I’m all for a mixing of genres. Comedy/horror? Golden. Dramatic comedy? Awesome. Sci-fi/action? Great. It usually works for the best. You get a little of one thing you like and then a bit of another. Pompeii is what happens when genre mixing goes horribly wrong, turning what could have been a decent disaster movie into some sort of melodramatic romance replete with an awkward remake of Gladiator.
The thinking seems to be that when you already know that everyone is going to die at the end it makes it kind of hard to make any plot interesting so why not try them all out and see if any stick. None do… other than Kit Harrington’s abs.
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Release Date: February 21, 2014
So you know the story of the city of Pompeii, right? That’s the ancient Roman city that got destroyed by an erupting volcano and covered in ash and flooded with intense heat killing almost everyone in the city, but also preserving it. Really interesting, right? Wrong! Not interesting enough for Hollywood. What we evidently didn’t know is that there was, like, this really epic love story that went on right before the volcano erupted and, see, there’s all this political intrigue going on too and… ummm… oh gladiator fights! Those happened in the Roman Empire, right?
Not content to actually tell a story about some interesting characters and their final days before blowing everything up for about 30 minutes the movie introduces us to slave and gladiator Milo (Kit Harrington) who is being transferred to fight in Pompeii where he meets fellow gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and they form a friendship based on mutual respect. He also meets the daughter of Pompeii’s governor, Cassia (Emily Browning) and the two instantly fall in love (because they’re pretty people). Of course you can’t just have this love challenged by the fact that they’re all doomed to die in a fiery and explosive death; there has to be an evil guy too. That comes in the form of Keifer Sutherland’s Corvus, an evil Roman who is hell bent on marrying Cassia.
Basically the movie plays like some teen romance with a few gladiator fights thrown in until everything starts exploding. It isn’t the worst teen romance you’ll see on the screen, but every aspect of the film feels so disjointed with the others that its hard to make a cohesive whole. By the time Pompeii starts exploding you’ve actually settled into watching a B-grade gladiator movie and the shift to a disaster film actually feels jarring. The destruction of Pompeii itself is pretty impressive, but thanks to the first two thirds of the film being a romance it keeps on getting interrupted by personal vendettas and kissing. With the world burning around you is it really the right time to exact revenge on your enemies?
I do want to be clear that this film is light years better than the likes of The Legend of Hercules. Paul W.S. Anderson is a competent director and when the movie isn’t running its genre’s headlong into each other it can work. As I said before, the destruction of Pompeii is quite impressive and goes right up with other massive destruction sequences in movies. The effects stand on their own and if the screenplay had been constructed a bit better then the genre clashing wouldn’t have been so glaring and the story lines might have worked. As it stand they don’t.
Kit Harrington does those. It’s the sign of a true star that when you’re in a crappy movie you still shine and Harrington’s charisma comes through the bad role and boring dialog. Hopefully the quality of Pompeii doesn’t resign him to bad movies from here on out as he can easily transition into a quality leading man. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Sutherland, who really shouldn’t play anyone but Jack Bauer. The man is a decent actor, but you put him in historical clothing and he just looks ridiculous. He plays the part with some truly enjoyable camp, which makes the fact that he looks entirely out of place acceptable, but clearly he needs to just be Jack Bauer 24 hours a day.
Pompeii is far from being an utter black hole of crap — the destruction of the city alone sees to that — but it tries to appeal to so many audiences that it never appeals to any one of them. If the movie had stood its ground as a gladiator/disaster film or even a romance/disaster film it could have worked on the strength of its stars and the destruction of the city. Instead it destroys itself as its many parts erupt into a hot, destructive mess.