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A slave turned invincible gladiator named Milo (Kit Harrington) finds himself in a race against time to save his true love, Cassia (Emily Browning), the beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant who has been unwillingly betrothed to a corrupt Roman Senator (Kiefer Sutherland). As Mount Vesuvius erupts in a torrent of blazing lava, Milo must fight his way out of the arena in order to save his beloved as the once magnificent Pompeii crumbles around him. (From Sony’s original synopsis)

 Pompeii
Paul W.S. Anderson remains an easy target for film fans/critics, to the point that his name is synonymous with mediocrity. He has certainly earned the distinction following nearly two decades of wasted genre concepts, but he has also earned a slight (very slight) benefit of the doubt for a pair of A+ guilty pleasures – Event Horizon and The Three Musketeers ( Alien vs. Predator and Resident Evil sequels gave us a glimpse of how much worse these movies could be). I assume a number of readers will agree with me concerning Event Horizon, but realize I’m fighting an uphill battle when I try to convince anyone that Three Musketeers was anything but an epic disaster. You’re just going to have to trust me. In fact, Three Musketeers was such a rascally, stupid, and ultimately entertaining little surprise that I was actually looking forward to more historical fiction from Anderson. I wasn’t going to spend the money to see Pompeii in theaters, but jumped at the chance to review it on Blu-ray in hopes of more dopey hijinks.

Like Three Musketeers, Pompeii is a movie no one was really asking for. Those that craved a classy chronicle of the historical tragedy that struck the ancient Roman city knew to stay away the minute Anderson’s name was attached to the material, while those that would normally enjoy the director’s brand of video game entertainment were likely uninterested in sitting through a film with any fact-based relevance. Not unexpectedly, the final results occupy a mediocre middle-ground between a straight-faced, sword & sandal epic and a slick, effects-driven disaster movie. I imagine that the silliness of Three Musketeers would’ve worked more in the film’s favour, but Anderson and screenwriters Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler & Michael Robert Johnson know better than to mix and match tones once one is established. Continuity works for the most part, even though the sincerity of the drama is sometimes accidentally amusing. Or is it? Perhaps the filmmakers were aware that introducing their romantic leads to each other via horse euthanasia is kind of hilarious (their literally break a horse’s neck together during their first meeting).

 Pompeii
Anderson’s choices are often visually appealing. He captures grit, scope, and scale on a somewhat modest budget much better than similarly priced productions by avoiding too many post- 300 visual clichés. Pompeii won’t ever be confused with a Spartacus or Gladiator, but it also doesn’t look like it was shot on a digital back-lot. Only a handful of low frame-rate slo-mo shots ugly-up the otherwise handsome production. Given a spotty history with special effects elements and his inability to hide behind a cartoonish tone, like he did with Three Musketeers, it was a distinct possibility that Anderson would botch the inevitably CG-enhanced climax. But Pompeii’s effects are, for the most part, convincing (aside from some iffy green screen composites) and Anderson does an admirable job tying the chaotic images of the final act together into one, elongated action set piece. He actually runs into more trouble trying to maintain his PG-13 rating. This is a particular bummer when he sets up a multi-gladiatorial fighter combat situation that has to be censored of any gory mayhem. It’s mostly clanging sounds, guys moaning, and falling out of frame.

The speedy pacing robs the film of the character depth that helps define better period epics, but Pompeii isn’t as hastily constructed as any number of other recent ‘budget epics.’ Familiar genre tropes are even used to the film’s advantage in many cases, offering the audience reprieve from excess exposition (for example, no one explains the rules of the gladiatorial arena, because the filmmakers assume we’ve seen the same movies they have). The bigger issue is that Anderson and his writers miss a chance to explore the impact of the volcano on the various classes of the city (I personally enjoyed the political subplots). Instead, they opt to bide their time before the apocalyptic finale by telling yet another revenge-driven gladiator story, one very similar to about a dozen other incarnations – minus the R-rated grit that often make them so entertaining. The well-rounded cast doesn’t really help matters. Many of the best actors (Carrie-Anne Moss and Jared Harris) are wasted in incidental parts, while the leads, Kit Harrington and Emily Browning, aren’t given much chance to do anything but glower and/or look pretty. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje stands apart, as he usually does through pure force of presence, while Keifer Sutherland steals every scene he’s in for all the wrong reasons. His choice of accent is…unique.

 Pompeii

Video


Anderson and cinematographer Glen MacPherson have been working together shooting digital 3D over four movies now, including Resident Evil: Afterlife, The Three Musketeers, Resident Evil: Retribution, and this one. These movies have used a number of rigs, including Arri Alexas, PACE Fusions, Phantoms, Sony CineAltas – but, according to specs, Pompeii was shot exclusively with Red Epic cameras. This review pertains to the 2D, 1080p, 2.40:1 transfer included as part of this two-disc collection. This is a superb image, due both to the format’s incredibly clarity and Anderson/MacPherson’s choice to not stick to a constant or limited colour scheme. Sure, there are plenty of scenes featuring glossy, orange skin tones and smoky green set pieces/digital extensions, but there are also plenty of dynamic daylight scenes flecked with poppy highlight hues and some rich, monochromatic nighttime shots. The colours are well separated without a lot of the unnaturally smooth gradations seen in other shot-on-Red productions and the contrast levels are cranked pretty high. The harsh blacks and bright white highlights help the more complicated fine details, but are also occasionally detrimental during the more subtly-lit scenes, where dark costumes disappear into dark backgrounds. There are no notable compression artefacts (some of the darkest scenes are a bit grainy, I suppose), but the smoothness sometimes leads to smooshed skin/costume textures, minor ghosting issues (which might be a 3D to 2D problem), and a few banding effects throughout the softer backdrops.

 Pompeii

Audio


Pompeii is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and is every bit as aurally bombastic as you’d assume it would be based on the subject matter and Anderson’s previous releases (even his worst films tend to have impressive sound design). Obviously, the explosive noises of the volcano are the most aggressive element, which makes the third act the best system test in terms of sheer noise. Readers looking to show off their new receivers and speakers have plenty of screaming hordes, blasting magma, roaring fires, and falling rocks to look forward to. The portentous scenes of the volcano preparing to blow were my favourites due to their more subtle directional cues and LFE rumble. The fights and battles feature similarly noisy, sometimes with overly punchy impact noises, and dialogue-heavy scenes are nicely layered with basic ambience and, occasionally, music. Composer Clinton Shorter does a good Hans Zimmer impression with his melodramatic score (Anderson acknowledges that he and Shorter were riffing on Zimmer during the commentary track), which makes good use of reverb-heavy percussion, rich strings, and warm vocals that spread nicely over the stereo channels. Even during the loudest destruction scenes the music stands apart as it wraps throughout the speakers.

 Pompeii

Extras


  • Commentary with Anderson and co-producer Jeremy Bolt – Anderson’s commentaries are usually pleasant, factoid-heavy affairs and this one is no exception. He and Bolt do a good job discussing their passion for the project (including lots of research), problems with their adaptation of the story (they admit that there are similarities to Gladiator), praising their cast & crew, and just generally covering the ups and downs of the technical production. The tone is a little too formal and they run out of anecdotes during the less action-packed scenes, but these complaints are minor, given the track’s overall success.
  • 20 deleted & alternate scenes (23:30, HD) – A lot of unnecessary character development and awkward exposition was rightfully cut to keep the film moving.
  • The Assembly (7:10, HD) – A look at the cast and their roles.
  • The Journey (7:40, HD) – Concerning the production design, set construction, and research.
  • The Costume Shop (6:50, HD) – On the costume design/construction.
  • The Volcanic Eruption (7:00, HD) – A look at the digital and physical effects involved in recreating the volcanic explosion, including the construction of a virtual Pompeii.
  • The Gladiators (6:20, HD) – On stunts and fight choreography.
  • Pompeii: Buried in Time: Behind the Scenes of Ancient History's Greatest Disaster (24:00, HD) – A mixed making-of EPK/historical featurette.
  • Trailers

 Pompeii

Overall


I wanted to like Pompeii more than I did. It ultimately fails, because, like many of Paul W.S. Anderson’s movies, it is a merely adequate retelling of a familiar story. With more effort extended on a narrative level it might’ve been a slam-dunk B-movie. Viewers looking for a half decent gladiator movie mixed with a half decent disaster movie should be happy, assuming those expectations remain low. Sony’s Blu-ray features a sharp 2D transfer (any issues are possibly 3D to 2D artefacts), an outstanding DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and an okay selection of extras, including a commentary track and some short featurettes.

 Pompeii
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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