In Pompeii, Paul W.S. Anderson—cinema’s premier purveyor of video-game-indebted, spatially constrained, short-time-frame action fantasies—tries his hand at large-scale destruction and historical romance, yielding mixed results. Love stories aren’t Anderson’s forte, and neither is lengthy exposition; fortunately, Pompeii’s second half is tailor-made for Anderson’s established skill set, unfolding over a matter of hours, with many scenes set in and under a gladiatorial amphitheatre that recalls the arenas, subterranean tunnels, and cavernous vessels of Anderson’s best movies.
Distrust of remote power—a common feature of genre movies about groups in peril—is the closest thing Anderson has to a consistent theme. In Pompeii, the Roman Empire functions as the latest in a long line of sinister military-industrial corporations, which are a frequent presence in the director’s work. The movie’s villain, Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, speaking with a British accent which somehow makes him sound even more like his father), is an envoy who’s traveled to Pompeii to meet with businessman Severus (Jared Harris) about investing Roman funds in the city’s aging infrastructure.
That infrastructure ends up playing a major role in the movie. Anderson can’t help but turn the open-air, urban setting into yet another deathtrap tunnel system, and CGI aerial shots dot Pompeii’s opening stretch, showing the complex grid of roads, narrow streets, and aqueducts which make up a Roman city—and through which, of course, the characters will eventually have to escape. Miniatures, like the floor-sized war game in The Three Musketeers or the city mock-ups in Resident Evil: Retribution, are one of Anderson’s visual obsessions, part of his fixation on enclosed spaces and compressed stories. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that when Corvus and Severus meet to discuss business, it’s in a room full of architectural models.
Trying to suck up to his Roman guest, Severus stages a re-creation of one of Corvus’ military victories—yet another miniature—in the city’s amphitheatre, pitting a small band of unarmored gladiators (representing the tribesmen Corvus massacred) against a larger group armed with military weapons and shields. Among the unlucky “tribesmen” is the movie’s putative romantic lead (Kit Harrington), a champion gladiator known for much of the movie only as “the Celt.” Unbeknownst to Corvus, the Celt is the lone survivor of the original massacre. He’s also in love with Severus’ daughter, Cassia (Emily Browning), whom Corvus wants to marry. A volcano is about to erupt. Everyone has swords. A viewer who can’t figure out where this is going should schedule an appointment to have their eyes and ears examined.
Neither the lukewarm Celt-Cassia romance nor the movie’s many early scenes depicting upper-class Roman life and slave-master relationships (which smack of Julian Fellowes, who was brought on to rewrite the script) seem to engage Anderson’s visual imagination. They do, however, give the director—one of the most effective, spatially aware 3-D stylists—plenty of opportunities to compose deep-focus shots around colonnades and windows. Secondary protagonist Atticus (a scene-stealing Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) provides some much-needed pulp flavor; a hardass, shit-talking loner fixated on freedom, he makes for a better Anderson hero than the Celt.
Thankfully, Anderson gets to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius about as quickly as he can, considering the over-burdened first act. It’s here that the movie snaps to. Rather than going the Roland Emmerich “big tableaux of destruction” route, Pompeii reduces the disaster to a series of steeplechase set pieces, fiery debris raining into the 3-D foreground as the characters scamper over bodies and ruins or try to outrun a ship that’s been forced inland by a tidal wave. Like its director’s horror hybrids, Pompeii values self-determination over survival, which makes for better, brisker, less convoluted genre storytelling. What matters to Anderson is the urge to escape, not the destination—an idea that is hinted at in the movie’s talky, backstory-heavy opening, and which becomes palpable as Anderson turns his attention to crafting zippy sequences where characters struggle to flee a city collapsing in on itself.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Pompeii’s Spoiler Space.