Historians must be having a rough time lately. Thanks to the critical success of movies like Ridley Scott’s overrated and dreary Gladiator, and the financial success of the over-stylized, callow Zack Snyder-directed ab-fest 300, we now have a whole new, very unfortunate, decade-long genre trend to contend with. And boy, it ain’t pretty. Marked by muddy, dirty photography, and featuring blasé dismissals of anything that comes remotely close to actual historical accuracy, this new subgenre of ancient world mayhem has been hitting us a lot lately. Just last month (in what can be considered the worst January for movies in recorded history) we saw the terrible The Legend of Hercules. This month, we are treated to Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii. Next month, I am already wincing in anticipation of 300: Rise of an Empire.
Pompeii is the subject of the day, however, and I am here to report that it is – as one may expect – a totally stupid, brainless disaster entertainment. At the very least, Pompeii has some pretty slick special effects, and it seems that Kiefer Sutherland, as a mincing, horny, villainous Roman senator named Corvus, seems to be camping it up to a gleeful degree. But the rest of the movie is pretty dumb, sub-average stuff, featuring a typical glowering hero, typical sexless romance, and a boring story that doesn’t seem to drive forward. When Mt. Vesuvius finally erupts, killing most everyone (that’s not a spoiler; the movie is called Pompeii after all), it’s almost as if the mountain itself has had enough of the turgid drama going on below, and brings everything to a close by burying it in lava.
Kit Harington, this season’s Taylor Kitsch, plays a Celt slave named Milo who has been forced to compete in gladiatorial combat. His Laughton-ish master brings him to Pompeii, where he is to perform for a visiting Roman senator, and kill off star fighter Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). While there, he catches the eye of the pretty aristocrat Cassia (Emily Browning), and the two of them… etc., etc., while Corvus tries to blackmail Cassia into marrying him so he can… etc., etc. There is then an exciting slave revolt, but just as things are ramping up, Vesuvius explodes, cutting every story short. There is a Greek chorus making announcements at a public sporting match (?), and Jared Harris shouts the phrase “By Juno’s taint!” Or maybe it was “By Juno’s tit!” The robes draped elegantly across the female cast members are so diaphanous that I could swear I saw at least one modern-day brassiere. Another odd detail: Some of the music cues in the film were lifted wholesale from the recent Spartacus TV series. Was this supposed to be a Spartacus movie?
To be fair, there is a rollicking dumb appeal to Pompeii that cannot be denied, mostly stemming from Sutherland’s enjoyably broad performance. He doesn’t merely speak, but recites proclamations, boldly announcing his misogyny and treachery without discretion of apology. In the midst of a volcano explosion, Corvus handcuffs the damsel in distress to his chariot, and races through the streets of Pompeii, just barely avoiding flying lava bombs. I’m not sure where he’s going at that moment or why, but the stupid fun of the sequence is palpable.
It’s a pity the hero of the film couldn’t be equally charismatic. Harington is required to do nothing more than glower silently, staring daggers from his black eyes. I suppose he does this well, but it would be nice to have a hero who was motivated by more than violence and revenge, which seems to be every hero these days. Also, Harington has the now-perfunctory scene wherein he shows off his impeccably sculpted abs. If there’s one thing slaves in the ancient world had time for, it was 1000 crunches a day.
If you’re a fan of Roman history, Pompeii is yet another film that will likely make you want to throw you copies of Gibbon at the screen. If you’re an average film-goer, then, frankly, you can do better.