********* 6 out of 10 *********
Movies based on historical events have a certain charm to them. Even among those, the ones that go back to stories centuries old, that were buried with time and changing civilisations, stand out, for they make us learn a little bit of our history that we would otherwise have cared little about. The townships, the clothing, the artifacts, the battles, as well as the different ideologies which existed then, are brought forth once again. And among all these stories of yesteryears, the tales around Rome have been the subject of fascination for Hollywood movie makers for quite a while. Pompeii too narrates a tale of a time long gone by, 79 A.D. to be precise, of the fictional story of a blossoming love between a gladiator and a beautiful lady under the backdrop of the true tale of the eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius and the doom it brought to the Roman city of Pompeii.
Pompeii begins with the story of a young Milo who watches his family being massacred by the Romans under the leadership of the corrupt senator Corvus (Keifer Sutherland). Milo (Kit Harrington) is then taken away into a world of slavery and grows up fighting in arenas as a gladiator in smaller provinces. Eventually, he is taken to participate in a grand gladiator fight in the city of Pompeii where the festival of Vulcanalia is being celebrated. In the city, politics is also taking shape, as a wealthy merchant (Jared Harris) invites senator Corvus so as to seek the support of the Roman king for rebuilding Pompeii. And in the midst of this, a love story is blossoming between the merchant’s daughter Cassia (Emily Browning) and Milo. But a much more terrible force is bound to alter their destinies, as Mount Vesuvius prepares to explode.
The plot of the movie isn’t the worst you would find in Hollywood. It has enough of drama and romance going around that has the potential to keep the audience interested. But while it does grab your attention, it doesn’t spellbound you. It doesn’t make you lean forward in anticipation. The plot and its story-telling lack enough punches and pace to captivate, and eventually it feels drab in its flow. Director Paul W.S. Anderson goes for something grander in Pompeii than his usual Resident Evil flicks, but maybe he has just spent too much time on those zombie killing movies (he has directed three of the five Resident Evil films) that events in his other films too move in a straightforward and largely predictable manner. But I would take a Pompeii to another Resident Evil film any day!
The movie’s brightest point is its cinematography, the visual grandeur that is created so artistically that it becomes the focal point of the movie. Mount Vesuvius in the background looks ominous enough to give the chills, standing tall as the undefeatable foe. The city of Pompeii has been richly setup making it a visual delight. The costume department too scores a fine point with its character dresses. The film’s most exhilarating moments come with the eruption of the volcano; the lava and the soot that lashes out make for a spectacular view, better enjoyed in 3D. Cinematographer Glen MacPherson is the real hero of this film, and without these larger-than-life moments, the movie would have lost its heart. The fight scenes, mainly sword-fighting scenes, are shown with alacrity and precision, turning the gladiator fights into a fine spectacle. No surprise on that, for Jean Frenette is the fight coordinator here, his past works including 300 and Immortals amongst a host of others.
The acting of many of the leading characters fails to match the grandeur of the setup. Kit Harington, who has grown in popularity in Game of Thrones, takes too much time to feel comfortable in his character in Pompeii. A blank expression for much of the time, the whole angle of a vengeful Milo falls flat as Harington does not effectively bring out the rage which a child watching his family being slaughtered would have felt. It is only towards the latter half of the movie that one could feel a bit of empathy with Harington’s character. Emily Browning shows more grace and spark to bring her character Cassia to life. Limited though by the script’s boundaries which finally make her a damsel in distress, Browning’s few rebellious acts add a layer of complexity to the film which otherwise lacks any.
Keifer Sutherland is vicious as the corrupt senator, and his each word reeks of powerplay and politics. But he too gets bound by the movie’s script which does not allow his character to have any other dimension beyond staying as the typical bad guy from the beginning to the end. More talent is wasted as Jared Harris (oh, those Moriarty days!) and Carrie-Anne Moss (if only there were more Matrix films lined up!) are given forgettable roles as Cassia’s parents. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is probably the only one of the cast who manages to command noteworthy screen presence, playing the scowling champion gladiator who is a fight away from freedom.
Overall, Pompeii has its moments, driven by great visuals, and it becomes worthy of a watch for solely that reason. Beyond that it feels like a distant cousin of Gladiator, and some scenes would even remind you of the glorious Ridley Scott film. On a side note, for those interested, you could read up on the Wiki page the actual drama that unfolded centuries back when Mount Vesuvius erupted. A little bit of history worth knowing!