Writers: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson
Starring: Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland
“You’re brave, I’ll give you that, but no savage can ever be a match for a Roman.”
300 really has a lot to answer for when it comes to swords and sandals epics. Despite being an enjoyably over the top comic book curiosity, its huge success and iconic status seems to have had a distasteful and permanent influence on an entire genre. Though first promisingly resurrected with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, the genre quickly shifted from the gritty and realistic splendour of Scott’s classic towards the heavily stylised exaggerated comic book/cartoon style we are now overly familiar with. It is now almost an unwritten rule that films set in antiquity must have extreme slow motion fights, harsh colour correction, fake looking CGI backgrounds, and ridiculously over the top pronunciation to dialogue. 300 started it, Spartacus cemented it, and now lesser imitators are powerless to think of anything else to do.
The latest Roman epic Pompeii bows down to the trend like a mindless supplicant incapable of individual thought, imitating all the moves of its peers without ever understanding why it must do so.
Set during the historical eruption of mount Vesuvius in which the town of Pompeii and most of its citizens were covered in hot ash, the subject is deeply somber and tragic, made all the more real and poignant by the vivid remains which survive today, and surely demands to be addressed with a certain level of gravitas and class. But there is little to be found in this fast paced, shallow actioner.
The plot is a predictable mish mash of the most obvious ideas written by someone who’s only knowledge of the era comes from having watched the most recent genre offerings. It takes all of five minutes to realise this is not the kind of story to indulge in historical detail or bringing the real city to life. Rather this is a standard swashbuckler which just happens to be decked out in Roman costume.
A brief prelude opens with peaceful barbarians working the land only to be brutally slaughtered by merciless Romans – the kind of set up for any adventure game. We then fast forward to the obligatory Gladiator school where oiled up hunks work out their homoerotic tensions in training bust ups. Before long a villainous Roman senator played by Kiefer Sutherland turns up to chew on the scenery and act like a panto villain, as he schemes for the love of an impossibly innocent and pure Roman maiden with the sensibilities of a child.
It is not hard to imagine the screen writers pulling ideas out of a lottery machine and stringing together their story.
Throughout this intense drama Kit Harrington struts around like a topless model scowling to communicate his inner torment and rather mild thirst for revenge.
As the cartoon characters busy themselves living their inauthentic lives which bear no relation to the real denizens of Pompeii, the main attraction of the story steadily rumbles in the background until its eruption transforms the film into a roller coaster disaster movie full of stampeding crowds, chariots being chased by fire storms, and people taking time out to resolve their personal grudges despite the impending doom.
The effects of the apocalyptic eruption look expensive and are occasionally impressive such as the tidal waves of smoke and ash which pours through the streets. But too often the spectacle is pushed up to ridiculous levels making the destruction resemble action sections in computer games. The mountain fires out a continuous storm of molten rocks which strike people down with pin point accuracy more efficient than a sniper, as the untouchable leads run towards the camera on obvious green screens. Enormous swathes of land inexplicably collapse into the sea.
With the complete absence of subtlety or restraint the fiery death quickly looses any fear factor and becomes a Godzilla style destruction fest.
As the mountain regularly slinks back into the background the characters find time to swing swords at each other and jump off of bits of scenery. Unfortunately the fighting is painfully mild and unexciting. The basic stunts and camera work, along with the lack of any shocking violence to spice things up, results in the kind of unthrilling and unnatural battles common on any daytime BBC adventure show.
With a better director at the helm and a more serious approach, the story of Pompeii has all the ingredients to be a classic. This most certainly is not.