Sometimes you have to wonder if writers are aware of just how much of their scripts inadvertently rip off or openly resemble other movies. For example, three writers are credited with ‘Pompeii’ – did it ever occur to any of them that their disaster film was ‘Titanic’ meets ‘Gladiator’ with a ‘Conan’ opening thrown in for good measure? Surely director Paul W.S. Anderson, the auteur responsible for the ‘Resident Evil’ film series, did, not that I imagine he cared.
But, Anderson’s latest isn’t merely derivative of two or three genuinely good movies, aping their ideas in order to approximate their emotional impact. ‘Pompeii’ is bad in the shadow of its predecessors and on its own merits – an epic accurately described as a disaster in concept and execution thanks to lackluster character development, clichéd storytelling and rote execution that trivializes both sweeping cataclysms and everyday human conflicts.
Kit Harington (‘Game of Thrones’) plays Milo, a Celtic tribesman who survives the slaughter of his people as a child only to become a Roman slave as an adult. Eventually shuffled towards Pompeii to be trained as a gladiator, he encounters a noblewoman named Cassia (Emily Browning) along the way who takes a shine to his mud-crusted beefcake. But after he is pitted against veteran gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) in a celebration commemorating the arrival of a Roman senator named Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), Milo becomes occupied by the challenge of survival rather than romance.
Milo soon becomes a formidable competitor, winning Atticus’ friendship and the adoration of the people with his feats of strength. But, as Mount Vesuvius begins to rumble, Corvus blackmails Cassia into marrying him, and the young gladiator finds himself in a fight to rescue his new love before an eruption claims the lives of everyone in Pompeii.
Although it’s understandable why a filmmaker might not want an entire film to be devoted to the natural disaster that legitimizes its existence, ‘Pompeii’ wastes an inordinate amount of time on setting up the world and introducing the characters that we’re supposed to care about – particularly since we never do. For example, while Milo was never going to be a match for the charms of Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘Titanic’ character, he’s got barely enough charisma to keep pace with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan, although to his credit Kit Harington has apparently learned to close his mouth more when “acting” than during his stint on ‘Game of Thrones.’
But, Cassia is no Rose, and despite Browning’s best efforts the character is little more than a damsel in distress, buoyed by the pretense of a rebellious streak and the actress’ lithe screen presence. (It’s telling that the first question her mother asks after she returns from Rome is whether or not she met any dudes.) Meanwhile as Corvus, Sutherland is in prime ‘Lost Boys’ mode, jumping full-throttle into villainy without any regard for believable human motivations for his character’s consistent and unapologetic cruelty.
At 105 minutes, Anderson’s film barely seems long enough to cover anything other than the eruption itself, and yet he crams the extinction level event only into the final act. Although the characters are appropriately unaware of impending mortal danger, the rest of the film preoccupies itself with upstairs-downstairs romance, political intrigue and a love triangle so preposterous it makes the rivalry between Jack and Billy Zane’s Cal seem nuanced and complex by comparison. No one (including the filmmakers) has common sense enough to recognize that basic survival should be everyone’s priority when the lava starts flowing, and its destructive wake eventually becomes little more than an obstacle course for these three morons to act our their self-important melodramas.
The irony, of course, is that as remarkable as they are in so many ways, neither ‘Titanic’ nor ‘Gladiator’ are especially sophisticated pieces of entertainment (‘Conan the Barbarian’ is another matter). But ripping them off, or even “taking inspiration” from their primary-color conflicts, feels like shooting fish in a barrel, then taking the dead fish, packing them into a smaller barrel, and shooting them again.
Ultimately, this shameless imitation admittedly has all of the ingredients for success – that is to say, just about every single decision it makes appears to be based on aping the success of much better movies that came before it. But, not one of those decisions seems in the service of distinguishing this movie from its predecessors while achieving that success, which is why ‘Pompeii’ is destined to be forgotten rather even than living on in infamy. That said, if you can’t make a movie about the most famous volcanic eruption in human history worth remembering, that’s probably an even bigger problem than just making a bad one.
'Pompeii' opens in theaters on February 20.
Todd Gilchrist is a film critic and entertainment journalist with more than ten years of experience working in Los Angeles. A member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd has contributed to a variety of print and online outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Boxoffice Magazine, Movies.com, Variety, The Playlist, MTV Movies blog, and IGN.com.