The Pitch: Titanic on land
After the stinker that was The Three Musketeers, Paul W.S. Anderson returns with yet another all-action, historical adventure romance. And it’s surprisingly not bad. It’s essentially a Gladiator–Titanic mash-up with Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington doing what he does best (fighting, brooding, scowling) as the Leo-esque underdog hero, and Emily Browning as his upper crust Roman love interest. So far, so Jack and Rose.
But how else is Pompeii like Titanic? Well, Kiefer Sutherland is on thuggish form as Billy Zane, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje makes a bigger impression than Fabrizio as Easily Disposable Loyal Friend. There’s even an evil henchman who would rather stand around doing Mr Sutherland’s dirty work than say, running for his life. Oh wait, is that even a tidal wave about to drown thousands of hapless citizens in one quick watery grave? Check.
Characterisation is not this film’s strong point. Browning is keen to point out that she is ‘not Roman’ but a ‘citizen of Pompeii,’ when challenged about her bloodthirsty culture. Yes love, but your family’s wealth and privilege is still built on being complicit and profiting from slavery and war-mongering. And how did Harrington’s character become a brilliant horseman despite being a toddler when his family were slaughtered and he was sold into slavery? Jared Harris and Carrie Ann Moss are criminally underused as Browning’s parents, although Moss (displaying the female intuition that saw her through the Matrix trilogy) has the brilliant idea to kill Sutherland, just in case the volcano doesn’t get him.
A few token scenes trying to establish the political venality of Rome are swiftly swept aside by the encroaching lava – and the audience’s mounting boredom. Pompeii is at its best when it concentrates on the action scenes. The gladiatorial fights are clean and inventive, the sweeping CGI shots of Roman urban life are detailed and realistic, and the 3D ash effects stay compelling to the end. So what if we’ve seen this type of story before. Anderson is not one to shy away from schlock and cheese if it’s wrapped with a shiny CGI bow. And he uses 3D like tech geeks use Bluetooth. Liberally. All of which combine to take us on a thrilling ride.
However, his ending is marginally less cheesy than Titanic’s; definitely more believable. 85% of the audience will shed tears as the credits roll, and the rest will have been impressed by the special effects. Not a bad outcome for a popcorn movie that has been cannily released just as winter is at its gloomiest.