Friday, February 21, 2014
Pompeii is the kind of film that used to be called a “sword-and-sandals” movie. It’s old-fashioned, a story we haven’t seen on-screen in ages. Director Paul W.S. Anderson — who has previously perpetrated films like Mortal Kombat and a few Resident Evil movies, has also made a horror film here. After all, what could be more horrific than an actual volcano actually erupting and actually killing an estimated 16,000 people? Well, in his movie Anderson has brought us all the horror, panic, political intrigue and a love story of that awful 24th day of August in 79 CE.
Milo (Kit Harrington) is a slave who is forced to become a gladiator. He falls in love with Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of wealthy merchant Severus (Jared Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss). Cassia has fled from Rome back to Pompeii to escape the attention of Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). He follows her to Pompeii and is there for the maelstrom. Milo’s one friend among the gladiators, Atticus (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje) is tasked specifically with killing him in combat.
The script — credited to Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson and Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes — is long on expected cliches, short on character development. But, the people are all attractive and nice to look at.
What saves Pompeii, aside from the nice-looking people, are the technical aspects of the piece. Paul Denham Asterberry has designed a great set, giving us a real sense of what Pompeii must have been like. Glen MacPherso’s cinematography is first-rate, with the 3-D being used to good effect during the eruption of Vesuvius. The special effects team made it all seem as if we’re watching a contemporary newsreel of the event.
Of course, battles and gladiators are central to the film and it is gory. One set piece reminded me of the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit” about the lynchings in the South. (“Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”) These ancient Romans knew how to fight and how to mete out terrible punishment. Oddly, it comes through all the mayhem that they lived by strict rules and protocol that governed these encounters in the arena.
Even though we know what’s going to happen, Pompeii is, in the end, an interesting movie to watch. But, before you take the kids, bear in mind its PG-13 rating.