American critics can't get enough of Paul William Scott (W.S., as opposed to the more prestigious Thomas) Anderson--or rather, can't muster enough disdain or sarcasm for Anderson's genre works, either science fiction or fantasy or an unholy combination of both. Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out New York sniffs: "The movie in your head melts ten times better;" Claudia Puig of USA Today cites a long litany of movies this steals from--Gladiator, Titanic, and Spartacus among others--and calls it "a generic saga with a cast of forgettable one-dimensional characters" (funny, that's my impression of USA Today)
Pompeii would be Anderson's rare foray into historical fiction--at least his first since The Three Musketeers; it's budgeted at a hefty $100 million and for now seems as doomed as the eponymous city, with a U.S. domestic opening weekend gross of a mere $10 million (by way of comparison, the mindnumbingly plastic--in every sense of the word--The Lego Movie raked in seven times as much over the same time period).
Ms. Puig actually has a point; the screenplay looks to be a fusion of many, not just of Kubrick's Spartacus but Starz's inferior, far gorier mini-series remake. What she doesn't seem to get is that Anderson takes all these lesser pics and transforms them into a remarkably cohesive whole, an improvement over its constituent parts. Long wait before volcano erupts? Anderson regales you with a rise-through-the-ranks gladiator tale. Gladiator story too cliched? Anderson throws in a pair of forbidden lovers bonding over a wounded horse. Love story too cheesy? Anderson firms it up some with meat-and-potato gladiator fight sequences--and they are meat-and-potato sequences, gloriously old-fashioned in their concern for spatial coherence and visual flow (none of that Paul Greengrass/Christopher Nolan-style shaky-cam/ADHD editing for him).
If Anderson has failed to improve on any one source, it's the Kubrick epic--but even there his ability to build low-key action with minimal blood (as opposed to the Starz version's ridiculous policy of spraying the screen with red every five minutes) and the occasional foray into inventive improvisation (I'm thinking of the way the very chains used to hobble the warriors become their most effective weapon) does more to honor Kubrick than almost anything I've seen this year, or the past several years.
As Milo the gladiator Kit Harington is no Kirk Douglas but he does have a low-key, becoming modesty (I'm reminded of what the late poet-critic Jolico Cuadra once said: "I'm afraid of the quiet man"); as his main squeeze Emily Browning is no Jean Simmons but she does have a gawky beauty, with apple cheeks and knobby shoulders that remind one of a not-quite-grown swan (she was an enchanting sleeping beauty in Julia Leigh's interesting production)--together the two don't exactly strike sparks, but do generate a warm, magma glow. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Atticus, a proud but wary fellow combatant, as basically the Woody Strode character in Spartacus only more gregarious, with streaks of small-scale megalomania. Carrie Anne Moss does some nice understating, but is largely wasted in a supporting mother role (she could at least have donned leather thongs and swung a sword once or twice, for old times' sake). As lead bad guy Corvus, Keifer Sutherland is suitably hissable--physical enough that he wouldn't seem like a total pushover for the athletic-looking Harington, devious enough that you constantly want to yell at Milo to watch his back, maybe check his wallet.
The real star of the show of course is Mt. Vesuvius, and Anderson lovingly renders it in all its geologic glory, towering column of ash and projectile fireballs and all. Interestingly, the above photo of Sutherland peering down at a model of the local coliseum approximates the height and angle of many of Anderson's overhead shots, camera spinning like so many surveillance drones round the unruly volcano. R. Emmet Sweeney has some excellent observations about Anderson's overheads in Film Comment's blog--he notes that Anderson is all about models and representations in his pictures, and that Milo's debut in the Pompeii arena is a re-staging (call it a Roman attempt at digitally-rendered 3D) of Corvus' triumph over the Celts (where Corvus massacred Milo's parents), that the Red Queen's malevolent omniscience in the Resident Evil pictures has finally been trumped by the gods gazing down on Vesuvius, on its neighboring town, and on the antlike creatures scampering far below.
Anderson reportedly took six years to write and research the story and it shows; the overhead shots give us archeologically accurate images of town, geologically authentic images of the mountain, and even gives us a chronologically (if somewhat sped-up) correct timeline of the eruption, down to the (considerably exaggerated in size and violence) tsunami described by Pliny the Younger. Most people die not from the passage of fiery rocks in the sky, but from pyroclastic flows--sudden interruptions in the mountain's eruption where the giant ash column finds itself without heat or energy to drive it higher, and the whole thing collapses down the surrounding slopes--a miles-wide wall of shattered rock and superhot gases traveling nearly half the speed of sound, flash-frying anything in its way.
But that's the geogeek part of Anderson; he pretty much knows it's how this major volcanic event determines the destiny of the dewy young lovers that audiences will want to find out, and on this issue he pretty much pulls out all the stops; this is arguably his most impassioned, most heartfelt, most--let's face it--shamelessly corny work to date.
(Skip this paragraph if you're planning to watch the film) And it works; least I think it works. The mountain rumbles in the background while we watch (from a near-Olympian vantage point) the two feel attraction for each other, stand up for each other, fight their way to one another. Then--Anderson, again pushing the god metaphor even further--Vesuvius rumblingly clears its throat, and announces with unquestionable authority the reorganization of priorities: from fleeing for their lives they're left with snatching a brief moment of bliss in the time left remaining in their lives. Suddenly the lovers' youth and inexperience and callowness acquires a sharp poignancy, their affection an extra tang of sweet (bittersweet?); suddenly the movie's cheesiness feels just and not excessive, its plea for sympathy earned and not unwarranted, its sad stab at immortality more persuasive than you'd ever thought possible. Nothing like an erupting volcano to put everything in proper perspective--a goofy romance; a filmmaker condemned to eternal damnation for doing a series of profitable videogame film adaptations; even a movie doomed to obscurity, thanks to its storytelling integrity.
Resist if you want--it's your right after all--but if the sight of these two pretty young things embracing tightly in the face of near-certain doom isn't enough to move you...well, your heart may as well be made of volcanic rock. Sic transit gloria mundi--Anderson has the effrontery to remind us of that, and to hell with the boxoffice.
March 7, 2014