The only indication we get of any kind of emotion is shouted dialogue.
Then you have Kiefer Sutherland who plays the dastardly Roman Senator Corvus. Corvus comes to Pompeii under the guise of bringing word of the Emperor's desire to invest in the city but really he has his eye on Cassia, the daughter of Pompeii's governor. At this point, I am completely unable to see Sutherland in any role other than Jack Bauer, the hero of the show 24 and the character Sutherland portrayed in eight seasons. For the most part, Sutherland struts around on screen, chewing the scenery, doing the best Jeremy Irons from Die Hard With A Vengeance impression that I've ever seen. He does kick into some of the classic "Sutherland Screaming" toward the end of the film when events come to a head but for the most part, watching him was awkward and, at times, difficult.
Emily Browning rounds out the cast as Cassia, the female lead and love interest to both Milo and Corvus. What I liked best about Cassia is that, though she's the film's damsel in distress, she is given a sense of empowerment. She makes her own rules and often openly defies Corvus at the risk of her own safety. She does act like the powerless love interest on a number of occasions when it's necessary to make Milo seem more heroic and chivalrous, but for the most part, Cassia is willing to make an effort to save her self and Milo.
Pompeii's main problem is that it suffers from dual identities. The first 3/4 of the movie is the story of the rise of a hero. He's never forgotten the crimes that were committed against his family and, by a magnificent twist of fate, gets the chance to enact his revenge against their perpetrator. At which point, it turns into a disaster movie. Mount Vesuvius erupts but not without warning. No, there were plenty of precursors to the tragedy, but none that the people of Pompeii would be able to recognize as portents of danger.
The movie spent so much time on focusing on Milo as a gladiator that I practically forgot about the whole "erupting volcano" aspect, the reason I went to see it as that's what was promoted in the trailer and commercials. But I had gotten so wrapped up in Milo's story and his quest for revenge that, then when Vesuvius finally erupted, it felt like it was getting in the way. Part of me no longer cared about the death and destruction of Pompeii; I wanted to see Milo get up on his wrongdoers. That's not to say I didn't like the volcano scenes; just the opposite, in fact. The last thirty minutes of the movie is some of the most intense that I've seen in the theaters in some time.
Pompeii seems to be getting shredded by many reviewers out there but I don't think it deserves that much derision. Yes, it has a great number of flaws, the most obvious being the final chase through the city streets while Vesuvius is blasting fiery balls of death all around them. Then there's the convenient happenstance of how everything seems to go Milo's way. (Seriously, if I had even a fraction of his luck...) And then there's the ridiculous sentimentality of the very final shot. But the movie was able to keep me enthralled with enough violence and fantasy bloodshed, not to mention a goddamned erupting volcano, that it at least becomes entertaining. I mean, you don't expect the guy who directed Aliens vs Predator, Death Race and three of the five Resident Evil films (with his fourth on the way) to make a deeply touching romance that hits all the notes of a cinematic classic. "Momentary Diversion" is the best that I expected and Pompeii at the very least met those expectations.