We continue our masochistic foray into the world of Paul W. S. Anderson with Pompeii, his 2014 action spectacular that can best be described as a malodorous eruption.
More disaster than movie, Pompeii shamelessly rips off Gladiator to the letter (even casting Richard Harris’ son Jared as Pompeii’s governor). It follows a gladiator slave (Kit Harrington) who sees his Celtic family massacred at some sort of Conan the Barbarian Reenactment Society event. He fights his way to the final of the games which, in what must surely be the one of the most unfortunate coincidences in movie history, are being held on the eve of a one-in-a-millenium volcanic eruption. It’s in this Pompeii circumstance that he falls in love with the governor’s daughter (Emily Browning) and seeks vengeance on the Romans (Sasha Roiz and Kiefer Sutherland) who murdered his parents. Oh and also there’s a volcano.
Mount Vesuvius is all but irrelevant for the first hour of the movie, its intermittent rumbles causing cracks to spread across the city but casually dismissed by the residents. “What, that? That’s just the volcano. Don’t worry it does that sometimes.” Honestly it makes Titanic look titanic. The volcano’s only purpose is to remind us that all these people are going to die (spoiler alert for 2000 years ago), rendering all the events of the film utterly without consequence. Which is one of the hallmarks of a Paul W. S. Anderson movie.
How do you make a film out of the destruction of Pompeii? Well you can’t have a nail-biting escape, Poseidon Adventure or Towering Inferno style. You think that poor bastard would have chosen to spend eternity on the loo if there was any opportunity to move around once the lava rolled into town? Perhaps the most logical route would be to approach it like Lost or Brexit, where the tension comes from a clash between those desperate to escape and those trying to stop them. Jared Harris could be a corrupt governor trying to keep the citizens in the city while Kit Harrington’s hero has to convince them to flee.
But no. Anderson just does Gladiator with a volcano replacing all the decent characters, acting and dialogue. When Vesuvius finally erupts, the last 40 minutes comprise one massive explosion in which the ethnic characters are killed off to save the white ones, only for them to die themselves. So all the derivative gladiator action and drivelous romantic drama has been for nought. It would almost be better without the volcano, and it’s not often we say that (although the same can be said for Inside Out).
Ironically for those characters obsessed with the greatness of Pompeii, the town has enjoyed notoriety far beyond what ever would have been achieved had everyone not been burned to a crisp, thanks to Vesuvius itself. So there is some reason to be cheerful about the whole thing. No such luck for the people of Herculaneum.