Pompeii is one of the great underexplored subjects in cinematic history. There’s rich dramatic potential in the stories of the civilization ended by Mt. Vesuvius’ sudden, terrible eruption in 79 A.D. and they’ve been barely exploited save for several adaptations of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 19th century novel “The Last Days of Pompeii.”
Paul W.S. Anderson, the auteur of trash like the “Resident Evil” movies, isn’t the first filmmaker that comes to mind in terms of ideal Pompeii adapters. He’s not even the fifth, or the tenth, or the fifteenth. Roman Polanski, who attempted a Pompeii movie, would rank higher on that list. So would screenwriter Robert Towne (“Chinatown”), who took a crack at a miniseries.
This is the hand we’ve been dealt, though, and the truth is that Anderson’s 3-D “Pompeii” is a fine old-fashioned entertainment, a “Gladiator”-lite with sweeping scope. It’s a giant spectacle about a gladiator-slave named Milo (Kit Harington) who falls for the wealthy Cassia (Emily Browning),who is betrothed to an evil Roman senator (Kiefer Sutherland, wildly overacting), in the days before the Vesuvius eruption.
Most of the picture treads conventional ground from a narrative standpoint, albeit with interstitials showcasing the angry, bubbling volcano. This isn’t really a film about the particulars of Pompeii’s civilization, though the foreshadowing gives it a haunting, apocalyptic undercurrent. Plus, the movie attempts to address the uncomfortable clash between big business interests and moral standards, which is more than can be said for most similar efforts.
At heart, this is a classic B-picture, a sword-and-sandals epic with action that fluidly occupies every bit of the three-dimensional frame, impressively layered wide shots and production design that rejects the computerized-sameness of so many modern period action spectacles for a measure of authenticity.
It is, in other words, a 3-D movie both in terms of its cinematographic presentation and in its incorporation of a reasonably engaging story. “Pompeii” isn’t the authoritative movie on this particular subject. We’re still waiting for that. But it’s a respectable effort.
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland