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Review by Joshua Gibbs
Not a lot of great volcano movies out there. They tend to be straight-forward affairs, as is evidenced by their titles, like Volcano. That particular 1997 disaster-movie disaster memorably ended with a young child observing (in a moment of benevolent, racial innocence and goodwill) that Caucasians and African-Americans covered in black ash “all looked the same” while laboring together to overcome the lava and save the city. I like to think that moment was sufficiently nauseating that 17 years were needed to recover before another film wholly centered on hot nasty eruptions could be made again.
17 years later, such a film, equally possessed of an unambiguous title, has ruptured through the Hollywood crust and into the American cinema. Pompeii is the work of one Paul W.S. Anderson (which is neither Paul T. Anderson, nor Wes Anderson, but a Book-of-Mormon-like amalgam of both- Mosiah, anyone?), whose bracing œuvre is at least half-full of films with titles which include the words death or evil.
The big question of every disaster film is exactly how long the audience will be asked to endure a bunch of pap before the disaster properly begins. We purchase a ticket knowing the delights of a destroyed New York City await us, although what kind of delight this is constitutes some mystery. Several years ago, David Bentley Hart commented on disaster films for First Things:
For some, the eschatological genre is simply a subcategory of the horror genre… For the more morally serious, it has a graver, minatory purpose, and should apprise us (ponderously) that nuclear war, environmental devastation, genocidal pandemics, swarms of omnivorous nano-robots, and dangerous experiments on subatomic particles are very bad things that ought to be avoided on most occasions. For certain Christian fundamentalists, “end times” fantasy is a kind of licit pornography, absorbed with an altogether unhealthy relish… On the other hand, maybe these fantasies principally arise from a wholly understandable desire to know how any story ends. It is occasionally difficult to accept that each of us occupies only a vanishingly minuscule portion of terrestrial time, and that most of us are not destined to play any conspicuous role in the great drama of history. In many of us, surely, there must be some tacit impulse to rebel against the indignity of our transience and seeming irrelevance, and to mythologize our brief moment in the light as one that coincides with the end of time. Perhaps, although raw sensuality and a good old-fashioned Burkean desire for the sublime should also be on the table.
I find it hard to judge the Dionysian impulses of man come summer, that Season of the Flesh, and when July roles around, I will line up with the worst of them to see the biggest-budgeted, most attractively-cast film which unapologetically revels in a loss of temperance, moderation and prudence, somehow reducing a cosmic Hobbesian plenum of sensuality into a series of images and then sadistically bombarding the eyes and souls of the audience with It. Billion dollar budget? Models fighting 3D robots? Not one stone of Chicago left on top of another? Count me in. In the midnight hour, count me in.
But with Pompeii, it’s March. It’s the third quarter of the school year. Lent is starting, for crying out loud. There’s an aura of the half-baked and also-ran about the film on paper. A mere eighty million dollar budget, a lead actor named Kit, no Pompeii edition Lava Gorditas at Taco Bell. Is there room for movies like this anymore?
Let’s get a few things out of the way. Pompeii features a romance between a gladiator slave and a princess, but the story offers nothing lucid in the way of showing us why men sometimes do batty things for girls they find foxy. None of the characters truly come from a bygone era; their prejudices are modern, as is their behavior and their sense of the world. These are teenagers stripped from WB television shows and asked to wear Bible Times costumes. While the narrative suggests the slave Milo has born witness to tragedy, unspeakable violence and injustice, Kit Harington’s face is too fresh and too untested to evidence the exasperation and desperation his Milo would have known; Harington is too young and too beautiful to have ever been asked to do much more than make a strong first impression. While apparently growing up in a pagan aristocracy, wherein from a young age she has seen men slaughtering one another for the glee of the hoi polloi, the princess Cassia is no less polite than Jane Bennett. There's no way those lips have kissed anything other than the possibility of an interesting night goodbye. Over the first two acts, the plot contrives a romance between the two, although this romance emerges between another maneuver of the plot which is both more interesting, and more dominant. While Pompeii is an ersatz Romance, it’s a slightly less-ersatz Political Thriller.
Cassia’s father Severus is the governor of Pompeii, a city depicted in the film as a former vacation spot which has fallen into decline because it is not opulent enough or Roman enough for Roman aristocrats to find attractive. Severus wants the newly crowned Roman Emperor Titus to finance the rebuilding of Pompeii, although this move is unpopular among the people of Pompeii; the people love the old Pompeii, the culture of Pompeii, and they don’t want the city sold out from underneath them and turned into a tourist trap for rich Romans. The narrative begins the day Cassia returns to Pompeii from Rome after a year there, probably in school. When Cassia learns her father has plans to ask Titus to finance a Pompeii facelift, she recoils; Rome is a debauched, failing empire, she suggests, and ought not to be trusted. On the same weekend she returns, the Roman senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) also shows up in town to broker a deal with Severus. When Cassia sees Corvus, she recoils; only then does her father realize that his daughter left Rome to escape the advances of Corvus, who has obviously clocked the benefits of marrying into a relationship with the Pompeii governor, given that the rebuilding of Pompeii will net a massive profit for the city’s government as tourists come in to spend Roman money. Severus, the governor of Pompeii, is in a bind, then; he can turn down the financial and romantic advantages of a powerful Roman senator and deal with the consequences, or consent to Romanize Pompeii and stay up late worrying about a coup. Sufficiently complex, actually.
But then the volcano blows, and all the intricacies of the plot and the relationships between the characters come to nothing. Some viewers will find this overly convenient. Nothing is resolved. Death simply swipes the back of arm over the checker board of the plot, knocks all the character-pieces to the floor, and the credits role.
Few disaster movies take care to unfold such interesting problems. In the last decade or so, the disaster film has become an ensemble piece; we follow five or six characters or groups of characters on a number of different fronts, each front experiencing some different CG-oriented aspect of the disaster (some get tsunamis, some earthquakes, etc). Each character is given some tiny bit of quirk— nothing more than a tick of personality which serves as a nametag— then, so soon as they have all been stuck with it, the action begins. Pompeii might have been front loaded with more impressive gore and babes, images of Roman debauchery which Cassia flees or the brutality of the gladiatorial games Milo bests, but instead, the writers invested a bit in setting up a political quagmire which is truly appreciable, realistic, perplexing.
Death is the great equalizer, though. None of the problems the characters suffer during the first two acts need solving. The people of Pompeii do not need to be pacified; the Roman senator does not need to be appeased; Pompeii does not need to be rebuilt; Pompeii does not need to retain her historical roots; Milo does not need the love of Cassia to grant him his freedom. In the end, everyone has thought a little too much of living and not enough of dying— and death is, as the monks have always put it, one of the only real “obligations” of man. In my own season of life, I tend to view everything though the darkness of Ecclesiastes; most earthly problems are resolved in the inevitability of death, Solomon often suggests, and the unfairness of the world and the difficulties and struggles incumbent upon living in the City of Man simply melt away against Hades, where slave and master see one another eye to eye.
While I often object to this or that character dying in the end of a movie on the grounds they have not earned such a dignified or momentous exit from the narrative (imagine Bill Murray dying at the end of Lost in Translation), I found those objections rendered null by everyone in the story dying, and within mere moments of one another. It all seemed so appropriate. It seemed so natural.