Here is what Pliny the Younger wrote when he set down his memories of the devastating volcanic eruption at Pompeii, in 79 AD: “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men. There were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.”
What’s uncanny about his words, 1,935 years on, is how close he came to capturing the experience of watching the new Paul W. S. Anderson film about that very disaster: in our cosseted 21st-century lives, we may never know the twisting agony of roasting to death in a surge of pyroclastic debris, but here is the next worst thing.
Paul WS – not to be confused with Paul T, who made There Will Be Blood and The Master – cuts his action films from a one-size-fits-all template. Previous works have been based on sources as diverse as the martial-arts video-game Mortal Kombat and the Alexandre Dumas novel The Three Musketeers, although they all offer the same blend of computer-choreographed chasing, yelling and exploding.
The only dependable way of telling them apart is to check the identity of the explodees: if it’s zombies, it must be another Resident Evil sequel, and so on. In theory, it sounds like dumb, escapist pleasure. In practice, the films have been so very obviously assembled in the visual effects suite, they feel like digital counterfeits of fun.
His latest takes place on a bad weekend for the Roman Empire’s most happening resort town, up to and including the moment that Vesuvius blew its top.
What makes that catastrophe so enduringly fascinating is the freeze-frame of life, sculpted in ash, that it left behind – the huddled couples and families that Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders surveyed, with an existential shudder, in Rossellini’s Journey to Italy.
But Anderson’s Pompeii doesn’t sweat the human stuff. His camera is mostly trained on the big picture: billowing smoke, tidal-waves, fireballs streaking through the sky. What’s happening to the people on the ground doesn’t matter, so long as we’re aware that 95 percent of them are being squashed or torched.
The exception is a gladiator called Milo, played by Kit Harington, from the HBO series Game of Thrones, who serves as the nodal point of a meagre romance-revenge plot. He’s intent on wooing Cassia (Emily Browning), a noblewoman who has also caught the eye of Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), who – in a twist of fate you’d have to call terrible writing – was the man who put Milo’s family to death many years ago in northern Britannia.
Much like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, Harington is effectively the warm-up act for a natural disaster, and for the first hour or so Pompeii tracks his romantic and gladiatorial ups and downs. Meanwhile, Sutherland gives a strange, slurping performance, perhaps in an attempt to channel the lean malevolence of his father Donald in Ron Howard’s Backdraft, another B-movie trial by fire. The effect, though, is rather less menacing, and suggests a man acclimatising to a new pair of false teeth.
Then comes the eruption, and what story there was is tossed aside. Watching the cast scuttle hither and yon, you notice how many of them have been drawn from television drama series that wring 10 times more excitement, sex and intrigue from a single, hour-long episode than Pompeii manages in almost twice that time. As well as the Harington-Westeros connection and Sutherland’s ongoing work at 24, Jared Harris, who appears as Cassia’s doting father, remains best-known as Lane Pryce from Mad Men, and gladiator Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was Lost’s Mr. Eko.
This is more fuel for the persistent myth that television is presently beating film at its own game. It isn’t; it’s simply beating films like this