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Pompeii, a $100 million, effects heavy, swords-and-sandals disaster movie, is the latest film from director Paul W. S. Anderson. It should be clarified up front that this is Paul W. S. Anderson of Alien vs Predator, Death Race and many a Resident Evil film, not Paul Thomas Anderson of There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights and The Master, so expectations should be adjusted accordingly.
When his entire village in Britannia are massacred by the Roman army, young Milo is sold into slavery. He grows up to become “The Celt,” one of the most fearsome new gladiatorial talents in the Empire. As such he is taken to Pompeii to fight in the games that are to be staged there. There he catches the eye of a young noblewoman, Cassia, who has been unwillingly betrothed to the Roman Senator Corvus. As Mount Vesuvius erupts and the city crumbles, Milo must fight to save his beloved Cassia.
Pompeii opens with slow, emotive panning shots of the famous Pompeii body casts, people preserved in very human, often tender moments, by the ash from the eruption. These haunting images suggest a level of profundity that the gladiator-cum-disaster movie that follows doesn’t really possess.
From the moment the movie starts we are basically waiting for that enormous mountain that looms over the city to wreak havoc. But the first half of the film is effectively filler as we are made to wait over an hour for that event to occur. In the meantime we are entertained by the occasional well-staged gladiatorial bout, and the screenplay momentarily touches on an interesting area, looking at the dynamics of a relationship between two gladiators who know that at some point they will be required to try and kill each other. But if you are going to make the audience wait this long for the disaster to occur, it needs to be in service of really establishing a connection with the characters, and that is where Pompeii misses the mark. The characters are largely forgettable and the poor-boy, rich-girl love story is one we’ve seen so many times before.
Thankfully, though, the second act is where the film comes into its own. Once the volcano erupts, Pompeii sets a cracking pace and it doesn’t let up for the next 45 minutes, maintaining momentum right through to its completion. It is for these scenes that the film has been shot in 3D and the visual effects are quite impressive and exhilarating. We see plumes of ash, fireballs, lava, earthquakes, even a tsunami. It really is all happening in this horrifying, apocalyptic moment. For a disaster movie, particularly in the age of digital effects, it is so important to get this part right, and the eruption and the destruction of Pompeii really are the strongest scenes in the film.
Pompeii attempts to be Gladiator meets Titanic, but where both of those films succeeded in connecting with audiences on a human level, Pompeii relies solely on its impressive special effects. As such it ends up proving that one plus one can still somehow equal significantly less than one.