Spoiler alert: everyone dies.
You don’t go to see something like Pompeii because you think you’re going to see a cinematic masterwork. You go because you’re looking forward to two hours of escapist fun. Pauline Kael once wrote: “Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” Well, Pompeii isn’t great trash, but it’s fairly enjoyable trash; my wife, my daughter and I had a good time at the movie, and a better time making fun of it on the way home.
(And yet, somehow, sitting there in the dark, whispering snarky comments back and forth, isn’t it possible also to feel somehow diminished, to feel some regret over the fact that we’re treating this immense human tragedy as fodder for laughs?)
A lot of the fun is seeing actors in unaccustomed roles. Kiefer Sutherland plays Corvus, a Roman centurion turned Senator; my daughter called his character ‘Evil Jack Bauer’ and he was certainly a wonderfully disagreeable character, a genuine villain, with his bleached hair and Peter Lorre lisp. His BFF was Sasha Roiz, the Captain on Grimm, playing a character named Proctologist (checking IMDB) Proculus. And Kit Herington (John Snow in Game of Thrones) was the hero, a gladiator named The Celt, actual name: Milo. ‘Milo’ we hooted! And his best friend gladiator was Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, a marvelous, dignified, powerful presence who sort of dominated the movie. His character was called Atticus (‘Finch!’ we hooted), but I couldn’t help but think of him as Otis. Milo and Otis; get it! Hilarious. And yet all four main actors were really quite good. Of course, there was also a girl, Cassia, played by the lovely Mireille Enos look-alike Emily Browning. Cassia is daughter of Pompeii’s leading citizen, the sort-of-mayor, Severus (Jared Harris), and she’s in love with a gladiator, and he with her. Which totally could happen. Not.
You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and 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. (Pliny the Younger).
‘Cause here’s the thing: we can treat the tragedy of Pompeii in several ways. Divine retribution for the wickedness of Pompeii is a popular one. I remember visiting Pompeii–one abiding memory is of, uh, nasty statuary. Plus, you know, their popular amusements involved watching people kill people. It makes for a handy sermon topic: the wickedness of Pompeii led to the city’s destruction by a vengeful God.
And this very question gets asked in the film itself. Sweet little Cassia asks it of her gladiator boyfriend, and Milo confirms it; to his way of thinking, the destruction of Pompeii is divine retribution for the brutality of the Roman conquest of Britain, which he personally witnessed and where he saw the deaths of his parents. It’s vengeance by the Celtic Gods. Which ends up being more or less the point of view of the movie.
Except. In point of fact, of course, God didn’t have a darn thing to do with it. Pompeii was destroyed by an active volcano. The people of Pompeii died, not because they built a society on the shaky foundation of routine violations of (at least) the sixth and seventh commandments, but because their town was foolishly situated. Vesuvius is answer enough; let’s not wrest scripture.
But this is a movie, a popular entertainment. It has to have a plot; it has to tell a story. And the story it tells is the most hackneyed of melodramas. Evil Jack Bauer/Corvus has killed young Milo’s parents back in Britain, then risen off that triumph to a seat in the Roman Senate. He’s a proto-typical corrupt politician. And, like all villains in all melodramas, he has malign intentions directed at the lovely person of innocent Cassia. He wants to marry her; he makes it clear, he wants to dominate her, break her. He’s an abusive jerk/corrupt politician. And he lisps. Kiefer Sutherland’s quite terrific in the role, though I have to say, it involved a lot of horseback riding for an aging actor with a bad back.
Because you think that; the film gives you leisure to think things like that. You see Carrie-Ann Moss in the thankless role of Cassia’s mother, and you think, ‘you’re Trinity, we’ve seen you do martial arts, kick Evil Jack Bauer in the bejoobies!’ But she doesn’t; she just looks kind of stricken.
Another problem: the film has all these combat set pieces; gladiatorial fights, carefully choreographed and actually pretty cool. And Milo and Otis get to fight an entire Roman cohort; not quite a centurio, but a buncha soldiers. And it’s all very cool. But what’s the point? We see gladiators die, but Vesuvius has already started burping fireballs; they’re all going to die anyway. We see Milo and Otis pull of some nifty battlefield tactics, fight two on 50, and win. And so we get to see . . . how cool gladiatorial combats must have been as a spectator sport?
And so does this implicate us as an audience? Does it make us complicit in watching scenes of enacted violence? Well, maybe some, but it’s blunted; it seems normal. We’ve seen movie stars dispatch stunt men in so many movies by now, it’s become old hat. And because we never actually see actual people actually dying, we’re not actually complicit, are we? What we like is kinetic sport, action movie stunts as an art form. We’re not ancient Rome (or Pompeii); we know those same stunt men will move on to the next film, and whack and slice and stab and fall down all over again. The Hunger Games is many times more effective at implicating us, in causing us to at least consider the moral dimensions of being entertained by violence than something like Pompeii can manage. This thing is hackneyed: another bad guy/good guy/pretty heroine/sidekicks extravaganza. But check it out; cool CGI!
I did laugh when Graecus bought it. Joe Pingue played Graecus, a slimy fat Roman leech with pasted on forehead curls (a first century combover!) who buys and sells gladiators (and choreographs their combats) for a living. When Vesuvius blows, he hops in a litter and has his slaves haul his butt to the harbor, where he bribes a ship captain into letting him aboard. The ship pulls out of the harbor, and it looks like it’s going to escape, but Vesuvius is lobbing molten rocks towards the harbor, and after one near-miss washes away the curls, another nails Graecus dead center. And I laughed. He wasn’t a character, he was a caricature-of-evil, and Pingue played him as such; we’re meant to cheer when he goes down.
But that’s this movie’s sensibility. The director, Paul W. S. Anderson is a hack. No, he’s not Paul Thomas Anderson, and he’s not Wes Anderson; not one of the good directors named Anderson. This is the guy who directed that loathsome Three Musketeers a few years ago. Remember that one, with Logan Lerman as D’Artagnan and Milla Jovanovich as Milady and some flying boat contraption? Shudder. You know the guy? Directed three (3) Resident Evils? Alien vs. Predator? Death Race?
For some reason, someone keeps giving this guy a hundred million dollars to make bad movies. And while Pompeii isn’t good, it’s probably going to go down in history as his masterpiece. I’ll give him this. Some of the actors are good, none are awful, and one, Akinnouye-Agbaje, is really good. The effects are convincing, and while the scenes in which we see Pompeiians die have no (none, zero) emotional impact, that’s more about us being jaded than anything else.
And at least he has the courage to let everyone die. There’s a tiny ‘but their love will live forever’ coda at the end, but still; everyone does die. And that’s ultimately the truth about Pompeii. Everyone died. And the reason has nothing to do with God. The reason really was just this: Vesuvius.