Milo versus the volcano (guess who wins): “Pompeii”

February 24, 2014


With some movies you can practically hear the studio pitch whispering in the background, just barely masked by the dialogue. In the case of Pompeii, the new disaster extravaganza by Resident Evil auteur (yes, I’m using that work loosely) Paul W.S. Anderson, I’m pretty sure the pitch went something like this:

“I have a great idea for a February release—it’s about “Pompeii—the city that was buried by a volcano.”

“Mount St. Helens?”

“No, that was the Pacific Northwest. This is ancient Rome.”

“Oh…erm…you mean we have to watch people in togas and stuff? That’s kinda tough to cross-market, you know. Nobody wears togas anymore. At least I don’t think they do. Maybe in Ibiza. Last time I was there, I was so railed on coke I didn’t even notice I still had one of the midgets in my suitcase until I changed planes in Amsterdam.”

“Yeah, that’s gonna happen. But hey, dig it—it’s Gladiator meets Titanic.

“Holy balls, that is brilliant! We can maybe steal some material from that Spartacus series.”

“Like Jamie Murray having threesomes with Xena: Warrior Princess?”

“Ah…nope, better keep this one PG-13. Exploding volcanoes don’t come cheap.”

And that’s how Pompeii happened.

Now when you’re making a movie about Pompeii, you operate under really only one requirement: a big honkin’ volcano eruption.  Whatever else happens in pretty much immaterial beside that big clump of dirt in the background where, you know, hell is coming out. Any story set against that is fast going to fade in irrelevance, so it’s not really Anderson’s fault that Pompeii really just sort of spins its wheels until the Big Event.

But, hey, you probably want to know what goes on until then.  So, it starts with a Roman raid on a Celtic village that leaves some little androgynous child orphaned. Fast forward a couple years, and that little gender-neutral child has grown into a semi-famous gladiator named Milo (no shit, Milo) and played by Kit Harrington, making him the only Gladiator who looks like he listens to shoegaze.

It looks even worse spelled out.

It looks even worse spelled out.

Milo ends up heading to Pompeii to fight on the big circuit (just trust me on this), when he meets Cassia (Emily Browning), a noblewoman traveling in the same caravan. He catches her eyes with his hunkayyy bod and his willingness to kill an injured horse. I should warn you, human emotions don’t really make a lot of sense in this movie.

Well, once in Pompeii, we get all sorts of intrigue as Cassia’s father Severus (Jared Harris) is trying to work a development deal to rebuild Pompeii’s infrastructure with Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), a venal Roman senator. At the same time, Milo is pitted against a veteran gladiator named Atticus (Adwale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who has one match before he is set free. And it goes this way. Corvus is a major league toolbag, forcing Severus to give him Cassia’s hand in marriage to sweeten the deal. Milo and Cassia taste forbidden love. Milo and Atticus are pitted against each other in the arena. And the big mountain in the background is rumbling.

Oh shit.

Oh shit.

So, we kill time with that until Vesuvius goes boom! And then this turns into one of those movies where everyone should be running for their lives, but our protagonists decide to complete their character arcs first. Remember how Billy Zane thought the best thing to do while the Titanic was sinking was to chase Leonardo DiCaprio through freezing-cold water, ineptly shooting at him rather than bribing his way into a lifeboat? In this movie, Milo and Corvus square off over Cassia in the coliseum while the ginormous volcano that looms over the city barfs liquid fire at them! Honestly, Emily Browning is way too skinny for my tastes to be re-enacting the last act of Revenge of the Sith.

"In hindsight, maybe we should have run AWAY from the volcano."

“In hindsight, maybe we should have run AWAY from the volcano.”

There is a lot wrong with the story, aside from the fact that it’s pretty thin stuff—with plot lines copped from the aforementioned sources. The movie also wobbles a lot in its world-building. Rome is, apparently, um, bad. The Pompeii-ites turn their back on Corvus when he arrives, and Cassia, arriving home from the big city, speaks of it in the same tones generally reserved for 1950’s New Orleans. Yet we get no clue what they’re so torqued up about. Are they sacrificing puppies? Having public orgies? Is the traffic bad? C’mon, just give me a taste.

I like to think this is how Kiefer begins all his cookouts.

I like to think this is how Kiefer begins all his cookouts.

But the story only exists to kill time until Vesuvius can kill everybody, and on that score Pompeii doesn’t disappoint. The digital effects are pretty seamless, and Anderson wisely favors large-scale overhead shots for maximum disaster-porn wankery. Vesuvius looks appropriately towering and horrifyingly inferno-like. When it goes full bitchcakes on Pompeii, it genuinely looks apocalyptic.

Uh, what else we got? Some random points:

* A gladiator named Milo? Really? “All shall fall before the mighty blade of Milo!” Yeah, that doesn’t work.

* The guy who wrote this also wrote Batman Forever. Holy shit, they still let this guy write movies? Really? I would have thought he’d be work at a call center in Des Moines by now.

* Emily Browning seems to be getting more and more pale and wan with every role. It’s like she has one of those Victorian-era wasting diseases. I’m afraid in a couple movies she’ll be nothing but a set of eyes and blonde hair floating through the frame.

She's like a Chupa-Chup. With hair.

She’s like a Chupa Chup. With hair.

* And talk about saving the wrong girl, Cassia’s servant Ariadne, played by Jessica Lucas, is not only stunning, bit also Browning’s more-agreeable opposite in every way—non-white, curvaceous, and exuding warmth and sensuality. She, I would risk ending up in a Darth Vader suit for.

Folks we never see:

–Pliny the Younger watching the whole thing from his bedroom.

–Pliny the Elder dragging his fat butt into the disaster in a fatal rescue mission.

–The Tenth Doctor saving the family of the guy who eventually becomes the Thirteenth Doctor.

* The PG-13 rating makes the coliseum scenes almost funny. Lots of carnage, no blood. It’s like the A-Team went to ancient Rome.

* I really want to make a snarky comment about building your city at the base of an active volcano, but given my current location, that just seems like tempting fate.

And there we have Pompeii. Volcanoes blowing up cities: never not fun.

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