“Pompeii,” the film that director Paul W.S. Anderson will almost certainly view as his masterpiece, did something unprecedented. Never before have I watched a disaster movie and rooted for the volcano to win.
Anderson is the hackiest of hack directors. He’s built his entire career out of aping the style and verve of other, exponentially more talented directors. I don’t think he’s ever had an original idea surface in any of his films and “Pompeii” might be the ultimate expression of how empty his creative coffers are.
His past films have cribbed from all various action stylish directors, from the Wachowskis to Zack Snyder, but here he shows some ambition in his imitation and wants to show he can deliver a doomed, heartbreaking romance (just like James Cameron!) and mix it with some large-scale, end-of-the-world destruction porn (just like Roland Emmerich!). The result is breathtaking in its stupidity and shallowness.
Rag on “Titanic” all you want (though, a lot of the hate it gets isn’t deserved), Cameron at least found an emotional anchor for a film that had the world’s most predictable ending. We spent enough time with Jack and Rose to justify the tragedy and heartbreak that Cameron was aiming for. Anderson thinks that because his two romantic leads stare at each other while one of them euthanizes a horse with his rippling muscles (no seriously, this is what happens) that we’ll be all weepy and misty-eyed when they get encased by a massive wave of volcanic ash in the film’s final shot. Spoilers.
Maybe if Kit Harrington and Emily Browning weren’t such blank actors, or maybe if they actually got to spend any significant amount of time together beyond the doe-eyed looks they flash each other on occasion I’d have had a reason to try and care. One brief jaunt into the fields outside Pompeii isn’t enough. It all goes back to that final shot. Anderson thinks he’s got some timeless love story here, one that deserves to be immortalized and revered. There was a brief moment amidst the carnage of Mt. Vesuvius’ eruption, a short Milo (Harrington) and Cassia (Browning) barely feel like they’re on the same soundstage together, much less falling desperately in love.
And with a sub-two hour runtime, it’s obvious that Anderson mostly only cares about getting to the action. Too bad that part’s horrible, too.
Anderson may be a hack, but at least he typically copies from directors that are worth imitating. His “Resident Evil” films are disposable garbage, but at least he typically shoots the action wide and clean. “Pompeii” is further proof that only Ridley Scott can shoot and edit gladiatorial action like Ridley Scott. Never mind that the arena battles are all tame given the near-complete absence of blood. I’m no gore hound, but sanitizing gladiator battles is both boring and strangely reductive. The games were brutal affairs, and to make these scenes fit into a PG-13 context feels strange.
As for the destruction porn, it’s not that Anderson can’t imitate Roland Emmerich to a reasonable degree, it’s that his imitation is at odds with everything else he’s trying to accomplish. Part of what makes Emmerich’s films so much fun is that he goes hog wild with his set pieces. He’s well aware at how silly he’s being, like a kid raucously stomping down the intricate sand castles they spent hours building, and the rest of the film generally falls in line with that spirit. With “Pompeii,” it’s almost as though Anderson forgot he was also trying to sell us on a heartbreaking romance set on the backdrop of a tragic natural disaster. When you’re trying to make the audience feel the pain and loss of this horrible event, you may not want to prominently feature a tracking shot wherein a massive boat crushes buildings and people as it crashes through the city afloat on a rushing tidal wave and frame it all like it’s the coolest thing you’ve ever put to film.
The whole film is just one massive misguided effort.
Speaking of misguided efforts, if there’s a reason to see this other than to cheer on the volcano as it tries its hardest to give two boring would-be lovers a tragic end, it’s to savor Keifer Sutherland’s deliciously, deliriously bizarre accent. The only way that I can even begin to think to describe it is to imagine him doing a watered down version of Jeremy Irons’ fake American accent from “Die Hard with a Vengeance.” It’s unlike almost anything else I’ve heard. It goes nicely with a performance delivered by a man who clearly cares not how seriously his director is taking the proceedings and goes for pure ham. He’s not quite chewing the scenery, but it’s close.
The most frustrating part about all of this, though, is that there’s probably a very interesting, very compelling film to be made about the city of Pompeii, I’m just not sure why they thought the guy who delivers sub-par adaptations of video games was the one to deliver it.