It's not a Total Disaster

(Canada/Germany, 105 min.)
Dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, Writ. Janet Scott Batchler & Lee Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson
Starring: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Carrie-Anne Moss, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris, Kiefer Sutherland.
Kit Harington and Emily Browning star in Pompeii
Pompeii might actually be the only film that improves the more it enters Roland Emmerich territory. There’s a compliment in there somewhere.

This gladiator pic/ disaster movie becomes considerably more coherent and intelligent once the volcano explodes, lava spews, and characters stop talking. Pompeii, however, is hardly the largest waste of one-hundred-million dollars that one could expend on a Canuck-German co-pro—and kudos to homegrown talent for actually making such an epic—since the swanky visuals look great and the last half of the film provides ample entertainment provided one checks one’s brain at the door.

Paul W.S. Anderson (the Resident Evil movies) directs this VFX bonanza with a somber hand, but Pompeii could actually be a thumbs-up hoot if it fully—and intentionally—embraced the inevitable schlockiness of the swords-and-sandals realm. Pompeii instead takes itself too seriously and its final death match brings the same unseemly verdict a gladiator meets when Caesar condemns his fate in the arena: thumbs down. Clunky exposition valorizes a noble slave named Milo (Kit Harington of Game of Thrones fame) and his courtly love interest Cassia (Emily Browning) and introduces a silly romance that pushes the disaster into Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater territory.

The romance seems superfluous and it develops far too late in the game when the characters are running for their lives. The ill-fated love story betrays the flimsiness of the script since there isn’t enough to keep it going as it runs on ground as uneven as the cracked Pompeii terrain. The screenplay doesn’t do the actors any service, either, since the ham-fisted dialogue, abound with references to the gods, serves mostly to fill the time. Most of the actors seem to coast on paycheck mode anyways, especially a surprisingly bad Kiefer Sutherland, and they strut around with abs that ripple of historical inaccuracy.

Pompeii comes to life, though, in a rousing gladiator battle at the midpoint before it erupts with VFX extravagance. Taken purely as a vehicle for visual effects, then, Pompeii is impressive entertainment. (The film has so much CGI that it seems to suffer playback issues of Blu-ray!) The large-scale production value is most impressive, especially for a Canuck production, and the spewing lava and digitally-driven disaster marks one of the few cases in which visual effects overwhelm a film for the better. Pompeii, despite what the legend says, isn't a total disaster.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Pompeii is now available on home video from eOne Films.

What did you think of Pompeii?