No warning. No escape.
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring Kit Harrington, Emily Browning
In 79 A.D, Mount Vesuvius erupted, completely destroying the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This particular film follows the story of Milo, a British slave-turned-gladiator in the doomed city as he fights to save his life and that of his love, Cassia, and avenge his family, while all around him Pompeii is destroyed.
Other characters include Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje from Lost as an African gladiator called Atticus fighting his last match to win his freedom, and Jared Harris as the heroine’s father, Severus, who is trying to get Kiefer Sutherland’s senator, Corvus, to invest in Pompeii.
What’s wrong with it?
Now, first of all, I have to admit that I found this film hysterically funny and am struggling to really condemn it with any kind of vigor.
OK, so I could probably write an essay on what’s wrong with the history in it – wouldn’t a top ranked gladiator be a bit of a local celebrity instead of being locked in a dingy dungeon? Why would his master want to kill him off? Didn’t quite a lot of gladiators win their freedom, and then move into managing or training other gladiators, or even go on fighting because they made good money in it? Didn’t Mount Vesuvius actually take over 24 hours to erupt properly, meaning that around 90% of the population were able to get out of town? And who the hell are ‘the horse tribes of Britannia’ that our hero gladiator comes from anyway?
I acknowledge, as well, that I could follow that up with a second essay on the horror that is the acting, from Kiefer Sutherland’s horrific accent which makes him sound alarmingly like an evil Kenneth Williams, to the bizarrely unconvincing romance between the leads (has anyone ever really won a girl’s heart by breaking a horse’s neck? Really?) and follow up with the absolute lack of any coherent character motivation throughout the film. I don’t know about you, but if I was in a town that had fireballs falling on it, I’d be a little less concerned about the future of my luxury resort, getting revenge on the slave who has been eyeing up my woman, or stabbing the man who killed my family and a lot more focused on getting away. I also think Kit Harrington should maybe have been allowed to use the three or four expressions he uses to play Jon Snow, instead of a single brooding scowl under all circumstances, but maybe he charges per expression and Paul W.S. Anderson had already blown his budget on volcanoes.
Anyway, all of those things are problems. I should condemn this film for all of this. Then I realise I’ve just burst out laughing just thinking about all of these faults and haven’t really the heart to.
What’s right with it?
Well, there’s a lot of very pretty scenery. While Paul W.S. Anderson might have messed up on a lot of the history, he apparently worked remarkably hard to put together a near exact replica of Pompeii and his set comes with glowing endorsements from archaeologists who have worked on the site. The volcano is very impressive, as is the tsunami (although the real tsunami which swept Pompeii wasn’t quite as dramatic apparently).
How bad is it really?
It very much depends on your taste. If you want a serious, well researched film about people in a desperate situation, which leaves you feeling like you’ve really learned something today, stay at home. If, on the other hand, you want a piece of gloriously high camp tripe with Kiefer Sutherland chewing up the scenery and lines you could practically chant along to (he actually says “kill them! Kill them all!) then I can’t recommend this film highly enough.
Best bit (if such there is)?
I asked the person I went to see this film with, and he said “the credits. The blessed light opening in the doorway. That moment where I realised I had escaped back into life and sanity”. Personally, I’d go for almost any moment the volcano is on screen. I quite liked the gladiators being sent out to die and slaughtering their opponents instead, even if that scene was ripped wholesale from Gladiator.
What’s up with…?
- Our hero enters the Londinium arena. A watching Roman says “this one is known as…the Celt”. Isn’t that a rather redundant nickname in Roman Britain? Aren’t they all known as ‘a Celt’?
- Why exactly does the gladiator’s trainer decide to kill off his star gladiator, Atticus, in an early bout? What is in it for him, other than the chance to be randomly villainous?
- What on earth were Cassia’s parents doing sending their daughter off to Rome for a year with no one except a random handmaiden for company? Surely a chaperone would be in order, especially considering her slightly alarming tendency to fall in love with random horse killing slaves.
- Why was Corvus so desperate to marry Cassia when she blatantly loathed him? Couldn’t a Roman senator and war hero have found an equally attractive woman who wasn’t quite so ready to betray him?
- I know I’ve mentioned it before, but the ‘rebellion of the horse tribes’? Who were the horse tribes? The Iceni, perhaps? This is left frustratingly vague.
- Since when did the Britons have magic horse whispering powers? I feel cheated!
Production values – It looks pretty. No matter what else is wrong with it, it’s amazingly nice to look at. 5
Dialogue and performances – I am in awe of how bad this is. Not a single line came out which wasn’t cliché. At no point did any of the characters stray from their primary expression. And Kiefer Sutherland sounded like an evil Kenneth Williams! 15
Plot and execution – It’s pretty damn bad. 12
Randomness – Kit Harrington wins his lady love, by killing a horse. 8
Waste of potential – I mostly say this because I read after seeing this film that Robert Harris’ Pompeii was optioned with the intention of making it into a film directed by Roman Polanski, but that fell apart and this got made instead. 15