The corporate overlords in Resident Evil: Retribution constructed CGI simulacra of major cities to test the death rate of their viruses. Pompeii could be another room in the Umbrella Corporation’s virtual killing grounds. Director Paul W.S. Anderson’s latest act of creative destruction is effectively a meticulous, CGI-powered incinerator for consuming the ancient metropolis. Ever the technology wonk, Anderson uses the setting to play with 3-D textures (the foreground sheets of ash are the most enveloping particulates since the windswept desert sand in Roy Ward Baker’s 1953 Inferno) and to pursue his fetish for the detailed mapping out of his settings, turning Pompeii into a roiling tabletop game board.
While committed to the ongoing Resident Evil series, Anderson has also shown a desire to expand into historical spectacle—a safe way to explore different genres while still turning a profit for his longtime production company, Constantin Film. As with The Three Musketeers, selecting an event from European cultural history guarantees a healthy international gross, insuring against a tepid U.S. response. The former, a thudding bomb stateside, made over $100 million worldwide. A similar pattern is likely to recur for Pompeii.
Anderson’s plots have grown more intricately engineered over the years, peaking in the nesting-doll unrealities of Retribution (2012) But with his wife and muse Milla Jovovich absent this go-round (for the first time since 2008’s Death Race), he opts for an intensely melodramatic love story. Previously, the deepest sentiments in Anderson’s films were reserved for the camera’s regard of Jovovich; in Pompeii that emotion is transplanted into the Titanic-romantic narrative.
The screenplay follows the Titanic playbook: high-born Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of Pompeii’s business elite (Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss), falls for Milo (Kit Harrington), a slave whose family was slaughtered by the Romans. To prove his strong and sensitive side, Milo mercy-kills a dying horse; she swoons; Vesuvius goes boom. As in all of Anderson’s films, an omniscient malevolent power destabilizes any chance of freedom. This time it’s the multinational Romans, represented with sneering swagger by Kiefer Sutherland as Senator Corvus. A colonialist gentrifier, he’s keen on razing Pompeii’s ancient edifices and building bigger and shinier auditoriums and temples. In return for his investment he demands Cassia’s hand in marriage. So Milo and his warrior cell-mate Atticus (the gruffly intimidating Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) have to hopscotch past lava flows and Roman thugs to try to save Cassia and flee the burning city.
The courtship scenes are stilted, though the attraction is presented through Cassia’s POV, a rare case of Hollywood recognizing female desire. Kit Harrington is literally put on display, forced to stand half-naked on a pedestal, on sale for one night’s roll in the Pompeiian hay. Once all the exposition is dealt with, Anderson unleashes his visual gifts. Working with the same tech team since his first 3-D feature, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Anderson and DP Glen MacPherson have mastered this reviled art form, enough to play around now with offhand grace notes. The aforementioned ash acts as an undulating curtain over the action, while stabbing shafts of light cut through and offer false promises of escape.
Anderson is obsessed with fully imagining and rendering the topographical layout of his film’s spaces. The Resident Evil series layers 3-D blueprints of the Umbrella Corporation’s underground redoubt, while in The Three Musketeers Cardinal Richelieu has a giant battleground map etched into the floor of his castle. Pompeii uses frequent god’s-eye views of the city, through which Milo and Cassia’s daring flight on horseback is shrunk to the size of Dungeons & Dragons pieces. Anderson uses these mapping techniques not only to orient the viewer in space but to emphasize the ironclad control the Mabuse-like villains of these films have over the heroes, whom they move around like chess pieces. The nigh-omnipotent “Red Queen” artificial intelligence in the Resident Evil series had no match in the W.S. canon until the absent gods of Pompeii, who invisibly watch their subjects incinerate from afar. As the Umbrella Corporation re-created the oubreak of the T-Virus in Tokyo in their underground lab, so does Senator Corvus force the slaves to re-enact the slaughter of Milo’s Celtic tribe, as the opening attraction in the evening’s games.
The relationship between Milo and Cassia gains force as the disaster narrative takes over, the earlier doe eyes and sensitive-horseman claptrap disappearing as they cling to each other just to survive. Simple pantomime gestures exhibit greater force than anything in the clichéd script by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson (with an uncredited rewrite by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes). A dying married couple embrace in the ruins, Atticus defiantly raises his fist before certain death, and Milo and Cassia sanctify their love in the inferno. It’s high melodrama, what many might describe as camp. Yet the grandiose power of the closing images—of a self-annihilating, all-consuming passion that will be preserved for centuries—obliterates the line between the ridiculous and the sublime.