5 June 2014


It's been and gone in cinemas, surpassed and supplanted by superhero movies and other tentpoles, but surprise surprise- Paul W.S. Anderson actually made one of the best films he's ever made. That may seem like a high bar, for the director of such classics as Mortal Kombat, Alien vs. Predator and three out of five Resident Evil movies, but he conquers the weight of anticipation nicely.

This is pretty much what the trailers made it look like, but it pulls it off considerably better than I expected. Set in the days before the historic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, Milo the vengeful Celt and Cassia the city ruler's daughter are caught up in a star-crossed romance. He's due to take on undefeated veteran gladiator Atticus in his final fight and she's unwittingly betrothed to Roman senator Corvus, who just happens to be the man who slaughtered Milo's people when he was a boy. Will these crazy kids make it, and can they get out of Pompeii alive if they do.

I'm not the only one who's occasionally been guilty of misusing the term "B-movie" to mean sub-par, especially in relation to the quality of a script or lack thereof, when it actually refers to what used to be the "smaller" movie in an old-timey double feature. Paul W.S. Anderson doesn't make B-movies, but the writing in his films generally leaves something to be desired. In the same vein, the script for Pompeii, written by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson, isn't the most dazzling piece of writing ever brought to life on the big screen and I'm not holding up this up as a great, or even a good movie, but it's only fair to give credit to endearingly old-fashioned entertainment where it's due.

Anderson spoke about the research that went into developing the movie while doing his press rounds, but even with all of the purported historical accuracy and volcanology, his visual sensibility makes this more 79 3D than 79 AD. Anything that can pop out, from lava to anachronistic cleavage, (both male and female) will be shoved right in your face. In terms of story, it doesn't sink into pantomimic melodrama as much as it dives right in from the off, swimming around and getting all comfy. Amongst other guilty pleasures that arise from this approach, Kiefer Sutherland really lets loose as Corvus, almost channelling his dad Donald as he sprays spittle and condescension at everyone with whom he shares the screen.

The film also wears a debt to Titanic on its sleeve with its doomed romance, its lofty critique of class inequality and, most blatantly, in its very plot structure. Handily, Anderson is a more economical director than Cameron, even though there's no question of which of those two is the better filmmaker. The build-up to the inevitable eruption takes up an hour of what turns out to be a 105 minute running time, with foreboding tremors doing little to warn the characters of their impending doom. "The mountain is uneruptable", they might as well say. But there's nothing false or pretentious in the treatments and there's no joy taken in what could've been a bout of third-act disaster porn.

In the centre of it all, Game of Thrones' Kit Harington (who has always reminded me a little of a sullen but buff Cabbage Patch Doll) doesn't have a whole lot of chemistry with Emily Browning's compassionate Disney princess, but their deep and two-day-old true love passes muster for the film's melodramatic purposes. When the meet-cute between Milo and Cassia involves euthanasia and a horse, you fully expect everything that follows to be just as risible, but that's not the case. It all proves surprisingly haunting and affecting when Anderson reaches his memorable final image, which is genuinely a highlight amidst more perfunctory endings in movies of this size.

Pompeii is relentlessly daft and derivative, but it's good enough as a disaster movie to avoid merely being a disaster. This is absolutely the kind of bombastic would-be blockbuster that would have been the A-feature in one of those old-timey double bills, with only the special effects having been markedly upgraded since the 1970s. Again, to give credit where it's due, there aren't many directors who could so convincingly make Toronto look like ancient Italy (even the Doctor Who crew trekked all the way to Italy for their 2008 Vesuvius episode) and even though Anderson lacks in other areas, his technical aptitude is in greater evidence in strangely satisfying fare like this than in repetitive horror movies.

Pompeii is still showing in 3D at selected cinemas nationwide and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray later in 2014.
If you've seen Pompeii, why not share your comments below? I've learned my lesson, to keep an open mind about stuff I'd sooner avoid. Like tomorrow's Grace Of Monaco. Oh, dear...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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