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Saturday, 21 June 2014

Pompeii (2014)

The neutrinos are mutating, and they're heating up the planet.

That will forever be the best line in fiction.


Pompeii (2014).

[Contains spoilers.]

Someone told me this was a box office flop. It wasn't, it did fine in the box office. I mean, it came third, and it came out in a week when several other big films were coming out. That's not bad.

So. Historical disaster film. Those are three words you don't often see together. Disaster films, as codified by Roland Emmerich's body of work (and to a lesser extent, Michael Bay's), bless him, tend to take place not just in modern settings, but in very recognisable modern settings. There's a reason most disaster films take place in urban America: American audiences are being targeted, as they almost always are for any film, and one of the big draws of disaster films is the catharsis that comes from watching the famous landmarks and familiar landscapes of your home and nation be destroyed in spectacular fashion.

What this says about the culture of film-goers, I'm not quite sure. Probably just that we like explosions: I doubt any of the people who gleefully watch as the Statue of Liberty is engulfed by water for the ninetieth time in its cinematic lifetime are actually going 'You know, it'd be awesome if New York really was flooded.' It's just the things being destroyed is inherently more impressive on screen than things being pretty much fine, which is why the 'everything is more or less okay film' genre has yet to take off. 

This photo was everywhere in marketing. Who can say why.

But a historical disaster film is a bit of a new one. The last one I can think of is James Cameron's Titanic, and as anyone who's watched Titanic (which given how popular it was, might be everyone reading this) will know, that's a lot less disaster centric than other disaster films. In 2012, the first thing you find out is that 'the neutrinos are mutating' and the disaster strikes within the first twenty minutes. In Titanic, the early scenes are a lot more solemn, demonstrating the wreckage left by the disaster, and when the story starts in earnest, the main thrust of it is the romance of the two star-crossed lovers, with the approaching icebergoid disaster merely being the catalyst by which their stars will become even more crossed, and only entering the picture in the last half an hour.

So imagine my dull lack of surprise when I watched Pompeii and realised that this film was in fact a HD rerelease of Titanic, with the ship sets being dressed up as an Oscan city and Leonardo diCaprio wearing a black wig in the hopes of finally getting an Oscar.

Sorry, that sounds like a silly thing to say. One is about a pre-WW1 cruise ship that collides with an iceberg, and the other is about an Oscan city devastated by a massive volcano.

Here's a plot description of both, though: The story starts by showing the wreckage left by the disaster. Flashing back to the past, a young man from a poor, marginalised background by chance meets with an upper-class girl, and they form an instant romance. The upper-class girl is unhappy with her lot in life, as she is to be wed to a cruel, yet powerful man, with her family's fortunes hanging in the balance. When this cruel man discovers their romance, he uses deceptive means to arrange to have the poor, young man die. Disaster strikes! The two lovers struggle to reunite, and eventually manage to do so as their world falls apart around them. 

Also, finger-guns.

Titanic did come out seventeen years ago, though, and I doubt very much the similarities are intentional. For starters, that's also a plot summary of Moulin Rouge, which isn't a historical disaster film at all. But romance sells, especially doomed romances – we've known that since before Romeo and Juliet was written – and what dooms a romance more than an imminent and implacable natural disaster that we all know is coming, but which the characters are blissfully unaware of?

I won't say, either, that the pre-disaster sections aren't engaging. They're kind of Titanic crossed with Spartacus: Blood and Sand, as the romance between Milo and Cassia is intercut between Cassia's tangential involvement in the politicking of her family and the evil senator Corvus, and Milo's much less tangential involvement in the violence and degradation of the life of a gladiator, which start with a man attempting to drown him and goes downhill from there.

It's not a bad story. It's one we've seen before, but it's not a bad one, and its main failing is that thirty minutes before the end of the film a volcano erupts and puts an end to half of the conflicts in the film. 

Who - who is that man in the background?

You can't say it's not foreshadowed, though – I mean, not just because the film is called Pompeii and because a volcano erupting was featured in every trailer and poster, and because the film literally starts by telling you that it was going to happen – as the volcano causes earthquakes and boiling water problems throughout the film.

Actually, Vesuvius seems to be the opposite of most disaster film volcanoes. Volcano and Dante's Peak taught us that volcanoes hate women, and will turn water to acid in punishment for them defying the strictest, most right-wing conventions of society. Vesuvius seems to be a kind of materteral figure with distinct feminist leanings: Every time Kiefer Sutherland murmurs something creepy about how a woman will obey him, or about how foolish women are, Vesuvius roars and shakes, as if to go 'LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING, CORVUS.' When it eventually erupts, its eruption coincides perfectly with Corvus forcing Cassia to agree to his marriage proposal, and commanding that she be imprisoned.

So. Go feminist volcano, man. We love you. 

A fedora'd man in Oplontis throws a tantrum because
women won't sleep with him. Vesuvius responds.

(Then again, maybe it just takes offence to Kiefer Sutherland chewing the scenery. Most of the actors in this film try to play their roles fairly straight, and they're good enough to make it work. Sutherland seemingly decided early to make his character the most hammy villain ever, and it's glorious.)

The post-disaster sections, the last half hour of the film, are also fine. They're a lot of people running, culminating in a man on horseback chasing a chariot through Pompeii's streets, but a lot of effort was clearly put into making it as visually striking as possible. They are very visually striking, too, combining CGI and practical effects, and it's all very beautiful.

When it ends, it's a bit of a shaggy dog story, to be honest. We hadn't spent a massive amount of time on Milo and Cassia's romance, but it was believable enough, one supposes. Then they die, and thousands of years later a massively popular song is written about them. Yes, I know, there was no way they could reasonably escape, but I admit, I half expected the pyroclastic surge to split open and billow about on either side of them, leaving them both perfectly unharmed, the lone survivors of a disaster that destroyed at least four cities. 

Grumble grumble grumble.

(For more information on just how bad Vesuvius' effects could be, check out Herculaneum. The pyroclastic surge caused such a sudden rise in heat that their hands and feet shrunk, their bones and teeth fractured, and their heads exploded. Oplontis and Stabiae did less gruesomely, but were still lost.)

So, it's – fun, I guess. It's what people might call a guilty pleasure film, but it's short and doesn't outstay its welcome. I watched it quite happily – more happily than I watched Titanic, that's for sure – and didn't leave feeling like I'd wasted a hundred and five minutes of my life, which is certainly something I have felt for far too many films.

You may now proceed to make 'Doom of Old Valyria' jokes. Or Bastille jokes.



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