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.
This leads right into my first major complaint about “Pompeii.” As soon as I heard that the film was going to be presented in 3-D, I knew there were going to be problems. From the advertisements, it was clear that most of the film took place at night, which, when mixed with 3-D, becomes a terrible combination. Here we have multiple artists who took hours and hours of their time to give us a grand spectacle, and the powers that be decided to ruin it by putting it in 3-D. As many people know, 3-D makes a film far dimmer than it normally is, and so what we end up with in “Pompeii” is a lot of spectacle that can barely be seen. To make matters even worse, the 3-D is not even noticeable, meaning that it was all for nothing.
Putting that aside, let’s take a closer look at the film itself. I’ve already mentioned that the visuals and special effects are done pretty well, 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. 2.5/4 stars.
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