“Today I die a free man”
Sometimes, seeing a bad movie can be refreshing. The experience can be a burden to trudge through, but the perspective it provides is what helps movie watchers create benchmarks for what they truly do and do not like. When the press screeners roll in, I embrace the less excitable movies for this very reason and I sit through them willingly, knowing that contextualizing my aggressive hatred or defensive reasoning of any part of the film will make me a better critic. But for all of the bad new movies there are to pick from in any given January or February, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii is the worst one to come through in a long while. To call it silly or embarrassing or even inadvertently comedic would be giving it a compliment. For a filmmaker whose body of work is truthfully less than impressive, Pompeii shows Anderson at an all time low, very workman-like in his directorial choices without stressing to his actors the importance of not showing that they even know how terrible the movie is in which they are acting in. Pompeii has little to lean on for support; it is, as many could have expected, a piss poor excuse for mainstream popcorn entertainment. It’s horrendous.
Milo (Kit Harrington) is a slave-turned gladiator en route from Rome to Pompeii as part of Lady Cassia’s (Emily Browning) convoy. Despite their class difference, a circumstantial moment brings them together and both begin to find feelings for one another. When Milo arrives in Pompeii, he is tossed into a gladiator tournament, one that happens to be in commemoration of The Celtic Rebellion, a historical event that slaughtered Milo’s people and was overseen by the sinister Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), one of the new Roman Emperor’s key advisors. As fate would have it, Corvus has come to Pompeii to discuss investment dealings with Lady Cassia’s father, Severus (Jared Harris), but as his darker desires begin to reveal themselves, Milo’s drive becomes seeking vengeance against Corvus. As the drama ensues, time is of the essence, as directly above the city is Mount Vesuvius, a boiling volcano on the verge of eruption.
Pompeii allows so many of its unmasked flaws to seep through that it almost operates as a demonstration on how not to make a movie. From the flat cinematography and the unmotivated 3D post-conversion to the choppy screenplay and ADHD editing, looking to Paul Anderson himself and his strange assortment of actors for sole blame is pretty unfair. There isn’t a technical element behind what viewers get to see on the surface that did their due part in at least trying to make Pompeii anything worthwhile. Anderson has made some good movies, and I know people like to forget that, but Event Horizon, Death Race, and the first Resident Evil all possess strong merited qualities. However, his campy indulgences only go so far, which is why his remake of The Three Musketeers, the later Resident Evil installments, and, most definitely, Alien vs. Predator all fail to hit any kind of mark. Pompeii is of that breed but potentially even worse. With his lesser works, Anderson still leaves a pretty clear staple of his hack-ness (his strong desire to be of a Michael Bay or even Roland Emmerich caliber drenches his filmography), but Pompeii even seems so wholly detached from that. It’s a prime production where every player is doing their job at a maximum 60%, but most are performing much, much lower than that.
The acting, for one, is a mess. Game of Thrones ensemble member Kit Harrington tries his hand as a leading man and basically just plays Jon Snow from Thrones. His appearance has not changed during his little-screen-to-big screen transition, his brooding single dimension is entirely intact, as is his growling brogue and clear physicality – which is repeatedly shown off voyeuristically for anyone who is into that kind of thing. But, like on Thrones, Harrington proves to be no real asset to any of the actors around him. He goes through the motions, reads his lines, stays within the tonal confines of whatever the project is, but he’s more of a boring actor than a bad one. Actors that come from successful television programs rely heavily on their big screen debut to begin a seamless transition, but Pompeii isn’t going to make this process any easier for Harrington. Granted, the one difference here is that in Thrones, Harrington simply fumbles the material in comparison to the skill of his co-stars, whereas in Pompeii, to say that Harrington is doing the best that he can with what he’s been given is giving the material itself far more credit than it deserves.
How poor Carrie-Ann Moss and Jared Harris got tied up in this kind of film remains a major mystery, for both actors – far more talented than this film deserves – are wasted in thankless roles, while Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gives the film’s best performance by a significant margin but is written entirely in clichés and macho speak. Still, nothing is worse than Kiefer Sutherland, the Emmy-winning actor who fails to take the material too seriously or have any fun with it. He’s so scarily terrible, it’s hard to believe any of his choices are deliberate. Not a moment of his screen time goes by where Sutherland displays any of the qualities that made him a notable actor to begin with. He’s never been worse, making any of his other awful performances look like award fare.
Part Gladiator, part Titanic, Pompeii steals from these two Best Picture winning monster productions at every turn, from direct lines, to plot points, to character arcs, to individual scenes and final showdowns. It’s one giant piece of cinematic plagiarism; each component that has been lifted is glued together and strung out for a frustrating hour and forty-five minutes. My co-critic James Hausman may have checked his watch every ten minutes, anxiously awaiting the film’s obvious melodramatic conclusion. When the film does finally reach the credits, it’s a great relief. The time spent doesn’t provide that perspective that I spoke of earlier, it doesn’t even make for a good time for all of the wrong reasons – in a The Last Airbender kind of way, where it’s so unwatchably terrible it becomes a pretty mesmerizing comedy. Pompeii is without question an astounding, wretched piece of work. Few movies ever reach this level of distaste, so, I guess, in that sense, it’s the most impressive part about Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii.
Review by Mike Murphy