Review: Pompeii (2014)

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Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Screenwriters: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler & Michael Robert Johnson
Cast: Kit Harington, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Jared Harris, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jessica Lucas & Joe Pingue
Runtime: 105 min // Certificate: 12a


Pompeii? More like Pom-POO, amirite guys?

No, but seriously though, what even is this? I was convinced Need for Speed would turn out to be the most homoerotic film of the year but this makes that look like it was produced by the Phelps family. I mean, if you think about it for a minute, what is Pompeii, aka “The Celtic Man Who Went up a Mountain but Came down a Volcano”, even about? Is it a film about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 or is it a film about the perils of sexual repression in Roman Italy? Maybe it’s both, but if you look at what actually happens then the homoerotic sexual metaphors are obvious; a bunch of big, bulky men in ill-fitting BDSM gear get all up in each other’s faces ‘n’ shit for about an hour until the palpable sexual tension between them becomes so unbearable that a massive, passionate eruption sends hot juice gushing into the air, the aftermath of which devastates the conservatively-minded community below. Guys… this is high-art!

I’m joking, obviously. I don’t think Pompeii is an ingenious metaphor for sexual repression because to think that would be to concede that Paul W.S. Anderson might possess even a modicum of artistic credibility, and I’m just not prepared to put my critical faculties on the line like that. What I do think, however, is that Pompeii is sort of enjoyable, albeit in spite of itself, which is about the best you can ask for given the circumstances.

Starring Kit Harington, a man whose abs have additional abs all of their own, and directed by the man responsible for such masterpieces as… erm, Event Horizon? No? Ok, how about… erm… Alien vs. Predator or… erm… alright, let’s start again.

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Starring Kit Harington, directed by a man who has made some films in the past – none of which were particularly good – and written by two of the screenwriters who gave us Batman Forever (are you starting to see the problems inherent in the system yet?), Pompeii is the very definition of a film that is “so bad it’s good”. No matter how much molten rock and dodgy CGI lava it throws in your face, the film remains an unintentional laugh-a-minute romp that is just about tolerable by sheer virtue of the fact that it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously.

It starts, as all historical epics do these days, with a child witnessing the death of his parents at the hands of a comically-accented villain (Kiefer Sutherland, who spends most of the film embarking on a vocal tour of the English regions). It then skips forward 17 years to a time when Kiefer Sutherland hasn’t aged a day and when slaves are built like brick shithouses, are articulate and speak in contemporary English dialect. Our main character, Milo (Harington), is a fierce fighter, so he’s sent away to Pompeii to battle in a huge arena. While there he falls in love with Cassia (Browning), an upper-class girl who has caught the unwanted attention of Kiefer Sutherland, and befriends a fellow slave, Atticus (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who he is due to fight to the death. All of this happens in the space of about two days because it’s the Roman times and those guys were crazy man. Meanwhile, a huge mountain keeps rumbling and causing mayhem but don’t mind that, it’s just the gods burping or something.

So it’s ridiculous. Worse than that, it’s laughable, but to be honest if you don’t laugh you’ll probably cry. Let’s ignore the fact that it takes 67 minutes for the volcano to even erupt (which means we get over an hour of superfluous, sub-par Gladiator style nonsense) and focus on just how terrible it all is. The performances range from intolerable to insufferable (there’s no middle ground, though Sutherland does at least take pantomime villainy to a whole new level), the script is fantastically bad – “No gladiator should die from a blade to the back. When you die, the blow will come… from the front!” (I know guys, it’s some deep shit that) – and Kit Harington, bless him, has but one facial expression; constipation combined with immense sorrow.

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Nevertheless, all of this just makes it all the more enjoyable. Anderson tries his damnedest to make an emotional, dramatic film but even he seems to recognise how bonkers it all is, so once the volcano erupts he just throws caution to the wind and goes stark-raving mad. To give you an example, at one point – in scenes reminiscent of Speed 2 – a tidal wave carries a huge boat down a narrow street while people flee for their lives, water on one side, lava on the other, with death all but a certainty. It’s batshit, chaotic and, even though it’s obviously trash, it’s also quite a lot of fun in its own, ludicrous way.

Pompeii is less of a disaster movie than it is a disastrous movie but you know what, it’s better than most of Paul W.S. Anderson’s other films, though I grant you that isn’t really saying much. It swings wildly from Gladiator rip-off to a sort of Dante’s Peak wannabe, albeit one with more swords, more horses and more shots of Kit Harington looking angry, determined and oh-so-dashing. The script is flatter than the city the volcano leaves in its wake, the visual effects are nothing to write home about and the dual romance / revenge elements of the story are interminably dull. Nonetheless, if you leave your brain at the door and just take it for what it is then it ain’t all bad… put it this way, it’s better than Volcano, but then again so is syphilis.

Still though; Kit Harington guys