Film Review: ‘Pompeii’

Pompeii Film Review

While spectacle should be enough to fill the seats, this campy 3D disaster saga caters especially well to teenage girls and gay men.

The Romans give you every reason to wish for their destruction in Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Pompeii,” a campy, concept-driven disaster pic that mistakes the eruption of Vesuvius for the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah, where an entire city is deemed expendable on mostly moral grounds. Taking a page from “Titanic,” the film invents a rich-girl/poor-boy romance, puts a powerful suitor in their way and then besets their star-crossed love story with CG lava showers, rendered all the more spectacular in stereoscopic 3D. In short, “Pompeii” is a blast, at least by guilty-pleasure standards, opening to massive worldwide potential in a relatively uncompetitive February frame.

“You’ve dragged me from a perfectly good brothel for this?” asks an indignant slave trader, evidently displeased that the carnage on offer at the local gladiator arena isn’t of a higher caliber. An hour or so later, the same guy finds himself staring down a flaming boulder, his appetite for destruction more than satisfied by the Fates. While hardly high art (and without so much as a fossil record of the aborted project once slated for helmer Roman Polanski and scribe Robert Towne), “Pompeii” certainly recognizes what mass audiences want from a “Game of Thrones”-style sword-and-scandal saga, delivering especially high marks as either a sudsy indulgence for teenage girls or a beefcake offering for gay men.

The pic even goes so far as to repurpose a “Thrones” star, Kit Harington, as its bestubbled slave hero, Milo, known to the Empire as “the Celt” — one of the few survivors of a quashed rebellion. As a boy, Milo watched his mother and the rest of their horse-loving tribe butchered by blood-thirsty future senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, relishing the chance to follow in his father’s footsteps by playing corrupt plutocrats). Now a lowly slave with abs of steel, Milo has been transformed from gentle equestrian into deadly gladiator, with only a small facial scar to show for the years of abuse.

Talent-scouted in a grubby Londinium arena, Milo is chained up and packed off to Pompeii, impressing an upper-class beauty named Cassia (Emily Browning) along the way. The sensitive brute stirs passionate feelings in the young lady, suggesting forbidden possibilities for the daughter of a Pompeii businessman (Jared Harris) and his proud wife (Carrie-Anne Moss), who have all but promised Cassia’s hand to the repulsive Corvus.

Milo arrives in Pompeii on the eve of the Vinalia festival, tossed in with other gladiators whom he’ll be expected to fight the following day. The local champion is a massive black slave named Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who nearly steals the movie out from under its pretty-boy star), one last deathmatch away from earning his freedom — an irony not lost on the mountain, which glows fiery red in advance of the imminent eruption. Whenever things seem to drag at the story level, Anderson cuts away to the volcano, as if to remind us it’s only a matter of time before the helmer plans to obliterate everything he and screenwriters Janet Scott Batchler and Lee Batchler (“Batman Forever”) and Michael Robert Johnson have worked so carefully to construct.

Essentially, apart from Milo, Cassia and Atticus — as well as the young lady’s beloved horse — everyone in Pompeii is expendable, condemned by either avarice or their insatiable desire to see loincloth-clad men dismember each other for sport (in which case, the filmmakers may as well wish volcanic vengeance on their audiences as well). And so, as the digital mountain begins to belch ash and massive cracks splinter their way through town, the pic shifts its focus from survival to melodrama: Milo must avenge his family, Atticus must earn his freedom, and Cassia can’t possibly marry Corvus.

Audiences of a certain age may recognize a superficial similarity between these generic agendas and those of “The Princess Bride” (which improved upon its B-movie ingredients through sheer force of screenwriting). One craves something as memorable as Inigo Montoya’s “prepare to die” monologue the moment big chunks of the mountain start to rain down from the seemingly puritanical heavens, conveniently missing any who still have unfinished business to attend to.

Naturally, the spectacle should be enough to fill the seats, despite d.p. Glen MacPherson’s tendency to shoot everything through a lens darkly — even before clouds of black smoke blot out the sun. To ground us emotionally, the filmmakers have resorted to the potboiler playbook, risking unintentional laughter as Milo breaks free of his chains and runs toward the volcano in order to rescue his beloved, the foolhardy gesture elevated to epic status by a stirring score from “District 9’s” Clinton Shorter.

Led by Mr. X, the half dozen or so vfx shops that worked on “Pompeii” do a stunning job of re-creating the multi-pronged calamity — which combines earthquakes, eruptions and a tidal wave just slow enough for Atticus to rescue a child who has stumbled in its path. While more coherent than much of Anderson’s recent work, the film proves less successful at combining destruction and damsel-in-distress storytelling within the same frame, serving up blurry images of Milo trying to rescue Cassia while the city crumbles around them. As history, it is even shakier, compressing the 18-hour catastrophe into a series of cliffhangers and sword fights.

Though modern-day framing devices rarely do more than make the films run longer, the corny last scene begs some sort of comment from almost two millennia later. Archaeologists have spent decades trying to extrapolate what they can from the excavated skeletons of the 2,000 or so victims who died in Pompeii, as plaster casts reveal people frozen in positions of terror. Milo and Cassia defy the gods’ wrath, striking a final pose so shamelessly romantic even Rodin couldn’t top it.

Film Review: 'Pompeii'

Reviewed at Cine Cite Les Halles, Paris, Feb. 19, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production

(Canada-Germany) A Sony Pictures Entertainment (in U.S.) release of a TriStar Pictures, FilmDistrict presentation of a Contantin Film Intl./Impact Pictures (Pompeii) production. Produced by Jeremy Bolt, Paul W.S. Anderson, Robert Kulzer, Don Carmody. Executive producers, Martin Moszkowicz, Peter Schlessel, Jon Brown.

Crew

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Screenplay, Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson. Camera (color, widescreen, 3D), Glen MacPherson; editor, Michele Conroy; music, Clinton Shorter; production designer, Paul Denham Austerberry; costume designer, Wendy Partridge; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat/SDDS), Greg Chapman; supervising sound editor, Stephen Barden; re-recording mixers, Andrew Stirk, Andrew Tay; stunt coordinator, Jean Frenette; fight coordinators, Frenette, Jason Cavalier; visual effects supervisor, Dennis Berardi; visual effects, Mr. X; additional visual effects, Scanline VFX, Soho VFX, Spin VFX, Rocket Science; second unit camera/3D consultant, Vern Nobles; casting, Ronna Kress, Deirdre Bowen. 

With

Kit Harington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Browning, Adewale Adkinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris, Kiefer Sutherland. (English dialogue)

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  1. pakman says:

    Over all it was a fun movie. As far as historical accuracy… its fiction and fantasy loosely based on those events of the time. For those of you who expect historical accuracy from a movie, I suggest resourcing factual books and research as a source of enlightenment; and even then you have to be careful and discerning on what your read.. certainly not Wikipedia, and certainly not what amounts to an action flick. Talk about high expectations.

  2. Louw says:

    After more than 10 years of studying and researching roman politics, culture AND the disaster of vesuvius for the novel, “Havens of Pompeii”, I found this movie terribly disappointing on the facts on how Roman society worked and especially the over over over-dramatized eruption. Very disappointing.

  3. The architectural and geographic accuracy make the film worth watching. It’s a family-friendly disaster film along the lines of 2012, but with more historical, architectural and educational value. The love story, while predictable, is essentially the same story as that in the universally-lauded “Titanic.” The battle scenes were highly enjoyable. I think the film has gotten a bad rap by critics, since it is actually beautifully filmed and easy to watch from beginning to end. Two things I really liked about the screenplay were: 1) the elegant opening and closing sequences showing the haunting “cast sculptures” of actual victims of Pompeii – visually explaining that these “stone characters” were real people with real emotions and lives; and 2) the story’s skill at making us us empathize with the primary characters and care about them, yet not be unduly sad or disappointed with their ultimate demise. After all, everyone knew before entering the theater that Vesuvius had buried Pompeii and killed virtually all her citizens. Nonetheless, the story was able to hold our attention until the very end.

  4. Deni says:

    In all seriousness, who needed a spoiler alert for this film? If you have anything beyond a third grade education, you have heard what happened, correct? This movie was horrible. As a straight woman, even I need more than shirtless boys who think they are real men. The acting was horrible, the CGI effects were too much, and those are the nicest things I can say about it. Oh and a tween girl made me take her to see it, so stop yelling at the author. All he said was the truth. It is a crappy movie that seems to be made by Jack MacFarland.

  5. Loco says:

    I’m really surprised people are taking offense to his remark about what the movie offers to gay men and teenage girls.

    I just watched it and honestly, there was a lot more shirtless man than I expected. Some few scenes, it seemed entirely unnecessary. The main character was a 1D attractive gladiator who’s only purpose was to be eye candy. The romance was unrealistic for me, and given the lack of character growth for everyone except Atticus and the father, the movie offers violence, destruction, romance on the level of twilight, and lots of hot male bodies.

  6. Tracey says:

    Wow Spoilers galore! Does this guy always tell the entire movie in his reviews?
    This movie is an eye roller but boy is it a fun one. Go see if it you are just a lover of fight scenes, unexplainable romance, kickass sidekicks and the bad guy getting his.

    Am I the only one who was thinking that the “teenage girls and gay men” line is beccause they would love this movie because the lead is hot and there are a lot of other hot guys sprinkled throughout it? Not so much eye candy for those who like the ladies but lots for those who like men.

  7. SS says:

    You seem pretty comfortable with homophobia and misogyny Mr. Debruge. Well, it just cost yourself a reader. Hope it was worth it!

    • Peter Debruge says:

      Sorry to hear it. Though speaking as a gay man, the only homophobia I detect is whatever bias presumes that all film reviews are written by straight white guys.

      Meanwhile, I’m totally flummoxed by the accusations of misogyny. If they pertain to the prediction that teenage girls will like the movie, well, that demographic was the primary audience for TITANIC, and this movie boasts many of the same pleasures (a tragic romance set against a massive historic cataclysm).

      For what it’s worth, it wasn’t the shirtless hunks I was referring to when predicting this film’s ideal audience (though they are undeniably a factor). It’s pretty hard for anyone to take POMPEII seriously, and yet, the film is quite enjoyable as camp (granted, not only gays get an ironic kick out of so-bad-it’s-good entertainment) and might even squeak by as frivolous romantic fluff.

      As for spoilers, well, you got me there. If you were going to POMPEII unaware of what happens to Vesuvius in August 79 A.D., boy are you going to be surprised!

      • johntshea says:

        Slightly more seriously, the assumptions that teenage girls and gay men are the main audience for ‘POMPEII’ and that most movie reviews are written by straight white men are both generalizations of similar (i. e. negligible) value. But I consider neither homophobic.

      • johntshea says:

        Vesuvius is a volcano!? I never guessed!

      • Fred says:

        I loved your comeback, it was awesome and yes, it totally surprised me that PomPeII fell into the sea. Ha! I was as amused to learn the Titantic actually sunk, too. Will wonders ever cease. Great review Peter!

  8. So I guess Milo and Cassia don’t make it out alive then. Thanks for the spoiler.

  9. Mark says:

    “teenage girls and gay men” what an extremely homophobic thing to say.

    • pakman says:

      God! Please find another word other than Homophobic to describe harmless comments already. At most that is just a poor choice of a pseudo-sexual reference made in a damn movie review; hardly a fear of homosexuality. An “extreme” example of a comment derived from homophobia would be something more like “OMG they mentioned homosexuality in a movie kids may watch!” That is an absurd example of homophobia, but far more relevant to any phobia than is “teenage girls and gay men”. Get over yourself and quit speaking for the gay community

    • crookedmindframe says:

      How is that homophobic? People need to look up the definition of said words before using it…

    • Tracey says:

      Why? Teenage girls and gay men don’t love shirtless guys?

  10. I can hardly wait – Usually I like what the review doesn’t !!!!

  11. Yorick says:

    “While hardly high art”… You know, ’cause high art is for adult straight men. Little girls and gay men only like romance and shirtless men, they’re so silly !
    Proving once again, if need be, that homophobia and sexism are two sides from the same coin.

  12. cadavra says:

    “As a boy, Milo watched his mother and the rest of their horse-loving tribe butchered by blood-thirsty future senator Corvus”

    Wow, haven’t seen that bit since the original CONAN THE BARBARIAN!

  13. dormont says:

    Great!!!! I’m about to take my 14 year old daughter….everyone will know what she is!!!

  14. johntshea says:

    I’ll take Mr. Debruge’s word about gay men, but it sounds like the beefcake will appeal to adult women too. And now Variety has got religion he should approve of the destruction of all those pagans.

  15. Mjkbk says:

    “……The Romans give you every reason to wish for their destruction…..where an entire city is deemed expendable on mostly moral grounds……”

    And this is different from every movie ever made about Roman Pompeii HOW? I’ve never seen one yet that didn’t take EXACTLY this same “Roman Empire, Evil; Everything Else, Not As Evil” story tack……

  16. Ashlyn Rose says:

    Peter, your review had me howling. My interest perked up when I saw the cast who, with the exception of Browning, are excellent actors. However, your comment that only teenage girls and gay men would see the film is offensive.

  17. Michele Elyzabeth says:

    Why is everything taken so seriously? In a society which glorifies “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” all the “Housewives of the world” and Miley Cyrus’ twerking, why can’t you look at this as just pure entertainment? Few people around the world know anything about Pompeii, so that in itself makes the experience a positive one. At least, audiences will find out where it is on the map. Sutherland is great in this film. Moreover, I truly wonder what Peter Debruge meant by “While spectacle should be enough to fill the seats, this campy 3D disaster saga caters especially well to teenage girls and gay men.” Is this some kind of generalization implying that all young girls and gay men are going to fall head over heels for the gladiators? This is so sexist and condescending… Not dignified of a true critic.

    • daycoder says:

      I honestly can’t figure out any relevance to “In a society which glorifies “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” all the “Housewives of the world” and Miley Cyrus’ twerking,”. That’s vacuous nonsense that should make us want more substance, and better entertainment, but Pompeii gives us neither.

      This is Showgirls bad.

      It’s not that brain-off entertainment is a bad thing – I rather enjoyed Homefront, for example – it’s that it’s impossible for the brain to ignore how awful this film is.

      I can’t imagine anyone enjoying it, regardless of age or sexual orientation.

  18. MR says:

    SPOILER! I don’t want to see it now that I know they don’t make it!

  19. daycoder says:

    This is a truly terrible film. There’s no Game-of-Thrones style to it at all. That’s an insult to a rare gem in the cessipit of television. Sutherland is at his worst. The fighting is so protracted that continued suspension of disbelief becomes impossible. SFX are not subtle. They seem geared toward making the ‘most’ of 3D. It’s 3D at its worst, used only as a gimmick.

    The comparisons to Titanic and Princess Bride are apt. I *really* wanted to hear “My name is Milo The Celt. You killed my father. Prepare to die”. Sadly it was not to be. The film is devoid of intentional humour, but not so unintentional humour. The entire audience burst out laughing *at* the final pose. It wasn’t so much shameless as utterly ridiculous.

    ‘Milo’ isn’t a Celtic name. There was a snort of derision from this Celt when he revealed his name.

  20. BEST start to an article EVER! Baaahahahaaaa

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