Whether you have a good time with Pompeii depends entirely on what you demand from it. This historical disaster epic is loaded with CGI destructo-porn and thrilling action sequences, but falls almost unbelievably short in the heart department. For many audience members, that will be perfectly acceptable.
Anderson wasn’t aiming to make a profound, historically accurate meditation on the titular Roman city. Rather, his intentions for Pompeii should be obvious from the poster alone, which depicts gladiator Milo (Kit Harington) romancing noblewoman Cassia (Emily Browning) as Mount Vesuvius lays waste to everything around them. The idea of a film combining Titanic‘s doomed romance and Gladiator‘s furious action is what sold this film to the studios and then to audiences back in February. Still, what a shame, then, that Pompeii can’t even begin to hold a candle to either of those inspirations.
That’s not to say that it’s all bad. On the contrary, Pompeii eventually manages to entertain through sheer sensory overload. Looking on as fireballs obliterate buildings, people and even the ground on which they stand is undeniably fun, and the special effects team certainly brought its A-game. Sadly, even the childish joys of watching Pompeii collapse as Mount Vesuvius erupts only come after a protracted first half, in which a few quick gladiator battles aren’t nearly enough to keep things interesting.
Instead of exploring the last days of the city as a whole, Pompeii centers on Milo, the lone survivor of a tribe of Celtic horsemen wiped out by a Roman legion when he was a boy. Enslaved by the Romans, Milo sullenly grows into an incredibly skilled gladiator. When he’s brought to Pompeii and chosen to fight in the city’s arena for the glory of its ruler, Severus (Jared Harris), Milo doesn’t see much of a way out. Through an act of kindness, however, he catches the eye of Cassia, Severus’s beautiful and intelligent daughter. Their immediate chemistry does not sit well with Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), a villainous Roman set on marrying Cassia, and, as a result, Milo is forced to fight against overwhelming odds in the arena. Eventually, Vesuvius does erupt, and those stories are mostly tossed aside as all the characters scramble to escape.
That Pompeii keeps the volcano on a back-burner for so long would perhaps be understandable if the film had something interesting to say about Roman society or gladitatorial combat. No such luck. Instead, it’s legitimately shocking how banal, implausible and inconsequential the story actually is. The writers wanted Milo and Cassia’s relationship to have a doomed, Romeo and Juliet-style feel, but they never give the two time to actually form a connection, let alone build that kind of romantic heat. Likewise, a bromance between Milo and fellow gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is almost criminally undercooked, and a subplot involving a political battle going on between Severus, Corvus and Cassia is borderline insulting in its flimsiness.
In fact, the only thing that the writers really did correctly with Pompeii was impress the volcano’s might, both through dialogue and setting. Vesuvius looms in the backdrop of many shots, and when it erupts with utter abandon, it’s actually more compelling as a character than some of the supporting players. I won’t roast Harington or Browning for doing the best they can with one-note roles. The former, essentially playing his Game of Thrones character in Roman garb, glowers convincingly and inflects each overly familiar line with more depth of feeling than any of them deserve. And Browning, stuck as the damsel in distress, is at least emotive and appealing.
The same can’t be said for Sutherland, who is horrifically miscast. The actor tries his best to ham it up, but he just looks out of place, and every one of his lines lands like a wet towel. Whether that’s better than Harris or Carrie-Ann Moss, playing his wife, who never make even the lightest of impressions, is up to you. Meanwhile, Akinnuoye-Agbaje steals the show, bringing more charm and energy to Atticus in just a few scenes (most of them action-heavy) than anyone else even attempts to conjure.
In Pompeii‘s explosive final third, Anderson works up a breathtaking momentum, one which hypnotizes with such ease that it’s possible to momentarily look past the weaknesses of nearly everything else in the film. If the director had recognized the script for the cheesy, dramatically inert stinker that it was, perhaps he could have treated his subject with less plodding solemnity and turned out a more enjoyable movie. Once again, Pompeii is all about the fireballs. It’s regrettable, though, that there’s almost nothing else worth watching in the entire affair. For its slam-bang visuals and dramatic ostentations, Pompeii is a soulless, lackluster excuse for a blockbuster.
The quality of the film aside, the Blu-Ray transfer Sony gave Pompeii is absolutely superb. Visually, you won’t get any better bang for your buck, with a massive color palette making every scene spectacular. Explosions are vibrant and completely dazzling, but the way in which Anderson recreates the entire city is also amazing. Image clarity is top-notch throughout, with particular attention paid to preserving the blood, sweat and grime nearly every character is caked in. Skin tones are pretty spot-on throughout most of the film, and I never noticed any issues with the release à la banding or interfering noise.
The Blu-Ray package comes with 2D and 3D options. Personally, I preferred the 2D disc, finding the picture to be just a little bit more impressive and detailed. That’s not to say that most viewers won’t appreciate the work that has been put into preserving the image depth some viewers got when they caught Pompeii in 3D back in theaters. Watching it in 3D will give you a front-row seat to glorious explosions and jaw-dropping devastation; and if that’s not the purpose of 3D, I don’t know what is. In particular, falling ash is terrifically rendered in 3D, floating off screen with an eerie solemnity that does a lot to put you in the mindset of someone who was actually in Pompeii at the time of the eruption, and the louder fireballs are also wondrous to behold.
In terms of sound, Pompeii is also spectacular. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track is absolutely fantastic for getting lost in the chaos of the eruption, but it also succeeds in capturing the ferocity of the gladiator fights. The way in which the sound rushes at you is extremely cool and satisfying, particularly in a scene when a giant tidal wave (because screw historical accuracy) bears down on the terrified citizens of Pompeii. Everything is in its place for this audio track, and considering how much Pompeii has going on in that department, it’s thrilling that the track succeeds so completely. Screaming crowds, clanging blades, forceful wind, crackling fireballs and, of course, Clinton Shorter’s suspenseful score – it’s all there, and wonderfully layered.
In terms of bonus features, Pompeii offers:
- Audio Commentary
- Deleted & Alternate Scenes (23:32)
- The Assembly (7:14)
- The Journey (7:42)
- The Costume Shop (6:52)
- The Volcanic Eruption (7:06)
- The Gladiators (6:22)
- Pompeii: Buried in Time (24:06)
The audio commentary, with Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt, is pretty solid, taking on a wide range of topics, from how they became involved with the project to the painstaking process of actually shooting the effects-heavy film (in particular, the ash seems like it must have been a terrible time for everyone on set).
The deleted and alternate scenes are hefty, which indicates to me that Anderson felt worried that his film would lose momentum if too much happened before the eruption, and so he tried to cut out as much superfluous material as possible. There’s really nothing in this very, very lengthy compilation of scenes that adds to the film.
“The Assembly” features some interviews with Harington, Browning and Anderson about the characters of Pompeii and how they worked to bring the culture of the city to life through the performances of the actors. It’s slickly put together, so there’s no reason fans of the film wouldn’t want to check it out.
The same goes for “The Journey,” which more focuses on the technical challenges of creating Pompeii. The difficulties that the film’s team faced in balancing out being true to history with wanting to pack as much visual oomph and spectacle in as possible. Set design is the biggest focus in this featurette, and there are some interesting insights that make it worth the watch.
Wendy Partridge put a lot of work into designing the various costumes for Pompeii, and that comes through in “The Costume Shop,” a featurette that looks at specifically her work. It’s cool to see how she used costumes to inform the characters wearing them, and the end results are pretty awesome. Pompeii had a lot of problems, but costume design was one area in which it succeeded without qualification.
“The Volcanic Eruption” focuses on Mount Vesuvius, both historically and within the context of the film. It starts out by looking at the actual history behind Pompeii, which I found quite interesting, and then segues into the creation of the eruption for the film. The special effects people working on this film deserve all the praise they’ve received – this featurette does a little to show exactly how tough it was to render the special effects for the eruption.
Those wondering about Kit Harington’s ripped bod will want to check out “The Gladiators,” all about the extensive physical training the actors underwent before and during filming, and about the fight choreography during the sensational gladiator fights.
Finally, “Pompeii: Buried in Time,” by far the best featurette, is an extended EPK piece that takes on the film’s production, cast, story, historical accuracy, visual effects and much more. It’s extremely well-polished and essentially takes the best parts of the other extras on the disc and weaves them into one smooth featurette. Even if you don’t have the time to look at all the other featurettes, definitely make time for this one.
With superior video and audio quality, as well as a strong selection of extras, the 3D Blu-Ray release for Pompeii is superb all around. The film is less so, mostly because of a script that fails to make strong characters, tell a compelling story or add even a trace of humanity to the proceedings. Worth seeing solely for its visual effects and a fun performance by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Pompeii looks great but is undeniably empty. It’s a feast for the senses likely to starve anyone in search of anything more than just stimulating special effects.