Director Paul W.S. Anderson is an interesting director to say the least. He’s probably most famous for the string of Resident Evil films that have ostensibly been coming out consistently since 2002. And yeah, these aren’t good movies, but you know what they are? Effects-driven eye candy that’s an outlet for whatever fucked-up thing Anderson decides would be neat to render in 3D next. And people flock to it. Now, personally, I’m not a huge fan of Anderson’s movies, but I totally understand the appeal. That just makes his latest film, Pompeii, all the stranger though. Anderson doesn’t play to his strengths until the third act, instead telling a bloated and boring love story that delivers on the promised destruction too late for anyone to give a damn.
The plot of this film is essentially just a retelling of Titanic. Seriously, we need to get Avril Lavigne to release a remix, because “he was a (poor) boy, she was a (rich) girl, couldn’t be any more obvious.” Said poor boy is a gladiator played by Game of Thrones’s Kit Harrington, and none of his acting talent is allowed to shine here. He’s just a lot of eye candy for the heterosexual female demographic. The film’s dialogue even goes so far as to blatantly make a sexual object of him, making the pandering even more transparent. Emily Browning plays said rich girl, and while she’s serviceable at what the script would have her do, all she does get to do is size up Harrington like a piece of meat. I object to this kind of lazy writing no matter which sex is being objectified, not only because it’s demeaning to the subject of the objectification, but it’s also movie-making shorthand for pandering to a demographic without putting any creativity into the finished product.
The film drags on for an hour, feebly attempting to make us care about the gladiator’s slave status and the rich girl’s sufferance at the hand of a powerful Roman noble with intentions to marry her against her will. And the film tries hard at making us care for these characters, but the problem is that these aren’t so much characters as cardboard archetypes for the audience to project themselves into the fantasy. If you are there to see Kit Harrington’s abs or to see some cool gladiatorial fighting, then parts of the first two acts may sustain you until the volcano erupts, but Anderson has never done well with making memorable characters, and this is no exception.
Of course, everyone going to see Pompeii knows the fate of the city and its inhabitants, so that first hour of the film can be a restless one. I just wanted the film to get on with it already. When the volcano finally does erupt, the effects are pretty sweet. Fire rains from the sky, the earth quakes, things explode. All in all, it’s a fairly decent thrill ride to the climax. Problem is, none of it is all that engaging when there’s no reason to care about the characters caught up in the calamity. I watched this movie for the special effects, and it kept cutting back to the main characters in their clichéd struggle for romantic freedom. Unfortunately, if you cut out all the character drama, the film would only be about twenty minutes long, so it seems the film has no choice but to try to make Kit Harrington to this decade what Leo DiCaprio was to the nineties.
Anderson isn’t the worst director out there. He knows how to compose a coherent film and usually plays to his strengths by providing computer-generated monstrosities causing people to die and things to blow up. Problem is, as imposing as a volcano is, it’s still just a largely inanimate mountain blowing up, completely devoid of any animated personality. Anderson tried to compensate by pumping the film full of character drama, the part of film-making he sucks the most at. It obviously didn’t work. Watching the film’s trailer will give you an idea of what effects there are to see here, but don’t watch the first hour of the actual movie in order to see the full spectacle.
Have feelings about Paul W.S. Anderson’s other work? Let me know in the comments below.