At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Pompeii “2014”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Romantic Historical Disaster/ Stars: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham, Sasha Roiz, Dalmar Abuzeid, Jean-Francois Lachapelle, Rebecca Eady, Jean Frenette, Maxime Savaria, Ron Kennell, Tom Bishop Jr., Emmanuel Kabongo, Brock Johnson, Kristina Nicoll, Janine Theriault, Mark Whelan, Anais Frenette, Donna Christo, Thomas Stumpo, Dylan Schombing/Runtime: 105 minutes

I think it is safe to say that Pompeii is a very…..unique slice of cinematic pie. That’s because here is a movie that takes the subgenre of cinema known as the sword and sandal movie and adds in the iconic disaster genre of cinema and thus gives us what would happen if the classic movie from 1960 Spartacus decided to take place during Roland Emmerich’s 2012. Suffice it to say this mixing of genres also manages to give us a movie that is very much a mixed bag in and out of itself. Indeed film helmer Paul W.S. Anderson, yes the guy who gave us the Resident Evil movies, decides to take a break from the undead and more to how a group of unlucky Romans meet their demise not by being gutted by a sword, but rather due to molten lava and rocks being hurled their way by Nature’s fury. Indeed this slice of cinematic pie does manage to check all the boxes for the typical disaster film in that yes this one does introduce character dynamics that set things up which prove “important” to the end of the film before literally hurling every bit of it into the path of an untimely and perilous disaster. As such, this slice of cinematic pie operates about as well as a film comprised of watered down thrills, one note characterization, and fairly competent special effects work can do. Suffice it to say that Pompeii is most assuredly another entry in an ever-expanding list of movies that you might enjoy if you are able to leave your brain at the door, but otherwise don’t expect to find anything here that goes beyond anything resembling superficial.

The plot is as follows: Taking us back in time to 79 A.D. Italy, our slice of cinematic pie introduces us to a young man by the name of Milo. Milo, we are quickly able to ascertain is also known in certain circles as “The Celt,” is a fairly tough young guy who was unjustly placed into slavery and made to engage in fairly visceral and brutal gladiator matches. Yet along with all that, he is also said to be the last in his family line due to the fact that when he was but a young lad he survived a brutal massacre that took out his whole community and family in one fell swoop. We soon see that our hero catches the glance of a beautiful young woman by the name of Cassia. Yet even though she is able to keep him alive after they briefly run away together, we also see that their dalliance also has the unintended effect of putting Milo in the crosshairs of a scheming individual by the name of Corvus. A man who also happens to be the slimy senator of Pompeii who is really striving to gain as much as he can from a possible business opportunity with Cassia’s doting dad Severus (no not Snape….that would be hilarious though) and loving mom Aurelia whilst plotting to take her away from her family and make her his unwilling bride. Yet with all of this scheming and various machinations underway, it isn’t long before things not only go from bad to worse, but soon turn into a truly horrific battle for survival when a nearby mountain by the name of Vesuvius starts to viciously and violently erupt….

Well I must say right off the bat dear reader: it is starting to get increasingly more and more difficult to really locate any novel and intriguing manner to review and then applaud the kind of film that this is since not only do they all belong to the same category, but the vast majority of these films (even the ones made by the Asylum) go down the exact same narrative roads, and all manage to stumble and fall in trying to locate any degree of depth whatsoever yet is still quite riveting due to having fairly phenomenal visual effects work. To that end, I think I can safely say that Pompeii might just be one of the best examples of this kind of movie. By that I mean this is a film that really only manages to distinguish itself courtesy of its setting, but other than that taking virtually everything from those other slices of cinematic pie and then sets out to one-up them in terms of digital and visual effects. As for integral things like pathos and characterization those things may be important, but oh look! An erupting volcano! Clearly this film has its priorities in order! Sarcasm aside, Pompeii is easily a slice of cinematic pie that is meant for those of you who wish to engage in simple viewing entertainment that is focused more on visual effects work and other superficialities rather than one that deals in complex thematic material and three-dimensional characterizations respectively.

Having said all of that, I think it should be said that Pompeii is the type of slice of cinematic pie that, should one choose to, you really don’t need to give it your full and undivided attention if you make the choice to watch it. The reason for this is because everything contained within the overall film is constructed entirely on a surface level. Having said that, there is in all its fairness quite a bit in terms of detail that is engaged in recreating Pompeii as it looked at the time of Vesuvius blowing its top and which do look fairly top-flight and do manage to earn my approval in terms of how realistic they look as well. I mean there is not a point in time where the effects work appears to be either fake or watered down in any way. Rather, this effects work is the kind of work that movies of this ilk need to aspire to possess for their film to work on the level that it should. Yet even with that in mind, this film still never gives off the vibe that it is aspiring to be any more or less than a visual effects best of tape with a minuscule amount of artificial pathos tossed in for “good measure”. Indeed the dialogue in this goes from boring to just downright terrible and of course it all culminates in a downright eye rolling exchange between our pair of main characters at the conclusion of the movie. Indeed the scene in question really does lose a fair degree of the potential pathos it could have mustered up simply because we as movie goers haven’t really felt the need to care about these characters or their plight up to that point since the film has only chosen to function with the bare minimum essential to get audiences to this point. Yes such one-dimensional character work is a time-honored trope in the vast majority of Disaster films, it feels less than that here, but that’s also because a lot of the other exterior ingredients feel like they were lifted from other avenues and not really freshened up in any way that feels lively or worthwhile.

Yet perhaps the worst thing that this slice of cinematic pie is operating with is the fact that never once does it manage to evoke a vibe of fun with any of what it is providing to the viewer. I mean say what you will about 2012, but at least it’s a slice of cinematic pie that operates with a loving wink that is fairly apparent in nearly every single moment. Heck even some of the more emotional moments in the movie are handled a lot lighter than you might remember, but 2012 film helmer Roland Emmerich still manages to find a fair degree of heart to instill in those moments as well. This movie on the other hand is guilty to a t for choosing to take things way too seriously which is quite problematic when your focus is on the visual effects department and less so on everything else. Indeed it seems like everything is constructed towards getting to film’s end rather than getting the cast of characters to where they are supposed to be in a way that’s meaningful by the end of the film. Even with that in mind though, I guess I should point out that this movie’s cast does, with a few exceptions, manage to do fairly decent work. Indeed Kit Harington and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje do manage to have a unexpectedly yet no less welcome brotherly bond with each other in their respective parts, Emily Browning does good work as Harrington’s lady love even if the dialogue doesn’t seem like it comes from the heart, but rather a teleprompter, Jared Harris once again excels in a movie that is a little bit beneath his clear talents as a performer, and then there’s Kiefer Sutherland as this movie’s main antagonist and he is a joy to behold. Not because he does a good job, but because Sutherland’s performance in this could rival the volcano for biggest disaster the movie has going for it. Indeed not only does he feel like a serious misfire on the part of the casting department, but it honestly feels like he isn’t even willing to try to put in a halfway decent performance and instead would much rather have the superficial ingredients do all the hard work for him. Thus if you want a single reason to see this film then definitely see it for Sutherland’s performance. Trust me: you will thank me later.

All in all I think it is a fairly smart bet to make that the fair majority of movie lovers out there like yourselves should know fairly well what to expect if you decide to put down the 5 dollars plus tax to bring this distinct slice of cinematic pie home from the discount movie bin from whence it came. Indeed this slice of cinematic pie is one that manages to provide you, the viewer with an intriguing blend of genres that if we’re being honest don’t mix as well as they potentially could mostly due to the hollow script and extreme emphasis on the film’s more superficial components. Indeed before you get to the lava and fireballs flung your way in the final act of the movie, the viewer is rewarded with gladiatorial combat that feels like lesser-grade moments from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator that wound up on the cutting room floor, some decent moments that show the ever-expanding bond of brotherhood that can be created by the horrific situations undergone in the gladiator arena, and a romance that is decently executed at best. Of course, all this soon falls by the wayside upon the arrival of the necessary computer generated mix of lava, fire, ash, and just general chaos and destruction. Other than those components though, there is nothing else to write home about. Thus if you are just on the look-out for a decent timewaster than you will find yourself rewarded, but for everyone else I promise there are a lot of other movies out there worth both your time and your money a lot more than this. On a scale of 1-5 I give Pompeii “2014” a solid 2.5 out of 5.