Welcome to The Legend of Hercules: Part II.
Ok, while Pompeii is definitively not a good movie, it’s also not a train wreck of quite the same, well, herculean proportions. But the comparison is difficult to avoid. Just as we view Roman culture as the later, greater iteration of its Greek progenitor, it’s hard not to look at this effects laden and largely empty action movie as somehow related to the mythic flop from earlier this year. Both leads even spend significant parts of their movies as gladiators, for crying out loud.
Despite a trailer of questionable quality, I had some interest in Popeii for a pair of reasons. First, I have historical interest in the Vesuvius eruption and subsequent burial of the ancient city. Second, Kit Harington does a great job in Game of Thrones and I wanted to see if he could really act or if it was just good typecasting.
That second question ends up being nearly impossible to answer thanks to some really poor characterization that’s almost entirely out of Harington’s hands and makes him nothing more than a boring blank slate, so let’s address the first. Because I didn’t pay much attention to Pompeii prior to release, I didn’t think about the issue of using the Vesuvius eruption as the centerpiece of a story until after the movie began. It’s not that a disaster movie can’t be done, of course; there have been more than enough done well. But if you look at something like Titanic or even The Day After Tomorrow, what characterizes those films is the time it takes for the entire disaster to play out. The big ship sinks very slowly, with plenty of time for the characters to contemplate and address their fate. That’s interesting material. Even something like last summer’s Pacific Rim builds in time for character moments (however false they may or may not have ended up being) that’s then punctuated by the moments of high action.
You’ll notice, too, in both these examples how the setting and subsequent terror is a direct part of the character progression and thematic elements each film explores. Pompeii, unfortunately, shares neither of these characteristics. The magnitude, threat, suddenness, and speed of the Vesuvius eruption eliminates most of the time characters could normally be exposed by the heightened tension of the event. That’s why disaster movies are made – high stress situations bring out deep character traits more obviously than slowly developing trials. The last, say, third of Pompeii is compelling enough in a purely visual sense, but it’s just a prolonged action scene that has very little to do with the narrative which has elapsed to that point. Class discrepancy, at the root of Titanic, is still an issue as decisions are made about who will fill the lifeboats. The disaster being shown there fits the narrative being communicated to tell a complete story.
The eruption of Vesuvius does represent a class equalizer, which would be important to the story if they weren’t trumped by the immediacy and severity of its danger. When everyone is stampeding for the city’s exits and dying en masse from fire, falling stone, sinkholes, tsunamis, and more, survival instinct supersedes any of the political and personal intrigue that the earlier part of the movie tries to build. There’s something to be said for the triumph of the human spirit when one character stops to help another, but feuds among several of the characters which delay the only chance of escape from otherwise certain death for all quickly become laughable.
Harington’s character at first seems like he ought to be immune from this drive to self-preservation, which actually might have been a nice twist. Known as the Celt, the character is the last living member of a clan of Celtic horsemen the Romans exterminated in their conquest of Britannia, and it’s clear early on from both word and attitude that while he has no notions of suicide, the Celt lives an empty existence. He’ll live enslaved and fighting as a gladiator, he’ll die sometime, and outside of a hope to avenge his people that he knows will probably never come to pass, he’s completely resigned to that existence. And of course, the story teases him with the possibility that vengeance might actually be within reach when Senator Corvus (played by Kiefer Sutherland), the commander who led the attack on his people, shows up in Pompeii, where the Celt has been brought to fight in the upcoming games. It’s not hard to imagine that later the Celt might try to kill Corvus rather than escape Pompeii.
All this potential for actual development that might be organic to the character is cast to the wind when Cassia (Emily Browning) gets thrown in as a love interest. And although she’s the governor’s daughter in a part that maybe should be rife with political intrigue (the movie definitely tries to sell this angle), she’s really there for nothing but eye candy and some artificial motivation for the Celt. Their “relationship” is complete, undeveloped banality that leans hard into the notion of love at first sight. But the real tragedy is the way it muddles Harington’s character. The attempt is to give him something to live for, but rather than creating an arc, this removes the one thing that makes the Celt unique. Rather than being a character so driven by his past that he’d sacrifice his own life to kill the man responsible, he becomes every love struck “hero” that has every wandered onto the big screen. And to make matters worse, he’s still got the dead-to-the-world personality. So, as mentioned at the top, there’s no character here.
But even this, perhaps the biggest of the movie’s many flaws, can’t be written off as merely poor conception. Execution must be blamed as well.
There’s one scene that pretty perfectly sums up the movie’s failings. (Well, besides that part I already talked about where the climax – Vesuvius erupting – makes the rest of the film irrelevant. That’s a pretty big one.) Maybe halfway through the movie there’s a scene where the Celt is called in to calm Cassia’s horse, which broken wild within its stable because it has an animal sense about the impending eruption. The Celt and Cassia are alone in the stable (which wouldn’t happen) and the Celt is about to use the horse to run away. As the guards call from outside the door to make sure Cassia’s all right, because she’s not responding to them from inside, the Celt offers for her to come with him. This is, by the way, only their second brief meeting, but Cassia is already smitten by this handsome slave. The fact that this purely physical, artificial connection is the basis of their relationship is pretty lazy trope that I won’t go into here. Frozen, for one, can make the argument against it for me, and in a more entertaining way than I’d probably be able to manage.
Anyways, the Celt offers his hand. Cassia must decide to take it and go with him, or let him go forever. And the moment streeeeeeeeeches on with Harington not doing anything but staring and holding out his hand. Let’s think about this for a moment.
1) The guards are outside and becoming increasingly agitated.
2) The Celt barely knows this girl.
3) Bringing her ups the risk significantly, especially if she’s not 100% on board with running away and never looking back.
The Celt is in a moment where he has to be decisive. He’s chosen a course of action, and he needs to go. If she’s not going to come with him immediately, everything we know about his character (though the knowledge is limited) and his situation suggests he’d be out of there, not waiting for the guards to come in and kill him. Director Paul W.S. Anderson should have realized this and directed, or at least cut, the scene differently.
The Verdict: 1 out of 5
There are a few things in Pompeii that show some potential: the eruption of Vesuvius is kind of cool visually. In terms of story and character, there’s some black humor and budding camaraderie between the Celt and another gladiator (played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) that I didn’t even get into in the above, some parts of the Celt’s character, and some political intrigue that might have all been compelling if they’d been handled better. There’s no risk in the relationships, little quality development to the characters, and execution in everything but the fight scenes and most of the visual effects is very spotty. But the biggest failing lies in a lack of understanding of the disaster which forms the backbone of the narrative. The Vesuvius eruption plays into neither the character progression nor what little thematic development the movie attempts, makes 90% of the plot that comes before it irrelevant, and makes the 10% of the plot the movie does try to carry through feel very, very false. This is still far from the worst movie I’ve seen this year, but you can find better places to spend your money.