Friday, 9 January 2015

Movie Review: Pompeii (2014)

Way back when, before such stories became cheaper than air with how prevalent they were, there used to be a certain artistic merit to the idea of romance in the face of disaster. Of course, get enough filmmakers repeating the same idea over and over again, or worse making fun of said idea over and over again, and almost anything can become stale. The biggest contributor to this would probably be James Cameron’s Titanic, whose precise formula for such romances has become a blueprint for many other filmmakers both in and out of the disaster film genre. Today’s film is very much cut from that same cloth: This is Pompeii.

The plot: Milo (played by Kit Harrington) is a Celtic slave sold into gladiatorial combat in Pompeii. He soon meets, and falls in love with, Cassia (played by Emily Browning) the daughter of the city’s ruler. Senator Corvus (played by Kiefer Sutherland), arriving in Pompeii for a business deal with Cassia’s father, wants Milo dead so that Cassia will accept his hand in marriage. And while all this is going on, Mount Vesuvius rumbles away.

Not since the 2000’s have I seen the TriStar logo in front of a movie before, and the fact that it has only been used this year for movies like Heaven Is For Real and Moms’ Night Out only makes that more worrying. Add to that that the director is Paul W.S. Anderson, the man currently helping run Resident Evil into the ground, and this already doesn’t look good. However, for whatever reason, this seems to have Anderson trying more than he has previously if the production history of the film is anything to go by. He has gone on record saying that he was aiming to be as scientifically and historically accurate to the actual eruption of Vesuvius as possible, and I will give him credit where it’s due because that kind of dedication is at least noticeable here. In far too many movies involving volcanoes, I have seen lava act in ways that lava doesn’t in the real world and it bugs me every time I see it. This time around, they replace straight-up lava with pyroclastic activity and thick clouds of ash and smoke engulfing the city, which not only is closer to reality but also looks a lot better to boot. The initial eruption of Vesuvius, with the clouds pouring out of the neck of the volcano, is a very impressive-looking effect. In fact, for the most part, a lot of the special effects work in this film looks good and while that may seem like damning with faint praise, considering how easy it is to see decent special effects nowadays, I only bring it up as a means of mentioning at least something about this film that works.

The story here, despite this being an hour and 45 minutes long, is about as cookie-cutter as you can get with its romance without just directly lifting scenes wholesale from other movies. To make matters worse, said romance doesn’t even have decent chemistry between the actors to give it some credibility. While Kit Harrington is a decent actor as his tenure in Game Of Thrones has proven and Emily Browning at least does better here than in The Host, they have very little chemistry on-screen together. It’s very much a drive-by romance: Built up by very minimal time together and yet they are truly in wuv with each other; it’s trite and dull, among other things. However, the real draw of this film when it comes to actors comes from two other sources. The first of which is Kiefer Sutherland as the main villain, who chews through all of the scenery so that there’s nothing left for the volcano to destroy. His performance is by no means good, and his character is in no way written with subtlety or restraint, but it is entertaining to see and it helps that he is in a lot of the film’s running time. This is an amazingly badly written villain; the kind that won’t let a little thing like an erupting volcano get in the way of his petty squabbles and want for revenge against Milo. The other standout performance is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Atticus, one of Milo’s fellow gladiators; his presence on screen, which is all kinds of bad-ass, as well as his dialogue and banter with Milo make for one of the few legitimately good aspects of the film. But even then, the rare parts that are good about this film are quashed not only by the crap that surrounds them, but also by their own design: The effects work is only good when we don’t see the actors on-screen at the same time as the effects, as the green screen work is absolutely horrible. It has a similar sort of clashing effect as in films like The Legend Of Hercules or I, Frankenstein, only this film surprisingly manages to surpass even those two on a couple of occasions with how shite it looks. Kiefer’s performance is only good in that B-movie way where it seems like the actor is in on the joke that his character is terribly written and just plays it to the nines anyway, and Atticus has definite traces of Magical Negro in the way his character is written, something that always annoys me. We also have some pretty crap action direction, with way too many intercuts to keep track of what the hell is going on; Anderson may be trying new things, but it’s clear that his inability to shoot action scenes hasn’t improved from the Resident Evil movies.


All in all, while I can definitely see that the director was trying for an aesthetic with the visual style and attention to detail, this is an immensely crap script where everything from the characters to the overall plot is rail-thin and the actors can only do the best they can with the weak material, with some going in wildly different directions in order to do so. This might be one of the only times I’ll defend any aspect of Anderson’s direction, but that doesn’t make this a good movie. It’s not even a good movie for a bad movie night at home with friends, because a lot of it is just too boring to slog through. This is better than Before I Go To Sleep, as at least this kept me engaged if for all the wrong reasons, but it ranks lowers than Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, which had good story elements buried in it somewhere whereas this film does not. If you are willing to sit through vigorous amounts of crap to get your fix of disaster porn, then by all means but aside from a fine slice of Sutherland ham, I find no real reason to recommend this to anyone.

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