By Michael S. Goldberger
Director Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Pompeii,” incorporating a fictitious love story within the hypothesized depiction of the volcanic decimation now synonymous with the ancient title city, is neither as bad as I feared, nor as good as I had hoped. File it under typical violence and special effects fodder for the Saturday night crowd.
Then again, how many disaster flicks open with a quote from Pliny the Younger, acknowledged eyewitness to the horror, who wrote, “In the darkness some prayed for help, others for death?” Of course, that token of legitimacy aside, historical accuracy is doubtlessly limited by box office considerations. And even if the academic resolve were there, a dearth of facts still confounds historians and archeologists, especially a 3-month discrepancy (either August 24, or November 23, 79 A.D.) as to the date of the tragedy.
But such uncertainties aren’t brought to bear in this violent chronicle which, aside from a decided bent toward sensationalism and star-crossed love, manages to insert an astutely cynical note or two about government, empire and the almighty coin of realm. While we’re a bit subtler now, and can sure spin a deceptive euphemism, we are reminded that the treacheries attending said unholy alliance haven’t changed much in two millenniums.
Tossed into the nightmare of his epoch’s ugly inequities, little Milo is the sole survivor of the slaughter visited on his Celtic horse tribe by the Roman Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), hereafter to be referred to as the bad guy. He’s the kind you sure hope gets his share of lava when what goes around comes plopping down.
Portrayed by Kit Harington, Milo grows to adulthood courtesy of his prodigious fighting abilities. Though falling into Roman slavery, he quickly generates legendary gladiator buzz in his native Britannia. It earns him a trade to Graecus (Joe Pingue), a wealthy Pompeiian looking to profit from the hinterland sensation. If you haven’t guessed, Milo’s the good guy…a bit smallish as heroes go, but he’ll do.
At least regally attractive Cassia thinks so. Played by Emily Browning, she’s the daughter of a rich merchant, kind of jaded and bored, especially by the dudes she met on a recent stay in Rome. But her heart’s in the right place, evidenced by her kindness on the road from Rome when she allows our super slave to minister mercy on a suffering horse. You can guess the upshot.
But just to make matters a bit dicier, the verboten amour de coeur between aristocrat and disenfranchised horseman is turned into a deadly triangle. You see, Corvus, who personally killed Milo’s mom as the toddler watched, was chief among the boors who earned Cassia’s displeasure back in the Big Fig. Now, hoping to mix business with pleasure and ply some blackmail on dad, the scum has followed her back to Pompeii.
One must pity the poor soul who ventures into the theater truly expecting a better melodrama than the hackneyed window dressing that winds itself around the ominously inevitable. It’s just a pretext to view the horror that is implicitly promised…a modicum of pretense to assure that they were barbarians, whereas we are not.
However, for those who don’t care about appearances, and are actually seeking an adult version of building an elaborate structure of blocks and then jumping on it from the couch, be assured that ultimately everything falls down and goes boom ad nauseam. Rendered in 3-D via the latest CGI techniques, all manner of devastation corroborates young Pliny’s report with unremitting vengeance. Watch that a column doesn’t hit you.
Still, while it’s probably the next best thing to being there, others who need further excuse to immerse in the visceral morass and doom of Armageddon may appreciate the scenic depiction. Although the art department had limited archeological material to draw upon, the architecture, furnishings and appurtenances so colorfully extrapolated might supply some ideas to those thinking of decorating the manse in a Pompeiian theme.
That said, I don’t like how this film ends. Oh, I don’t mean the big, inevitable comeuppance, though I do prefer to avoid natural disasters both real and portrayed whenever possible. Rather, it’s the romance at the heart of the viciousness to which I refer. These are fictitious folk with no claims on the director for accuracy. I won’t give it away, yet I must wonder what the filmmaker thinks of his projected audience to conclude matters the way he does.
But let’s face it: The majority of those who will attend this clichéd exercise in special effects and neo nihilism don’t give a hoot what some critic has to say. Bearing that in mind, the purpose here is to save any would-be fence sitters from the calamitous mistake of paying to see “Pompeii,” while still perhaps fomenting an appetite for an independent study of the disaster.
“Pompeii,” rated PG-13, is a TriStar Pictures release directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and stars Kit Harington, Emily Browning and Kiefer Sutherland. Running time: 105 minutes