Part of me, the part that thrills to the chivalry of defending the unjustly maligned, would like to be able to point out that this is horribly unfair, that Pompeii was actually a gem of a movie, maybe a little misunderstood, maybe the victim of inartful marketing. But in reality I am unable to do that, because it simply isn’t true. It turns out Pompeii is the classic example of deserving the damningly faint praise of “not bad, for what it is.” And what it is is an action movie with some cool physical setpieces and a big CGI special effects budget and a lot of period trappings (sprinkled liberally with anachronisms and inaccuracies) trying to offer a little bit of something for everyone.
There was another movie that came out about 17 years ago which was a period piece that incorporated action sequences and big-budget special effects, and in point of fact also involved a star-crossed romance and a famous historical disaster. Understandably, comparisons between Pompeii and Titanic were inevitable. I read a handful of reviews of Pompeii ahead of time (I had predicted, correctly, that the level of enjoyment my wife and I would get out of going to see Pompeii would be directly proportional to the proper setting of our expectations, so I surveyed the reviews and consequently set the bar for Pompeii to clear very, very low), and I ran into Titanic references left and right, none of them favorable to the newer film. Now that I’ve seen Pompeii for myself, I feel like I can weigh in on the point.
Of course I have seen Titanic, exactly once, on home video. I admit that I liked it, more than I expected to, but as the years have gone by I have nevertheless come to think of it as a bit overrated. There’s no denying that during the fifty-however-many weeks in the late 90’s that Titanic was in theaters, setting all-time box office records , it was a remarkable phenomenon of mass popularity; I saw that first-hand. However, not to get my snoot all full of cinephilia, there’s no direct correlation between something being staggeringly popular and something being intrinsically good. I’ve heard some people espouse the theory that Titanic made so much money not because everyone in America saw it once but because a certain subset of hardcore 12-year-old female fans kept buying tickets over and over and over again, and I think there’s a grain of truth to that. Again, I’m not saying that Titanic was bad, or that things aimed directly at 12-year-old girls are automatically worthless. I’m just pointing out that there’s no cognitive dissonance in the fact that Titanic made literally billions of dollars and yet no one in their right mind would ever say it’s one of the best movies ever made. So, in theory, if Titanic isn’t a magical artistic triumph, there’s no foregone conclusion that Pompeii couldn’t possibly have succeeded at the same formula.
Of course, you can compare individual components right off the bat and get a good sense of Pompeii’s long odds. Kit Harington is a handsome and suitably intense dude, but as an actor he’s no Leonardo DiCaprio. And Emily Browning is a perfectly serviceable ingenue, which is another way of saying she’s no Kate Winslet. (One could also argue the point that Paul W.S. Anderson is no James Cameron, but that’s not so much a case of “younger and less accomplished” so much as “cut from different cloth, with different strengths and weaknesses”, so leave that aside for now.)
Still, you can see how Pompeii does fit the mold of Titanic (and so many, many other precedents) with its star-crossed lovers, Milo and Cassia, a gladiator slave and the daughter of a noble family. It’s totally the Jack-Rose template (right down to Cassia being forced toward an arranged marriage with the villain of the piece), with the additional sqeeee! factor of Milo being the last surviving member of a Celtic horse tribe. This may just be my responding to the predilections of my lovely wife’s own inner twelve-year-old, but let me say that again: he’s hot and brooding and good with horses. Instead of standing at the rail of an ocean liner and pretending to fly, they go on a forbidden midnight horseback ride. I’m pretty sure the only way that Pompeii could have been more explicit in trying to cater to the middle-school female crowd would have been to include a Lisa Frank-colored dream sequence in which Cassia re-imagines the ride all over again, in slow motion, on a glittery lavender unicorn.
But it’s not just going for the girly-girls (or, hey, guys who are into Kit Harington and/or horses - no judging here). Milo isn’t just a gladiator in theory or as part of his backstory, there are multiple bad-ass fight scenes (including, not incidentally, the unassailable bad-assed-ness of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) which eventually give way to explosions and collapsing buildings and all sorts of chaos and carnage once the volcano erupts. Titanic climaxes with the admittedly impressive visuals of the sinking of the eponymous ship; Pompeii at one point features a tidal wave which crashes through the harbor, picks up a massive galleon which is on fire, and rams the burning ship down a major street of the city as people flee and/or fall ahead of it in terror. As cartoonish hyper-violence and mass destruction goes, that is right up there on the list of things I would pay good money to see.
More often than not, the reviews of the movie I sampled pointed out that Pompeii was “Titanic mixed with swords and sandals”, with the heavy implication that this was to be read derisively, as the swords and sandals genre is one which can never be taken seriously. I kind of, sort of get this; even though it was set almost a century earlier than the timeframe in which it was released, Titanic still has enough trappings of modernity that it can feel relatable. Whereas nobody relates to ancient Rome, and every effort to bridge the gap actually works against the suspension of disbelief. Certainly no one in the movie Pompeii is speaking Latin, or Celtish for that matter, but of course all the characters speak to one another in British accents (if you stretch the definition to include whatever bizarre vocal contortions Keifer Sutherland does as the heavy, which I advocate that we do in deference to the fact that he’s one of the most entertaining parts of the movie). Nonetheless! If you suspend disbelief not as a courtesy to the movie for the work it does in earning it, but as a conscious choice at the outset regardless of fidelity to realism, then sword and sandals is just another big, loud, dumb, fun genre. And it turns out all along that Titanic could have used a bit more big, loud, dumb fun! Pompeii is wholly dedicated to bringing the loud and the dumb and winds up moderately fun as well.
By and large I believe there’s a continuum for movies, or any other kind of narrative art, which convey straightforward and superficial messages at one end of the spectrum and deep, challenging ambiguous messages (or deliberate lack thereof) at the other. But I also believe it’s possible that the continuum is actually an unbroken circle, and that it’s possible for a piece of art to pull so hard towards the straightforward and superficial (and, debatably, plain old stupid) that it actually breaks through the lower limit and wraps around again into subversive brilliance. And for a couple of fleeting moments during Pompeii’s running time I was tempted to believe it might be verging into that territory. After all, it’s almost impossible to tell a story that contains within it an audience of some sort without commenting on the very audience that’s receiving the overall story, isn’t it? The Pompeiian crowds celebrating the Vinalia, oblivious to their imminent destruction, cheering for bloodshed in the gladiatorial arena … they’re us, aren’t they? There must be some implicit criticism of the people who paid $9.50 for a matinee ticket to watch a flick based on well-known historical record where everybody is going to die, however superior we might feel to the slave-owning, savage-eradicating (and Nazi-symbol inspiring) Roman Empire. If you look closely, if you squint hard enough, the takeaway has to be in there somewhere …
But that would be an extremely hard case for this movie to make. It perpetuates the “happy slave” archetype, which is regrettable. It mangles mythology at will, as when Milo informs his arch-nemesis Corvus that the destruction of Pompeii represents Milo’s people’s gods taking vengeance for the tribal genocide (which implies that a Celt would believe in some kind of volcano god, I guess?) It gives a character like the champion African gladiator a name like Atticus, which he owns fully as he uses to introduce himself (shouldn’t he have an African name? Or at least something with meaning beyond “man from Attica”? I suspect there’s an attempt being made to reference Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, since both characters believe in law but are ultimately disillusioned by its inconsistent practice, but then again I may be giving Pompeii way too much undeserved credit. Honestly I’m a little surprised they didn’t name Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s character Crispus, just to go ahead and invoke the first black martyr of the American Revolution, although I concede that naming a character fated to die in the fiery fury of pyroclastic flow Crispus is a bit on the nose. But this is the same movie where the first slave to die in a pre-eruption temblor is named Felix, so “on the nose” is not being stringently avoided.) Where was I? Oh, right - this is a movie which uses many, many pages from the Big Screenwriter Book of Dialogue Cliches, from a character saying “relax, if I were going to kill you, I’d have done it already”; to a character answering a “How do you know?” question about an esoteric subject with a portentous “I was there”; to a character claiming that he was adept at a skill “since before I could walk”.
It would be nice to be able to claim that Pompeii was a really smart movie playing at being nothing more than big, loud, dumb fun, and again, I’d love to be the guy standing up and staking a claim on that notion. But wanting doesn’t make it so. I think ultimately it’s just big and loud and dumb and fun as an end to itself.
Fair enough, and really, is there anything terribly challenging, or any hidden depths in Titanic to make us reconsider the way we look at the world? Not fundamentally. But if I’ve learned anything in the past few years of practicing heavy analysis of pop culture, it’s this: characters have to have arcs. They have to change, learn and grow as the story goes along. That seems obvious, and yet it’s amazing how many stories people try to tell (or more to the point, to sell) where a bunch of things happen externally and nobody really develops internally. Titanic may not be all things to all people (and may not be much more than cinematic trivia to me) but at least Jack and Rose progress as characters to some point that’s markedly different from where they are when we meet them. And that’s Pompeii’s biggest failing, way beyond the nitpicking about whether or not generals going about making business deals are entitled to bring their entire legion encampment with them on the road. Milo and Cassia don’t change in the slightest from their first frames to their last. A bunch of crazy crap happens to them, and all around them, and then [spoilers] they perish. It’s romantic on some level, the imagery is definitely well-executed, but it doesn’t have the stuff of life to animate it and empower it to get its hooks in people. Change is what it’s all about, and in that regard Pompeii does make an absolutely true statement in the end: if you never change, you die.