You wonder if Paul W.S. Anderson is a director who might feel disrespected. Like the Jack Arnold school’s most determined student, Anderson can lend surprising legitimacy to a franchise-milking gimmick like “Alien vs. Predator” or a videogame tie-in like “Resident Evil.” For his trouble, though, he often just seems to get the business from fanboys and critics alike. He gets the chance to make his next B movie, and that is about it. Heck, he even had to tack on the “W.S.” a few movies into his career because Paul Thomas Anderson commandeered the name with, you know, respectable films like “Magnolia.”
Now comes “Pompeii,” Anderson’s stab at rendering the Mount Vesuvius catastrophe with a 3-D “Titanic” gloss. And you wonder: Is this simply the latest project to grab his interest or a calculated bid to help break out in a way he never has?
Anderson’s vision of life in Pompeii circa 79 A.D. features Kit Harington (“Game of Thrones”) as Milo, a gladiator hauled south from his Britannic tribal homeland. He is brooding and brash, and understandably so, after we have seen a prologue showing his village being slaughtered by Roman senator Corvus (miscast Kiefer Sutherland, whose imperial accent has an unfortunate touch o’ the Lucky Charms).
On the slave march to the arena, Milo has a chance encounter with Cassia (Emily Browning, “Sucker Punch”), a nobleman’s daughter with no great love for Rome.
It is clear enough: Anderson’s Leo DiCaprio has found his Kate Winslet, but romance gets back-burnered while Milo spars and bonds with a rival gladiator (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and seethes over Corvus’s arrival in town. Cassia is familiar with Corvus, as well, and knows he is going to make life hell for her Rome-appeasing parents (Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss). All of which is sufficiently preoccupying to make everyone ignore the ominous tremors being generated by that picturesque peak in the background.
We know where all of this is headed and not just because the history book photos of ash-
encased remains tell us so. Still, Harington is quietly solid, his castmates deliver mostly serviceable drama, and, as usual, Anderson’s storytelling has its moments. One arena set piece has the gladiators thrown into a forced, deadly dramatization of Corvus’s Brittania massacre, actors reenacting a reenactment.
When the volcano erupts, the effects are not mind-blowing (the snowy ash is the best 3-D effect), but they do make us think about a nightmare succession of earthquakes, flooding, and molten death that rightly has Cassia calling it “the end of the world.”
The penultimate image of her and Milo is wrenching. What a shame that the closing shot draws snickers. Anderson’s ambitions succeed at points, but he will have to try, try again.