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Blu-ray Review: 'Pompeii'

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The Film:

Director Paul W.S. Anderson has what many would probably consider to be one of the worst filmographies in all of cinema, which includes five “Resident Evil” films, “Alien vs. Predator,” “The Three Musketeers,” and “Death Race.” Despite his creation of so much trash, I have found a couple of films of his that I’ve enjoyed as guilty pleasures (the first “Resident Evil” and “Mortal Kombat”). Are they good movies? Not really, but they are entertaining with their silliness and spectacle. Going into “Pompeii” and seeing his name attached, you already know not to expect very much in the way of character and plot development, but knowing the subject matter, you also know that there’s going to be a large opportunity for more spectacle than he’s ever done before. The question becomes: Is it enough?

The film focuses on Milo (Kit Harington), a young man whose family was slaughtered by Romans when he was a young boy. In 79 A.D., he finds himself a slave in Pompeii being forced to fight in gladiatorial games. He has caught the eye of a young lady, Cassia (Emily Browning), whom he helped on his way there. She returns the favor by saving his life after the two try to escape together. On the day of the games, Milo is supposed to be pitted against one of his fellow slaves, Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), but instead, they are set up for slaughter in what is supposed to be a reenactment of the victory over Milo’s people, all to honor the corrupt Senator (Kiefer Sutherland) who carried out the attack. The games don’t go quite as planned, leading to a one-on-one duel between Milo and a Roman soldier. However, before they can conclude their duel, nearby Vesuvius erupts, sending everyone into a panic to save themselves.

There are some good things to be said about “Pompeii.” For those who come just for the spectacle, you won’t be disappointed, for there’s plenty of it to be found. Not only are we treated to the exciting games, but soon after, all hell breaks loose as Vesuvius shoots forth ash, flame, rocks, and lava onto the city. You could say that it’s in the tradition of other disaster movies, like those that Roland Emmerich (“The Day After Tomorrow,” “2012”) is known for, and to be fair, those aren’t films that you expect much in the way of character or plot either. Does that mean that they work well as fully-formed films? In most cases, I wouldn’t go that far, but they are visually impressive.

Anderson's film continues the tradition of dazzling visuals, but one of the biggest drawbacks of “Pompeii” is that there isn’t much else there. As we’ve come to expect from Anderson’s films, the characters aren’t really the kind you come to care about, nor do we really find ourselves getting caught up in the simplistic plot. Before we even get to the more entertaining part of the film, we are forced to put up with sections that merely feel like they’re meandering and killing time until the fun finally gets started. It was clear that there wasn’t much thought that went into this, but then again, all the writers were trying to do was make a foundation for the special effects, so obviously the story wasn’t going to be mind-blowing. However, they could have at least made a little effort in allowing the audience to form an emotional attachment to the main characters.

As far as the performances go, they’re satisfactory. Kit Harington, most known for his role of Jon Snow on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” plays a somewhat similar role here as a young fighter who starts off as very reserved, but eventually opens up. He gets the job done, as does Emily Browning, but I wouldn’t say their chemistry is particularly good. With the lack of character development, it’s rather hard to tell actually. Then there’s Keifer Sutherland, who seems completely out of place in a film like this. He plays the villain well enough, but his appearance is enough to pull one out of the story whenever he shows up.

Overall, “Pompeii” is not nearly as bad as it could have been. There are moments when it is genuinely entertaining, but also several others that show the large number of weaknesses it has. If all you’re looking for is a spectacle to kill about 90 minutes, then you could do far worse than Anderson’s latest popcorn flick. However, if you’re looking for something with fully-rounded characters and a rich and complex plot, then first off, you’re not familiar with the work of Paul W.S. Anderson, and second, you’re going to find yourself quickly disappointed as “Pompeii” begins its assault on your eyes.

Video/Audio:

"Pompeii" arrives on Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of exceptional quality. Revisiting the film on Blu-ray was like truly seeing it for the first time as my original theatrical screening had been in 3D, which merely made the film too dark and the spectacle hard to see. This release offers both versions of the film, but I would highly suggest going with the 2D version so that you can truly appreciate all of the hard work that went into the production design and visual effects. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is loud and strong, with dialogue, score, and sound effects all mixed perfectly, making the film sound just as good as it did in the theater. Overall, both areas offer up a great experience.

Special Features:

Filmmakers' Commentary with Director/Producer Paul W.S. Anderson and Producer Jeremy Bolt

20 Deleted Scenes

The Assembly - Cast and Characters

The Volcanic Eruption - Special Effects

The Gladiators - Stunts

The Journey - Production Design

The Costume Shop - Costume Design

Pompeii: Buried in Time - Behind the Scenes of Ancient History's Greatest Disaster

This release features an excellent selection of special features that range from an informative commentary with Anderson and a fellow producer to a multitude of featurettes that cover every area of the film in a decent amount of detail. Just about everything you could possibly want to know about the project is included in what amounts to nearly an hour of behind the scenes interviews and footage. Also included are about 23 minutes' worth of deleted scenes, many of which weren't finished, but which are made somewhat more interesting because of it. All totaled, this is about three hours worth of fascinating material that will delight fans of the film and those interested in the behind the scenes work as well.

Conclusion:

The Blu-ray release of "Pompeii" is one of those rare instances where I can swing my original opinion around the other way, moving me from on the fence to a slight recommendation. My chief complaints about the film had been that the 3D was terrible and that, while the spectacle was grand and the film entertaining for much of it, there just wasn't much going on otherwise. However, now that I've gotten to see the film the way it's supposed to look, the spectacle looks even better and the film still has a good deal of entertainment value. Is it a great film? I certainly wouldn't go that far, but as a guilty pleasure, something Anderson is well-known for, it's better than many bland action films out there. If it was just the film being offered, I'd still be more on the fence, but with this great selection of special features, I can actually recommend picking up this release. "Pompeii" may be nothing but 90 minutes of silly, over-the-top spectacle, but if you give it a chance, you just might have a little fun with it.

Score: 3.5/5

Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.

Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: Her, Orange is the New Black: Season One, I, Frankenstein, Final Exam, Evilspeak, Star Trek: Enterprise - Season Four, The Legend of Hercules, Dead Shadows, Sorcerer, Copperhead, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Best of Bogart Collection, Beneath, American Hustle, Kill Your Darlings, The Slumber Party Massacre, Inside Llewyn Davis, In Fear, Oldboy (2013), Cold Comes the Night, Gravity

Now playing in theaters: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Draft Day, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Nymphomaniac: Volume Two, Nymphomaniac: Volume One, Bad Words

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.

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