The film begins with the rhythms of a revenge tale, as a faction of the Roman army led by Corvus (Keifer Sutherland, in a marvelously hammy performance) ruthlessly slays a tribe of Celts. A young child named Milo manages to escape, but is subsequently captured by slave traders. The child grows up to be a fierce fighter, and is shipped from Britannia to Pompeii, where he can prove his worth in the arena. On the way there, Milo (Kit Harington) catches the eye of city royalty Cassia (Emily Browning) by putting an injured caravan horse out of its misery (surely the only scene in film history where the snapping a horse’s neck is imbued with sexual tension). They fall in love, but class and politics get in the way, as they usually do in these kinds of stories. Corvus, now a senator, can invest in Pompeii’s future for the price of Cassia’s hand. It’s not a great plot, which wouldn’t be a problem if the form were consistently interest or robust instead of intermittently so. Exacerbating the narrative problem is the film’s genre confusion. At times, it felt like three movies had been spliced together from suspiciously similar-looking footage.
It’s strange to say this about a movie where Kiefer Sutherland hoovers the scenery as the main heel, but Pompeii has a serious streak that hinders it. Anderson’s last period movie, 2011’s The Three Musketeers, had the amiable go-for-broke feel of goofy historical fan fiction. Like Pompeii, it also had a dull protagonist who only existed solely to fight and fall in love outside his class, but what differentiates the two is tone. While The Three Musketeers reveled in giddy visual excess and even giddier supporting performances, Pompeii is comparatively subdued. Even the fight sequences, usually Anderson’s bread and butter, feel mostly toothless. Most of the instances of gladiatorial combat the film are dulled by editing; impact, follow-through, and spatial cohesiveness are often completely ignored. The performers are shot from too close, their actions too chopped-up, the fluidity of their movements hampered by annoying digital zoom-ins. Nothing even seems to land.
Once Mount Vesuvius erupts, though, the film comes alive, essentially becoming one large-scale chase sequence lit by airborne fire. Even during the late innings, where boulder-sized embers are quite literally raining from the sky and an entire city is fleeing in panic, Pompeii keeps coming back to the love story. Betting on the romantic gambit would make sense if the leads had any chemistry between them at all; Harrington in particular comes off as little more that a chiseled wooden plank with a beard. The melodramatic elements of the story consistently feel at odds with its surroundings, especially during the climax. But when Anderson gets a chances to do melodrama the only way he knows how (i.e. through abstracted slow-mo imagery), it finally clicks. The end result plays like a positive to the ending of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia; love is more powerful that oblivion. One can only wonder if the hour and change of set-up was worth the two (admittedly gorgeous, even moving) final shots.
Anderson’s movies tend to work best when they’re freed from the shackles of narrative. His powerful moments are the abstracted ones that would be considered excessive in most other films: bird’s-eye view shots that reduce a metropolis to tiny shapes, OPP symmetry shots, animated tilt-shift maps. In Pompeii, Anderson doesn’t get to stretch those muscles as much, the result being a rote movie that can’t find a consistent tone. The movie is not fantastical or combat-heavy enough to be a great sword-and-sandal film, too back-heavy to be a satisfying disaster film, and too thinly-sketched to be an effective romantic drama. As it stands, though, it’s got one solid act of destruction and mayhem that mostly makes up for the laboriousness of the other two.