PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

'Pompeii', Slaves and Their Short-Lived Payback

On one hand Atticus, the most awesome slave-gladiator in Pompeii, is smart and splendidly charismatic. On the other, he's tormented.


Pompeii

Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Cast: Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris, Carrie-Anne Moss
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Sony Pictures
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-02-21 (General release)
UK date: 2014-05-02 (General release)
Website
Trailer
And then to stand in the face of death and destruction, and to be that mighty. And then you've got that black fist up in the air…. As a black actor, you don't get iconic roles in tentpoles.

--Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje

"You will have to speak at some point." Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) observes his new cellmate, a white kid (Kit Harrington) who doesn't want to tell Atticus his name. Atticus is patient, though: until now, that is, 79 AD, he's been the most awesome slave-gladiator in Pompeii. Recently arrived in line of other miserable men in chains, the newbie brings with him something of a reputation, renowned as a skilled, fast warrior and also, per his tribe, of which he is the only surviving member, as a horse trainer.

Atticus just wants to know his name, but the kid refuses. They don't have to speak, he says, until he does, but "We'll have to kill each other at some point."

This seems about right. You already know, some 20 minutes into Pompeii, that the Celt's name is Milo, and that he's really mad at the Romans, who killed his family and tribe when he was a child, an especially mad at a senator named Corvis (Kiefer Sutherland), whose sinister, torchfire-lit face is ingrained in Milo's memory and in a few too many flashbacks. Milo's reluctance to give up this background information makes him seem a reluctant hero, a grudge-holding, stoic type who will make a perfect opposites-attracting partner for the gregarious, self-confident Atticus, and also, no surprise, an ideal boyfriend for the lovely Cassia (Emily Browning), herself just returned from a bad time in Rome and holding her own grudge against the bully Corvis. That both Milo and Cassia have had bad experiences with the senator is of course convenient, aligning them with one another and against him when he just so happens to arrive in Pompeii, too.

If you're paying attention, say, to the film's title, you know that this means everyone is on track to be destroyed when Vesuvius erupts. This -- and a number of rumbles and lava gurgles -- casts rather a grim inevitability on all the churning melodrama and muscular buddydom (Atticus and Milo's shared glances across the gladiators' arena as they smash and rip and impale all adversaries makes them simultaneously ancestors and descendants of any number of currently franchised superheroes, not to mention several circa-'80s movie cops).

You know they're all headed to that moment when their bodies will be encased in ash, frozen at the moment of their last breath and activity. And if you give it any thought, it may be disturbing that you come to see this nasty end as just desserts for Corvis and his minions but so-sad glory for Milo's team.

While Sutherland manages some hissing within the confines of his uneven accent, for the most part, Corvis' villainy -- specifically, his untoward forwardness with Cassia back in Rome -- is left to your imagination. What you don't have to imagine is the ostensibly reserved Cassia's sudden and vivid interest in Milo, whom she spots on the road back to Pompeii, as he's trudging in chains and she's riding in a horse-drawn carriage. The cutting between close-ups of their indicates instant, mutual attraction, the sort that always happens in moves about beautiful slave boys and upper-class maidens.

This version comes with an extra bite, when one of Cassia's horses is injured and he steps forward to help, which ends up meaning he breaks its neck in one loud, swift motion. At once horrified and enchanted, Cassia's eyes go wide while he does his best not to look at her at all. On this demonstration, Cassias slave companion, Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), tells you what you already know: "I never saw you look at any man the way you looked at that slave!"

Here and elsewhere the myth and romance of Pompeii become entangled in perversities of class and race distinctions, some, perhaps, alluding to history, but most sensational fictions. Most conventionally and least convincingly, the movie's two same-sex, mixed-race friendships (Atticus and Milo, alongside the light-skinned Ariadne and utterly alabaster Cassia) suggests that slavery is just a circumstance, of birth, of bad luck, and that Cassia treats Ariadne as a kind of best high school girlfriend.

That she might be inclined to think this way despite her yucky dad Lucretius (Jared Harris), a local official trying to wheedle municipal funding from Corvis by putting on a grand show in the House of the Gladiators and also, oh yes, giving the visiting senator his daughter's hand in marriage, is a stretch, but okay. This is a movie, after all, where the ultimate sign of the white couple's true love is being frozen into an ashy embrace. That the film allows further a (very brief) suggestion that the two black slaves might make a good double-date option for that white couple is just silly.

The film's use of Atticus as Milo's buddy is equally incoherent. On one hand he's as smart and splendidly charismatic as any of Akinnuoye-Agbaje's characters. On another hand, he's a man tormented, a man who's believed promises (that he'll be freed someday) because he's had nothing else. A brilliant fighter who's spent his life battling the wrong opponents, he's at last turned into a sidekick. He warrants more.

Atticus' moment of revelation is easily the film's most moving, in part because the white kids are so resolutely insipid and in part because this very real shift in his thinking is of a piece with Pompeii's: the folks there all thought they knew how the world worked, and if only they repeatedly sacrificed to their gods or their masters or their own intellectual limits, they'd come out all right.

Seeing that this is not true, and moreover, that it has never been true, Atticus takes a next, frightening and also thrilling step, throwing his allegiance with his own gods, his own might, and his own black fist up in the air. It's a moment on which the movie cannot linger, rushing off instead to watch Milo and Cassia try their best to escape the volcano's fury. They can't see what Atticus has seen. But they don't have to.

3

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Music

Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Music

MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.

Television

'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Nudges Out Conscience in Our Time of Crises

Avatar shows us that to fight for only the people we know, for simply the things that affect us personally, is neither brave nor heroic, nor particularly useful.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.