Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Does Anyone Know When This Volcano Finally Erupts?

Some business to see to before we get started today. Check out what Norma has to say about Miley Cyrus and other self indulgences. Now, today we've got ourselves a movie to be reviewed. Spoiler alert: the volcano wins. Take that, ancient Romans!

Pompeii is the latest film from director Paul W.S Anderson (those endless and pointless Resident Evil films), featuring a volcano daring to get in the way of a love story in the ancient Roman world. Oh, and there are some actors in the whole thing too. It just came out in theatres last weekend. Whether or not you go to see it depends on if you feel like sitting through undeveloped characters and a cast trying their best despite the hack who's directing them, all for a reasonably decent final act.

Anderson starts out the story years before the infamous disaster in which Vesuvius erupted, destroying the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79AD. In Britain, a young Celt boy named Milo is taken by slave traders after his family and tribe have been wiped out by a Roman force led by Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). Years later, the boy is a gladiator (Kit Harrington), one of several such slaves on his way to Pompeii when by chance their party crosses paths with Cassia (Emily Browning) and her servant girl Ariadne (Jessica Lucas). Milo commits an act of quick mercy on a fallen horse, and Cassia is drawn to him. As fate would have it (or as the committee of writers deemed it essential as a plot device), she's returning to Pompeii herself. She's the daughter of the city's ruler, Severus (Jared Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), back from time in Rome.

Milo seems fated to die in the gladiatorial ring. There's a rivalry with a fellow gladiator, Atticus (Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje) that gradually changes to mutual respect. He has a way with horses, and an awareness that not all is right in the earth around the great mountain. And he has a thing for Cassia (well, we can't blame him for that, can we?) and she feels much the same. Still, as a slave, there's that gulf of rank and place in society between them. And there's another problem. Corvus, now a Roman Senator, turns up, with his own plans for the city. He also intends to have Cassia for his bride, and won't put up with any upstart gladiator slaves with chiseled abs competing for the object of his affections. Needless to say, Corvus is a particularly nasty villain as villains go. Oh, and there's the whole problem with that mountain just waiting to go off.

There's an assembly line of writers and producers involved in this. That's usually not a good sign. The story sets this fictional story against a real life disaster of antiquity. It comes to us from Janet Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson. The Batchlers, a married couple, were among the screenwriters for Batman Forever (a warning sign if ever there was one). Johnson's previous credit was as a screenwriter for Guy Ritchie's first Sherlock Holmes. Their story is, well, derivative of earlier films- Spartacus, Gladiator, and Titanic are all clearly on display here in many ways. The characters feel undeveloped, and that's not really the fault of the cast... it feels more like the writers, particularly given such nefarious credentials.

Anderson as a director is certainly not of much help either. Look at his resume. Aside from six Resident Evil films, this is the same person who brought such cinematic lowlights as Mortal Kombat, Alien versus Predator, and the most recent version of The Three Musketeers to the screen. An auteur, he is not. Instead he likes blowing things up on a big scale, and at least he gets to do that here. The special effects team working for him renders their work well, giving us the requisite earthquakes, tsunamis, ash clouds, and violent destruction of an ancient Roman city as we'd expect. If only they had a better director to work for. Aside from the derivative story, the director's the weakness of the film. He persists in the use of 3D for this film, so expect volcanic fire to be hurling out of the screen right at you.

And frankly, the cast deserves better than to have undeveloped characters and a poor director at the helm. There are good actors here. Jessica Lucas is sympathetic as Ariadne, though it took me a bit of time to figure out where I'd seen her before: another disaster film, Cloverfield. Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje is a good character actor, from Lost and The Bourne Identity. He last appeared as a villain in Thor: The Dark World, and plays Atticus as a strong and honourable man. Jared Harris is likable enough as Severus (no, not Severus Snape). He's previously appeared as Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows and as General Grant in Lincoln, and he's a good character actor. It's been awhile since we've seen Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix trilogy), but she's quite welcome as Cassia's mother, though she might seem too young for the part.

Kiefer Sutherland (24) gets to have fun as the villain Corvus, an utterly nasty and ill tempered Roman. You get the sense as an actor he's enjoying himself chewing the scenery and being as thoroughly despicable as he can playing the character. Emily Browning has an eclectic resume as an actress. Looking through her background, I was surprised that she had the wisdom to turn down playing Bella Swan in those wretched Twilight films; her work varies between indie roles and some horror work. She plays Cassia as well as the story will allow (it's not her fault the characters are undeveloped). She's essentially playing Kate Winslet's Rose in this particular disaster... which leads us to the Jack Dawson of this story. Kit Harrington comes to us from Game of Thrones, so he's in his element. He has to look the part of a gladiator, which he does, though if you're looking for a gladiator like Kirk Douglas or Russell Crowe, you'll have to look elsewhere, because Harrington's not in that league. At least unlike Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrington doesn't bug the hell out of me. Browning and Harrington don't have a lot of chemistry, but again... I'm blaming the writers for that instead of the actors. 

The cast and the core story deserves better than the director and writers give them. I wonder what this film would have done in the hands of better creators. The film is uplifted somewhat by a good last act in which the volcano decides to finally get serious, kick butt, and take names. If you can hold out for that (and you don't have nightmares about dying horribly in a volcanic cataclysm), it's worth checking this one out. Just as long as you don't expect a directorial masterpiece, because Anderson's not capable of that.


  1. And here I've been looking forward to seeing this one!

    Oh, well...if the acting is that bad, I can go cheer on the volcano!

  2. Perhaps a case of truth being better than fiction. :)

  3. I keep seeing commercials for this movie and I thought it was just a fun disaster movie.
    Then I read your review and see all the big named actors... well call me surprised !
    I will wait for Netflix on this one.

    I am waiting for Hayao Miyazaki's "The Wind Rises".

    cheers, parsnip

  4. Your blog usually reminds me that I'm far behind in my movies. ;)

  5. Fantastic review as always, sir! I'm a sucker for epic action flicks, and I was pretty excited for this one. But the reviews have not been kind, so it might be a renter.

    I was suspicious when the trailers started cropping up painting this as more of a war-movie-gone-lovestory than a natural disaster film.

  6. @Norma: Go, Vesuvius, go!

    @Eve: oh, yes indeed!

    @Parsnip: I think I've heard of that one heading into theatres...

    @Kelly: you'll catch up!

    @EJ: suspicions affirmed!

  7. The Etna here in Sicily is giving problems these days, the aiport in Catania and Palermo had to close last week. Ha-ha, you're funny about the spam!

  8. All I can say is a bad gladiator movie can be tolerable watching if there are at least some manly gladiators on screen.

    I'm off to watch Victor Mature in Demetrius and the Gladiators.

  9. Love story *gag*...action movie *gag*.
    I'll give this a miss.
    Jane x

  10. Guess this is one I'll wait to be out of the theaters.

    But then, most movies are!

  11. I didn't see great reviews for this and yours just sealed it for me - life is too short for eh films:)

  12. Great review, Sir Wills. But I'm gonna go see it for myself. I've been wanting to go anyway.

  13. I love reading about Pompeii--the real one at least. This looks like a film that may require some kind of game to get through :)

  14. I wouldn't have gone to this one anyway William, not my type of movie.. After reading your review I can see its the right decision :)

  15. Your reviews are spot-on so I'm disappointed the film won't be what I expected. But I'll still go see it. I've visited both Pompeii and Herculaneum -- both amazing but the latter a bit more so, I think. When one's standing there it's beyond amazing how both are mid-moment frames of everyday life.

    About the catfish -- my grandfather thought a bird dropped a pregnant one from another water source -- soooo many in LA.

  16. I'll have to see this one! I'm a sucker for special effects, and the love plot is one that is classic romance driven. I will definitely brush off the poor writing and directing.

    Great review and thanks for sharing!

  17. @Francesca: it still astounds me that people live so close to active volcanoes. Thank you for stopping in!

    @Lynn: I don't think I've ever seen that one.

    @Jane and Chris: it's not something that you must see, after all.

    @Cheryl: some films are meant to be seen long after the fact, after all.

    @LondonLulu: I saw another one the other day that I'm glad I didn't see in the theatres. Let's just say The Lone Ranger didn't perform well.

    @Shelly: well, it's a cheesy film, but despite the director and writing problems, it's still enjoyable.

    @Meradeth: we could have a drinking game any time Kiefer snarls or makes threats. If you apply that to 24, that's a lot of drinks.

    @Grace: consider yourself advised!

    @Kittie: that would be a good explanation. And I'd love to see the cities themselves.

    @Diane: thank you!

  18. Almost all disaster type movies feature undeveloped characters and poor acting since the star is the special effects. I'll rent this one.


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