Pompeii’s marketing strategy suggests that its hero is the strapping shirtless guy whose abs look as if they’d been plastered on by the makeup department as a means of attracting the young female viewers. But this is not so. The real heroes of Pompeii are the visual effects. And a horse.
A horse? Yes, a horse. Consider the movie’s climax. The supposed hero, Milo (Kit Harington), is chasing after the villain — played by the ever cunning Kiefer Sutherland — who has Milo’s damsel chained to the back of his carriage. This is happening while huge chunks of molten rock are smashing into the nearby buildings, sending columns and walls crashing and burning all around our brave characters. The earthquake caused by Vesuvius’ eruption splits the road and shakes the ground. Over all the chasms Milo’s horse leaps, and around all the falling stones he gallops. Effortlessly. As if he’s being remote controlled by a bystander. He is the real hero of this movie. Not Milo.
And then there are the visual effects, which work every bit as hard as the horse to give some authenticity to a story that is very close to being a retread of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Slave rises from nothing. Slave becomes a gladiator because he is quick and agile. Slave disobeys authority and earns himself a black mark. He is condemned and expected to die. The major difference between both movies is that this one has an exploding volcano that blankets the entire city of Pompeii — and Herculaneum — in six metres of lava and ash. This makes the gladiatoring very difficult.
The visual effects work because they evoke very strongly a sense of what it must have been like in 79 AD. They are not convincing all the time, but when the juggernaut scenes require them to show off, they do so in spectacular fashion. Vesuvius rumbles as if hungry. It goes through several stages of eruption until at last its top explodes. The destruction is catastrophic. And in this way the effects are a success.
I suspect many knowledgable viewers will go in to Pompeii for Vesuvius. I know I did. I didn’t care for the romance story between Milo and Cassia (Emily Browning), nor did I care about the evil plot laid down by Sutherland’s politician, Senator Corvus. Pompeii is known in the annals of history as being Vesuvius’ primary victim. We don’t know of Cassia or Milo, or of Milo’s gladiator friend Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). They are players in the story whose roles require nothing more than to fill up time, to make the hours leading up to the eruption mean something.
I don’t know if they do. As Pompeii stands now, Vesuvius’ eruption is a spectacle glued to the tail end of the story. It doesn’t factor into its heart. Titanic was about a terrible disaster too, and it also had a romance story in its centre, but the ship was always a key character. Jack and Rose ran around its decks, through its bowels. By the time its bulkheads began to flood, we felt as close to the ship as we did to the humans. We feel nothing for Vesuvius here. It is a volcano that towers over a doomed city. That is it. I don’t know if there’s a way to make a volcano come alive, but I am sure it wouldn’t have hurt to try. For viewers unfamiliar with Vesuvius’ story, its eruption will no doubt seem arbitrary and senseless. Stupid even. For best results, you must know the story beforehand.
The director is Paul W. S. Anderson. That’s right, he’s the other Paul Anderson. The one who made Mortal Kombat. That was a good movie. It knew its place as a video game adaptation and stuck close to its roots. Then he followed up with movies that strayed further and further away from their inspirations. The Resident Evil films were laughable, and his version of The Three Musketeers made me pine for Chris O’Donnell. Pompeii has substance. It is not out of its depth. It is not even misguided. It needs only to find a way to make all its parts gel, and to make them matter. This is a movie many will hate, some will hold as one of their guilty pleasures, and few will love.
Best Moment | Nope.
Worst Moment | The last shot. Are you effing kidding me?