Gladiator meets Titanic meets Dante's Peak in Paul W. S. Anderson's latest 3D epic
There's no question that Pompeii is derivative but it wears it influences proudly on its sleeve and combines them in such an entertaining way that you can forgive its lack of originality.The setup is pure Titanic as star-crossed lovers meet in the face of a looming disaster. We all know how the film is going to end but the fun lies in the build up to Vesuvius blowing its top, the destruction that then ensues and finding out who will survive. Not content with using James Cameron's cinematic juggernaut as a template, the filmmakers have also thrown in a large chunk of Gladiator, as the hero is brought from the provinces (Brittania this time) to fight in the arena at Pompeii. There's plenty of surprisingly violent gladiator action, considering the rating, a friendship with a fellow gladiator and even a juicy revenge plot.Once the volcanic second half kicks off, it's pure Dante's Peak in sandals as everyone desperately tries to escape the flaming rocks raining down on them and the pyroclastic cloud heading their way. It's a classic disaster movie in terms of its overall structure and director Paul W. S. Anderson orchestrates the destruction with great skill thanks to some impressive effects and excellent use of 3D. In addition, a likeable cast and a pantomime villain in the shape of Keifer Sutherland's evil senator, all help to hold the action together. The end result is a film that never takes itself seriously but succeeds in being hugely enjoyable for 100 minutes.
The hero of the film is Milo, played by Kit Harington who up until now is best known for playing Jon Snow in Game of Thrones. He was part of a Celtic horse tribe who were slaughtered by Keifer Sutherland's Senator Corvus when he was just a child. Sold into slavery, he rises in the gladiator ranks before being noticed by a promoter from Pompeii who buys him to fight in the annual games there. Upon arriving in Pompeii he immediately falls for the Roman lady Cassia, played by Emily Browning, and develops a friendship with a fellow gladiator Atticus played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Rounding out our cast of characters are Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss as Cassia's parents, Jessica Lucas as her servant and Sasha Roiz as Corvus' vicious second-in-command. The cast all seem to realise the nature of the film and thus concentrate on having fun, especially Sutherland who's almost twirling a moustache, and Kit Harington makes full use of all those months he spent in the gym.
A likeable cast includes Kit Harington and a deliciously nasty turn from Kiefer Sutherland as the main villain.
If the basic narrative sounds rather familiar it's probably because the writers have stolen whole sections from the plot of Gladiator and simply woven them into the love story and disaster elements of Titanic. So we get the hero being referred to as The Celt, as opposed to The Spaniard, we get a friendship between black and white gladiators, a staged battle in the arena and some juicy revenge along the way. We also get love at first sight and a young couple's desperate attempt the evade the cruel fates that threaten to separate them. Still if you're going to plagiarise at least do it from the best and besides, the film works remarkably well as a cohesive narrative. There's enough intrigue and gladiator action to hold the audience's attention until the inevitable eruption of the volcano that constantly looms in the distance like a malevolent additional character.
The film was written by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson, directed by Paul W. S. Anderson (not to be confused with Paul Thomas Anderson of Boogie Nights fame) and produced by Anderson and his regular partner Jeremy Bolt. The film is a co-production that was shot in studios in Canada on a budget of about $80 million, which is quite small for a film of this scale. The producers make full use of that budget, with some great production design and costumes, that capture the look of a modern sword and sandal epic. The film includes some enjoyably violent action scenes that really push the 12A rating but are obviously tame when compared to the likes of Gladiator or, more recently, the TV series Spartacus. The rating also means that the decadence of Roman life that Spartacus revels in so explicitly, is also only hinted at in Pompeii.
Paul W. S. Anderson handles the destruction well and uses the native 3D with genuine skill and imagination.
Of course it's the effects on which the film stands or falls and thankfully the filmmakers do a wonderful job of recreating the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. Whether it's scientifically accurate or not is of little importance, what matters is that the destruction is well orchestrated and exciting. Anderson is often criticised as a director of derivative and mediocre films, which has certainly been true in the past, but he's also capable of keeping the viewer entertained for the duration of the movie, which seems to be a rare talent these days. He's also one of the few directors that actually understands how to use 3D properly and the natively-shot Pompeii is a wonderful example of how to apply the technology in a skilful and imaginative way. The added dimensionality really feels like an integral part of the film and not just tacked on for the sake of the box office.
Derivative and exciting in equal measures, Paul W. S. Anderson's re-telling of the destruction of Pompeii remains an enjoyable slice of 3D hokum. Yes it won't be winning any awards but it's the very definition of a guilty pleasure and easily Anderson's best film since Event Horizon. If you're looking for a fun evening at the cinema, Pompeii won't disappoint.
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