The Emily Browning Version
If the violence and tragedy of Pompeii’s destruction by a projectile vomiting Mount Vesuvius in 79AD is hard to imagine, harder still is a fan of Paul W.S. Anderson. What kind of cinephile could be wedded to his mix and match approach, making bad movies from good, with a lazy eye and a lazier writing hand? Pompeii, the counterfeiter’s latest, goes one worse: it’s a bad movie modelled on a bad movie from a good director. Ah, the Romans you say, hand to hand combat in the amphitheatre, you refer to Gladiator. It’s there alright – Ridley Scott regurgitated with lifeless imprecision, but the real template for this pyroclastic non-event is James Cameron’s Titanic.
The thinking’s clear enough: audiences swarmed around Cameron’s giant turd and partook in the faecal feast because they were drawn to the apparent winning combination of historic tragedy repeated as entertaining spectacle and forbidden, doomed romance. Both sexes were satisfied, the worst instincts of both courted shamelessly. Anderson, typically two decades behind the curve, has woken to the potential so, despite the failure of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor that went digging for the same fool’s gold only to find Cameron’s expedition had stripped the hills bare, here’s the Matalan version of that famous blockbuster: a movie with a generic, chemistry-deficient love story to sell, against the backdrop of that ominous, belching mountain. All the winning elements are in place so what can go wrong? Only the humanity, only the humanity.
What’s apparent from the off is that Anderson has no gift for getting a performance out of any of his principles, a deficiency exacerbated by a screenplay that lends them nothing but the most literal of personalities. We may infer, for example, that slave turned gladiatorial combatant, Kit Harrington, is a kind man, because he snaps the neck of an injured horse rather than let it suffer, but that doesn’t stop Emily Browning’s Pompeian citizen and love interest, explaining it to her maid, in case a dozy audience missed the clue. That’s about the totality of what we learn of Kit – the rest is plot: his family were slaughtered by Kiefer Sutherland’s Roman Senator, he’s good with a sword and can’t believe his luck when a plumb lolling Sutherland shows up half a world and a lifetime away, in the doomed city, giving him his chance for revenge. But because this is Titanic in antiquity, Sutherland must also covet Browning, the object of Kit’s affection, hoping, in the Billy Zane mould, to commit her to a life of unrequited love and societal privilege, when all she wants to do is ride off into the magma with her uncultured protector.
While we wait for the volcano to erupt, hoping it will drown the cast in ash quickly so that we’re spared more of the melodrama, Anderson produces a beat by beat reconstruction of Cameron’s folly. There’s the financial pressure on Browning’s parents, necessitating she keep Sutherland on the hook, the prow scene reimagined as a horse back ride into the Vesuvian foothills, Kit meeting a similarly disadvantaged (read: doomed) friend, who later fumbles around for an escape route while Kit is looking for his girlfriend, a scene in which the slaves are caged just as the eruption gets going and later, for the completist, a scene in which a Roman toff tries to buy his way onto one of the departing boats. To quote Jared Harris, “Juno’s Tit!”
Perhaps it’s just Anderson’s bad luck that he’s modelled his flick on a movie that, shorn of hype, looks ridiculous to modern eyes. The formula was stale when Cameron blew the dust of it; there are younger things in the real Pompeii now. What’s clear is that it would have taken a lot more than a couple of pretty faces to enliven this pedestrian and clichéd disaster movie. When the money shots come they’re as rote and atrophying as any of the drama that came before. Anderson evens tosses in the man picking up a frightened child for good measure, content that no creaky device should go unused. Kiefer Sutherland at least, seems to be enjoying himself amongst the ash and hot rock, but that makes it all worse somehow: we’d like to join in but we can’t.