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When is it okay for your characters to cheat death? / A Brief Review of "Pompeii" (2014)

I'm a bit late to the Pompeii discussion, but I need something to write about today, so why the hell not.


I saw Pompeii a little over three months ago.  It's overall a pretty mediocre movie, but surprisingly better than I expected.  They were trying to go for a classic disaster movie setup by introducing an attractive young man (Kit Harington) and young woman (Emily Browning) who would fall in love and then have to defy dangers, both natural and man-made (Kiefer Sutherland), to escape to safety and, I assume, make lots of babies or something.

I didn't totally hate this movie.  There's a few scenes that are pretty amazing and - dare I say - exciting.  The arena sequence where they re-enact Sutherland's character's battle against the Celts is a terrific set piece and pretty much the highlight of the film.  It's also totally out of place in a disaster movie; it's like a second-to-third act pivot point from a completely different Roman epic about a slave revolution.  But still, it's a great scene.

And outside of the two leads, most of the acting is pretty fun.  The villains are suitably hammy and nefarious and all the side characters do their best to bring color and enthusiasm to the film.  You expect a movie like this to be a slog, but the cast generally works well and keeps it moving.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't really pull off the disaster movie feel.  For one thing, there's not enough of an ensemble of escapees to make it work.  If you look at something like The Poseidon Adventure (or, if I'm going to recall the most recent disaster movie I remember enjoying, The Tower), then you need basically seven or eight main characters who band together to escape the threat and get killed one at a time.  Pompeii really only has three: two bland attractive white people and then one compelling warrior character who pretty much gets shafted since he's black (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).  Everyone else is pretty much just there to set up some extraneous character arcs that don't go anywhere.

The bigger problem, though, is that everybody dies.  Not sure if that's a spoiler.  I guess it kind of is, but at the same time, it's a movie based on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, so....

One of the reasons that disaster movies are compelling is that you're supposed to be on the edge of your seat as to who is going to survive and who won't.  This heightens the tension of each character's individual thematic or personal arc.  For example, if there's a reclusive father figure who's trying to make amends to his estranged son, you're supposed to be that much more invested in him reconnecting before the volcano burns one of them to death.  If both of them are going to die, then there is at least some meaning in them reconnecting because there's a modicum of meaning in it.  There's comfort in knowing that the characters' final moments were spent at peace; a tranquil and uplifting burst of clarity against a field of chaos.

But Pompeii doesn't have any arcs like that.  It's entirely about revenge.  Harington's village was wiped out by Sutherland's soldiers at the beginning of the movie, and Harington has spent his entire life dreaming of vengeance.  When the volcano erupts at Pompeii, he's given the opportunity to kill Sutherland and scratch this particular murder itch.

But who cares?  There's a volcano killing everyone.  Everybody is going to die in an hour, anyway.  Five minutes after Harington succeeds in killing Sutherland, he burns to death because he spent so much time trying to murder the dude that he didn't have time to run away. It's a textbook example of the pointlessness of revenge, but Pompeii doesn't seem to realize this - it plays up Harington's anger as noble.

This is possibly one of the dumbest things I've ever seen in a movie.  How do you get more anti-climactic than that?

Hell, there's actually a separate character arc that happens parallel to Harington's quest that's far more interesting and way more satisfying.  Harington's sidekick, Agbaje, is a beloved gladiator who was one victory away from earning his freedom, but he is cheated out of a fitting end to his career.  In order to help Harington escape, he takes on one of Sutherland's goons (Sasha Roiz) in a one-on-one fight that just happens to take place in the arena, thus putting a fine cap on his career.  It's a moment of personal triumph that actually feels earned despite the fact that Agbaje is doing literally the same thing as Harington: killing a guy instead of running to safety.

Which leads me to the question posed in my post title: When is it okay for your characters to cheat death?  I understand that there were no survivors of the actual eruption of Vesuvius, so it would be contrived to have the two leads escape to safety, but at least a contrivance would have been interesting.  I think this is one case where it would've been totally fine to end the movie with the leads riding off into the sunset.