It's not exactly intuitive, but . . . we should maybe try giving Paul W. S. Anderson a little bit of credit.

The man directed three of the Resident Evil movies, but wrote all five; his movies are considered at best guilty pleasures, like Valentine's Day but for man-children who just want to watch things explode. Critics refer to him as an auteur using only the most sarcastic of air quotes.

And it's really easy to write off his movies with a dismissive hand wave as "low-brow time wasters," to say that his visual distractions are pretty but not even mentionable in the same sentence as "art." But I think that'd be unfair—and worse, it'd change the way we have to talk about other movies we like.

Make no mistake, though—Pompeii is not, in the common sense of the word, a "good" movie. The film stars Kit Harrington as the Celt, whose family was wiped out by a Roman battalion when he was a child. Subsequently forced into slavery as a gladiator, the Celt is brought out to Pompeii, where (very conveniently) the same Roman legion commander (a hilariously over-the-top Kiefer Sutherland) who slaughtered his family is paying a visit. The Celt also manages to wiggle his way into a romantic subplot with the daughter of a local businessman, played by Emily Browning (the daughter—not the local businessman).

And while all of this is going on, the volcano rumbles. Long panning shots of scenic volcanic vistas take up a significant portion of the first two acts' running times, and communicate only one thing: it is going to go downhardcore.

However, the movie takes its sweet, sweet time getting there. Which is unfortunate, because it could have been much better at uniting form and content. All during the first and second act, characters discuss their imminent deaths (they're gladiators, remember?), the nature of fate, what the gods want from them—all of which would make for a much more thematically resonant film.

Unfortunately, the script can't pull it off. The actors are at least technically adequate, and some—like Sutherland or the fantastic Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje—are actually enjoyable to watch. But it's only the minor characters of the movie that are allowed any fun—Browning and Harrington are a strict no-frills deadly self-serious pairing, and neither of them are able to rise above their roles as Generic White Hero and Generic White Lady. The lines are too stale. The pairing is unbelievable, the subplots forced, the chemistry between the leads profoundly inert. One can only take so much smoldering before enough is enough.

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Does it sound like I didn't enjoy the movie? Because, weirdly enough, I did. The fascinating thing about this film, and about Paul W.S. Anderson in general, is that he can turn what seems like an absolute train wreck—or worse, a borefest—into a mostly-mitigated train wreck, or a mostly-not-borefest.

So as you watch you realize that yes, anything good in Pompeii is just taken and sanitized from Gladiator—but that doesn't mean it isn't exciting in the moment. And Anderson's lone strength is cultivating that kind of base-level "ergh" feeling during action scenes, a tension that's not unlike watching a good heist movie. Oh, of course they're going to get away with it—but how? What will they lose? Sure, Harrington's character is going to be the coolest, meanest, hind-quarters-kickingest person on the field. But how is it going to happen? It makes for welcome big-screen antics that likely wouldn't scale down well on DVD.

Anderson is also much more comfortable when he's not relating anything about humanity at all. There are two (and only two) striking visuals in the movie: the repeated shots of the volcano itself, preparing to pour out magmatic wrath, and a very brief shot of the Chorus at the gladiatorial arena. Four men in bright gold masks who shout out the plot of the battle being re-created—there's something fascinating about it. Their voice sounds less like four men speaking in unison and more like a horror movie's representation of possession, the sound of multiple voices in a very specific strain of harmony and discord.

That all might sound tangential, but it's important because Anderson is clearly at his best when his work is confronting the in-human, non-human—the sub- and super-human. Within the world of Pompeii, "the gods" really do exist as invoked by characters; the film has none of 2012's apocalyptic glibness, none of Man of Steel's or Armageddon's or The Day After Tomorrow's voyeuristic giddiness at destruction.

There's weight to Anderson's images; things both are what they seem and are much more than it. The repeated shots of the volcano overflowing with magma are a picture of a dog, salivating over its dish meal.

It's a shame, then, that his imagery has a lot of power when taken on its own merits—but in Pompeii, it's treated as the set dressing of Gladiator meets Titanic. Even if Anderson is an actual artist of a surreal visual space (and I honestly believe he is), he definitely isn't a creative genius, and definitely wasn't surrounded by creative geniuses during the filming of Pompeii.

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Pompeii is a cookie-cutter movie, with mad-lib-fill-in-the-blanks characters and plotting and a bland, inoffensive core. The only part of the movie that's actually engaging is Anderson's visuals—the way he stages a scene, pans over a village, ogles the boiling magma within the mountain. Paul W. S. Anderson is just as enamored with miniatures as the other, more famous Anderson—no, not Paul Thomas Anderson, the other other one, Wes Anderson. But whereas the latter is a critical darling, Paul W. S. Anderson is the butt of critical jokes, the subject of reviews that sound as glib as the first half of this one.

It comes down to our desire for it to be simple—"it" being the way we rate movies, in our minds. There's smart and dumb, and good and bad. We want to be the kind of people who like smart, good movies; failing that, we'll settle for liking dumb good movies. We'll sometimes even like a bad movie that's pretty smart. But heaven help you in the comments section of a website if you try to defend a bad, dumb movie.

And that's a problem—it's bad viewership that tries to jam a movie into a simple matrix just so we can feel cool and disparage the Culturally Sanctioned Low-Hanging Fruit of the day. It's better to take works on their own merits, on what they're trying to do, to praise what they do well, and suggest what they could have done better.

That's what allows us to praise movies that, as movies, simply aren't that good—because there are things about them that transcend their existence just "as a movie."

But to reiterate: no, Pompeii is not a good movie. It is ultimately a pretty dumb movie, and not even that good of a dumb movie. But I honestly believe that behind this dumb movie, there's a talented artist doing something visually impressive. And as soon as we say it's not important to value that—then why should we value something poetic, or something didactic, or something cautionary?

It's so easy to be dismissive. But it's a terrible habit. And fighting it is as easy as taking the time to value—not love, just appreciate—something not all that good, something not all that smart.

Caveat Spectator

Pompeii is rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, disaster-related action, and brief sexual content. There's obviously a lot of gladiator fighting, but it's mostly bloodless—all of it is cleaner than something you'd encounter in Gladiator. A child sees a group of unarmed civilians murdered in cold blood. Sutherland's character, while never overtly threatening Browning's, certainly does seem dead set on making her his wife, regardless of her consent—going so far as to consider her his "property." Characters make reference to the Roman gods. Some swearing, but nothing significant. The slave owners are pretty cruel to their slaves (shocker).

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Also, untold death and destruction circa the final act of the movie. But honestly, what were you expecting?

Jackson Cuidon is a writer in New York City. You can follow him on his semi-annually updated Twitter account: @jxscott

Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(2 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (For intense battle sequences, disaster-related action and brief sexual content.)
Directed By
Paul W.S. Anderson
Run Time
1 hour 45 minutes
Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland
Theatre Release
February 21, 2014 by TriStar Pictures
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