A restless, unhappy aristocrat being forced into a marriage she wants no part in. A charming, roguish guy from the wrong side of the tracks who captures her eye. A cataclysmic disaster that will simultaneously bring them closer together, and ultimately tear them apart. It is readily apparent throughout "Pompeii" that director Paul W.S. Anderson (2012's "Resident Evil: Retribution
") is aiming to make the next "Titanic." A list of comparisons between these two could fill up a coffee-table book all on its own. Turning said similarities into a drinking game would prove treacherous for all involved. Screenwriters Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson dutifully hit all the central landmarks of a formulaic tragic love story of this sort, but potential viewers can take comfort that all is not lost. Competently fashioned and sometimes more than that, the film is worthy of putting a lump in one's throat as the foreknowledge of how doomed its characters are puts the very fragility of life itself into perspective. As far as soapy, action-oriented, melodramatic spectacles go, "Pompeii" fits the bill.
The sole survivor of a massacre in Northern Britannia, circa 62 A.D., the suddenly orphaned Milo (Kit Harington) is promptly caught and enslaved. Seventeen years later, his fate brings him to the Italian town-city of Pompeii where he is being forced to participate in violent gladiator matches in exchange for survival. As the Vulcanalia celebration carries on, wealthy merchant's daughter Cassia (Emily Browning), freshly back from a Roman holiday, finds herself drawn to Milo. A relationship with a "Celt," as he is derogatorily labeled, is out of the question, but it sounds more desirable to her than the alternative: returning to Rome and marrying the tyrannical Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). With Milo pitted against fellow slave Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) in an impending fight to the death and Cassia's parents, Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Lucretius (Jared Harris), threatened with blackmail if their daughter does not consent to Corvus' wishes, all of the above stand at a turning point in their tortured existences. What cannot be predicted is that an even greater disaster looms over them, one in which there may be no conceivable escape.
Countless movies are put into production each year with exorbitant price tags, leading viewers to wonder where all the money went once they see the finished product (the most recent example: the all-but-worthless "RoboCop
" remake). Happily, "Pompeii" does not fall into this trap. Bucking in at $100-million, the film is mega-scoped pageantry incarnate, full of sweeping establishing shots and immersive realizations of an ancient city soon to be annihilated by an erupting Mount Vesuvius. The computer-generated effects are exceptional, seamlessly integrating themselves with the live-action performers and their more tactile surroundings. Cinematographer Glen MacPherson (2009's "The Final Destination
") captures the action and more intimate sequences with a friendly, assertive balance that cohesively works in tandem. Director Paul W.S. Anderson also brings intensified regency to nature-run-amok tropes, draping the urgent narrative with portentous suggestions of threat prior to the volcano literally blowing its top. He isn't able to totally avert clichés, but he does stage them awfully well.
Kit Harington (2012's "Silent Hill: Revelation
") and Emily Browning (2011's "Sucker Punch
") are serviceable or perhaps a scintilla better than that as condemned souls Milo and Cassia, trapped in their own very different hells at opposite ends of the caste spectrum. Whether they are seen as finding each other too late or just in the nick of time, their expedited love affair is no match for the dire events about to befall them and everyone else in Pompeii. The rest of the characters, too, from Cassius' exacting yet loving parents to the appalling Senator Corvus, are fallible even in their gaudy power, increasingly caught up in their own petty interpersonal conflicts while clueless to how quickly the universe can snuff them out. These somewhat hokey, theatrical subplots only serve to evince a bigger point about the fallibility of man in a world so much bigger than our own comparatively infinitesimal problems and hang-ups. As the scheming, drunk-on-authority Senator Corvus, Kiefer Sutherland (2011's "Melancholia
") is despicably effective, severing ties in minutes from his most recent, well-known onscreen persona of Jack Bauer on "24." Despite being written as a clone of Billy Zane from "Titanic," Sutherland makes this antagonist his own. Lending fine support are Jared Harris (2013's "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
") and Carrie-Anne Moss (2007's "Disturbia
") as Aurelia and Lucretius, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (2013's "Thor: The Dark World
") as Milo's unlikely opponent-turned-ally Atticus, and Jessica Lucas (2014's "That Awkward Moment
") as Cassia's best friend Ariadne.
"Pompeii" is blatantly derivative, a nearly play-by-play account of James Cameron's Oscar-winning 1997 smash with a different historical tragedy at its center. In addition to the obvious similarities, even smaller story developments are the same, from Milo getting locked behind a gate in the underground lower-class chambers to the desperate raid on the ships sailing out of town, the most wealthy and affluent citizens demanding acceptance aboard. Unoriginal (and scientifically far-fetched) though it may be, "Pompeii" works as a suspense-heavy entertainment, an old-fashioned disaster pic that additionally has a little something to say about the endurance of superstitious religious fervor. When Mount Vesuvius erupts, the characters assume a higher power is punishing them for their sins. Cassia herself even questions at one point, "Is this the end of the world? Why would the gods let this happen?" These people living in 79 A.D. can be forgiven for their skewed, uninformed beliefshow were they to understand what a volcano eruption was, let alone its cause?but this kind of thinking amazingly persists in some nearly two thousand years later. It is a fascinating correlation, one more way in which Paul W.S. Anderson links the past with the present beyond the fundamental traits of human nature. "Pompeii" is a little too telegraphed to hold much lingering dramatic punch, but as a cinematic vessel for thrills it proves reasonably cathartic.