Just as you shouldn't read a Dan Brown novel expecting great insight in to the human condition, nor should you head in to a Paul W.S. Anderson movie and expect anything other than the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy -- saccharine fluff that dissolves when met with the faintest contact of any sort.
I mention that up front because that was the mentality with which I went in to his latest film, Pompeii, a gladiatisaster flick starring Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris, Kiefer Sutherland and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.
The CGI-heavy film situates a familiar vengeful-gladiator-vs.-the-full-force-of-the-Roman-Empire story at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius just a few days before it erupts, raining death and destruction down on the citizens of Pompeii, Herculaneum and other towns located near the modern-day city of Naples.
Other than getting the year of Vesuvius' eruption correct (79 AD), Pompeii does not even remotely pretend to be historically accurate, and so, despite my instinct to dig out my old Latin books or run to Wikipedia immediately after it was over and start fact-checking, I resisted the impulse. That's because a movie like this shouldn't be judged by standards it doesn't bother imposing on itself. Yeah, it's rife with historical inaccuracies, but pointing that out feels like scoring a technical knockout. To paraphrase The Dude, you wouldn't be wrong, you'd just be an asshole.
I actually feel the same way about the gaping plot holes present too. Again, Anderson's M.O. seems to be to not think too hard. Give the people a love story between the chiseled Harrington, who plays the brooding gladiator Milo, and the fawning Browning, who plays the comely and unattainable Cassia, throw in some solid action sequences, then have Vesuvius blow. It might not be intellectually stimulating, but it is at least a decent thing to look at for an hour-and-a-half.
These are all things I can forgive. Sure, you can name about a dozen movies that executed one element or another better than Pompeii. Gladiator did the gladiator stuff way better. Spartacus did the Roman politics stuff way better. Game of Thrones gets far more out of Harrington. Titanic was far better at the looming-catastrophic-calamity vibe. Cinema goes on. Much of it is derivative. One of the things I can respect about Anderson is that he seems to know who he is, which is to say a poor man's Michael Bay.
What I can't forgive is his cutesy touches with this film. Every place in which he thought a little bit too hard, Pompeii lost a little bit of what made some of it highly entertaining. Start with Sutherland, who plays the cartoonishly villainous Roman Senator Corvus. He comes to Pompeii to strike a business-and-marriage deal with Cassia's father Severus (Harris) and mother Aurelia (Moss). Bent on marrying Cassia despite her objections, he evolves in to the film's big bad. He has neither the accent nor the foppish demeanor to pull this off anyway, but even if he did, shouldn't the big bad be THE GIANT EXPLODING MOUNTAIN?
I don't understand why this film needed a bad guy and a natural disaster. The eerie, imposing presence of Mt. Vesuvius is creepy in real life, so it's more than enough for Anderson here. I don't understand why it had to weave in a poorly drawn morality tale about the limitless corrupting power of Rome on the poor provinces in its grasp. I don't understand why there are all these features that end up being a series of bugs.
Anderson should have kept it simpler and dumber. Those were the expectations I had going in, and I didn't appreciate being disappointed.