Friday, February 28, 2014

The Cinema File #321: "Pompeii" Review

Paul W.S. Anderson is a hard man to defend, but here goes. Best known as the director of the seemingly endless Resident Evil film franchise, its easy to forget that he's also the man behind the underrated horror thriller Event Horizon, the passably entertaining Soldier, and of course...MORTAL KOMBAT! Okay, sorry, that doesn't work as well in print. Just imagine someone screaming it while Lords of Acid kicks on in the background. Not enough? Well, what about the fact that despite the similar naming scheme, he is in fact not Paul T. Anderson, and thus at no point had anything to do with The Master? Still not convinced? Well, in that case, his latest film Pompeii probably won't sway you either, as you're likely one of the millions of Americans who had something better to do over the past few weeks than go see it, which is a shame, because it might just be the one to tip the scale.

Pompeii follows various residents of the titular island just before the one event that makes it notable for you, namely the famous volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that buried an entire city in ash and preserved many unsuspecting citizens as haunting statues. Much like Titanic, The Hindenburg, or any disaster movie predicated on a real historical event, Pompeii suffers a bit from the expectation game. We know what’s coming and how it’s going to turn out, and even as the signs become more ominous, there’s a pallor over the whole thing as you can’t help but feel like its all already over except for the shouting and running. There’s always something somewhat arbitrary about the “stories” in these kinds of movies, where regular people go about their lives only to be assaulted by an unforeseen event in which they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because the whole movie can’t just be about survival, there’s a stark disconnect between the characters and their ultimate fate, and the trick is making sure the set up is interesting enough to justify sticking with it until all hell breaks loose.

For the most part, Pompeii delivers on this score, owing mostly to Anderson’s skill with superficial storytelling wrapped in really pretty action movie packaging. That sounds like a thinly veiled insult, but as we follow along in this tale of star-crossed lovers amid the ancient Roman practice of slave on slave battles to the death, it quickly becomes apparent that the emotional depth of the story doesn’t really matter all that much in the long run, because we all came here for the explosions. Though romance is central to the plot, most of the time is spent on a Gladiator-esque historical action piece that mostly works, centered around two unlikely comrades first pitted against each other, only to unite against their common oppressor just before the catastrophe gives them their chance at freedom. John Snow from Game of Thrones and Mr. Eko from Lost certainly make for a better buddy movie than the recent Ride Along, and unlike most of Anderson’s movies, they prove to be protagonists you can actually bring yourself to care about.

You may remember that the last time Anderson tackled a historical drama, it was the laughably garish Steampunk adaptation of The Three Musketeers, a movie set mostly aboard several Jules Verne inspired air ships that was too silly to be taken seriously but not silly enough to be entertaining. This time around, he’s a little more respectful of history, which isn’t to say that Pompeii is a historically accurate representation of the famous city pre-volcano, just that there isn’t anything so obviously goofy as to compare it to, say, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (except perhaps the protagonist’s sudden horse whispering ability). If anything, a few high concept flourishes might have made the movie a little more engaging, considering the whole story is built around a disaster that’s obviously not coming around until the third act. Without succumbing to the excesses of last year’s 47 Ronin, a bit of ambiguous mysticism or anachronistic technology would not have felt entirely inappropriate in this setting, especially given how massive the natural disaster proves to be.

Ironically, the least interesting element of Pompeii might actually be the eruption and resulting chaos, if only because the age of CGI has largely neutered this genre of any real impact even as it has revived it for modern audiences. With computers, technically we are able to see more of the carnage in much greater detail which on paper sounds like a good thing, but the trick to disaster movies is being able to feel like you’re right there with the people involved, feeling the tension as they feel it, which is a lot harder to do when they’re not actually there. Of course, the U.S.S. Poseidon wasn’t actually upside down in the middle of the ocean, but it at least looked like a real upside down ship from the inside, enough that you can suspend your disbelief when the water starts flooding in. The destruction of Pompeii is depicted well enough, if a bit perfunctory, but serves more as a backdrop for a chase sequence and final sword fight than an exciting set piece in its own right.

Going back to Titanic, the brilliance of that film was in its use of the disaster movie formula to craft the perfect date movie, with over the top romance in the first half and over the top action in the second. Pompeii attempts to ape that strategy with a similar story of love between social classes threatened by romantic rivals and ultimately interrupted by tragedy, but replaces a lot of the mushy and/or inspirational stuff in between with considerably more sword fighting and punching. In other words, its like Titanic, but pretty much better in every way except for the box office (I’m tempted to say Titanic has the edge in nudity as well, but its Kate Winslet nudity, which doesn’t really count). There, I said it. Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii is better than James Cameron’s Titanic. Choke on it losers.

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