I have now reviewed four Paul W.S. Anderson films since 2010. That unfortunate list includes the last two Resident Evil films and a wretched adaptation of The Three Musketeers. Last week, I was forced to submit myself to the mercy of his newest massively budgeted, ineptly directed, dead-eyed ode to human indignity, Pompeii. This is a film whose Wikipedia page states that they spent six years researching the event to ensure historical fidelity, yet apparently no time was spent learning how to make a movie that doesn’t make me want to hurl a chair through the screen.
Not content with strip-mining video game franchises, remakes and classic novels, Anderson has decided to get in on the disaster porn genre, and the misbegotten Pompeii is the result. This wayward, ill-conceived, and idiotically executed bit of melodrama rampages through anything resembling the facts surrounding the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, as if history is a plate glass window that Anderson can drunkenly careen through, and then put back together using discarded newsprint and packing tape, and somehow passing it off as truth. It’s an awful film that borrows heavily from ignominious junk-classics such as Titanic, The Day After Tomorrow, and Dante’s Peak, a trio of hilariously bad inspirations if there ever were any.
The story begins with the slaughter of a tribe of Celts at the hands of the conniving Roman General Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, using a truly heinous English accent for some reason). The lone survivor is a child who is promptly kidnapped by slavers, and seventeen years later, we meet him again in the form of the gladiator Milo, enslaved and fighting in the pits of London. I would like to repeat: the main character is a gladiator named after either a chocolate malt beverage, or a precocious fictional tabby cat, so let’s all suck on that for a few seconds. Regardless, Milo (Kit Harrington, aka Jon Snow from Game Of Thrones) is such a badass that he’s shipped to Pompeii so that he can do bloody battle on a larger stage. There he meets the lovely Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of the local merchant/patriarch Lucretius, in a meet cute that involves him snapping her horse’s neck. Yeah, you read that right. Later, when he’s being prostituted to wealthy Romans, her other horse gets scared, and he ducks his head endearingly, and the horse calms down. He rides off with Cassia, and apparently they fall in love after spending 20 minutes together.
Welcome to Pompeii, ladies and gentlemen. Spoiler alert: Everybody dies. Non-spoiler alert: You won’t care.
Eventually, Milo is forced to return to the gladiator ring and makes friends with the mighty champion Bridgageous (!), a captured African who is his sworn enemy for five minutes until they club each other with wooden sticks during practice, which results in a blossoming bromance. Thereafter, they share Very Important Dialogue about freedom and honor. Also, in a stunning coincidence, a Roman general is there to woo Cassia and meet on something about a deal about aquaducts, and SHOCKER it’s Kiefer Sutherland and his pathetic poncy accent. During this time, the volcano has been smoldering and rumbling in as menacing a fashion as a CGI mountain is capable, and no one cares. It then erupts, kills a bunch of people, the gladiators fight their way to freedom (the gladiator angle is basically low-rent Spartacus mixed with Gladiator, then hit in the temple with a hammer), and eventually everyone is thrown into the air or burned or is trampled to death.
I wish I could give you a more well-written summary, but the problem is that it’s not a well-written film. At all. It is abysmal, filled with cliché, rote, one-note characters, telegraphed plot twists, and some truly dreadful CGI disaster effects. It’s a 105-minute movie about a volcano, and the first 60 minutes is a hackneyed Titanic wannabe that was practically begging for a Celine Dion cameo. Harrington and Browning have no chemistry — Browning gapes coquettishly at him when she isn’t grimacing, while he sets his glassy-eyed stare to “smolder,” yet there isn’t a single believable moment between them (see the header pic? It’s exactly that, for an hour and 45 minutes). Sutherland seems to be having a good time, but poor Jared Harris and Carrie Ann-Moss — as Cassia’s beleaguered parents — seem to be fully aware of the terrible mistake they’ve made, and both of them spend the duration of the film acting like they’ve swallowed something truly unpleasant. The shortest straw is forced upon the terrific Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Bridgageous (I really just can’t with that name), who is relegated to being a noble savage/mystical negro/wise counselor in one of the most insulting roles I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a giant, meaty, bloody chunk of stereotype, and I feel like we should send him a fruit basket or something. He juts his jaw and delivers sage wisdom while flexing muscles and then finally sacrifices himself so that Milo can go off an save Cassia, culminating in him screaming “I DIE A FREE MAN!” at a wall of fire as it consumes him.
Yeah. That’s the kind of movie this is.
The eruption itself is a stupendously overwrought affair, with Anderson spending the bulk of his time directing, with painstaking detail, what a good friend of mine once termed “people tossing.” Popularized by Peter Jackson in the Lord of the Rings movies, a number of directors take great joy in flinging large numbers of people into the air, and that’s where Pompeii really excels. Fireballs are hurled into the city, smashing buildings and destroying roads, seas swell, boats are tossed this way and that, and there is magnificent people tossing to be seen. People are thrown all over the place, flung high and low and into things and while on fire and to Paul W.S. Anderson, that is storytelling. And some audience members ate that shit up, gasping and covering their mouths with their hands, and those people should be thrown into traffic.
Paul W.S. Anderson has made a lot of really bad movies, and a couple of not-bad-but-not-good movies as well. This is neither. Pompeii is hatefully atrocious, guilty of gathering a horrible mix of the worst cinematic ingredients — a dimwitted, nonsensical, sexless romance, lazy storytelling, hyper-edited and clunky combat scenes, a gleeful yet laughably unthreatening villain, boring CGI, and a lazy racial ignorance — and dumping them all into one giant shlockpot. It’s a plodding, joyless, artless picture, and in the final moments, when Cassia and Milo share their first and only kiss — a deep, disturbingly tongue-slathering affair with a fake inferno raging in the background, I almost clapped my hands out of some sort of absurdist deference. It’s utterly ridiculous in every way, right up until the flames consume them and the credits roll. There is not one redeeming quality to Pompeii, and while it’s early (and I haven’t seen A Winter’s Tale), it’s a hands-down contender for worst film of the year.