PaulW.S. Anderson is an artist in the purest sense of the word.
No, this isn't a "troll" statement and yes, his directorial credits include AVP: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR, Death Race, and Resident Evil.
POMPEII, a passion-project of the British director, is an advanced hybrid of almost every genre of film,
Blend in Gladiator with TITANIC, add a few sprinkles of 2012 and a dash of Game of Thrones and you might, MIGHT, be able to come up with half of POMPEII which, in the hands of a lesser director, would come off as a shlocky mess; but with Anderson becomes a moving and dark throwback to classic Hollywood epics of old with the suave professionalism of a modern auteur and a timeless message that true love always finds it's way, even if it's not the ending you would expect.
The film starts with a young Milo (played by Game of Thrones and Silent Hill Revelations star Kit Harrington) watching his horse-tribe being slaughtered by the film's antagonist, a Roman general known as Corvus (24's Kiefer Sutherland) with his legionaries and second-in-command Proculus (Sasha Roiz of 16 Blocks and GRIMM fame).
After wandering, an orphan and the last of his kind, Milo is soon picked up and works his way through the bloody sands as a respected gladiator.
It's finally in Pompeii that he has a chance encounter with Cassia (Sucker Punch's Emily Browning), the daughter of aristocrats Severus and Aurelia (Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss) and also befriends fellow gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
As the film starts; Anderson presents this world as a pulpy and rich B-Movie. The heroes and the villians are all clear-cut and extremely light or extremely dark, and the actors all ham it up in varying degrees with Sutherland absolutely chewing the scenery as Corvus, and damn does Sutherland have fun with bringing this character to life as the sort of "human" representation of Mt. Vesuvius, a destructive and dark being that has always been in the lives of these people; and when he erupts (as Vesuvius does) the result is just as destructive.
It's a brilliant way of having a focus for the audience who go in expecting the antagonist to ONLY be the volcano, as well as a threat to the characters themselves who tragically don't posses the audience's insight as to what is about to go down.
In many ways, this builds the tension ten-fold, as the destruction of nature and the broken hatred of man are one in the same sense of unpredictability and malevolence.
The relationship between Milo and Cassia isn't as built up long and hard as say, Jack and Rose, but that doesn't make it lack for weight. Cassia's only attraction to Milo is a superficial one at first, the audience and her seem to think, in the same way everyone's "attraction" to Milo is through the film.
The audience loves "The Celt" because he's pretty and he's dark, he's dangerous. It's a brilliant meta exploration of an easy to dismiss trope; but when Cassia looks at Milo, their eyes meet and you feel a love as bright as the hell-fire that is about to reign upon them.
When Milo calms Cassia's horse down at a party held on her family's estate, the two, in a fit of teenage love, gallop off towards the volcano into the night, itself a fantastic symbol that comes into reverse-play later.
The two embrace, cautiously, as the guards come to take Milo back, which he takes the fault for and is whipped before her.
Soon after, Milo and Atticus are finally in the coliseum. Atticus, a bold and dangerous man who has already had his family taken from him, has one more game to win before his victory is granted and he is "free", something the corrupt game-runners soon prevent from happening as Corvus, Cassia, and her parents are in attendance to over-see the games.
The "scenario" the gladiators are put it in a recreation of the slaughtering of the horse-tribes (the same slaughter Milo survived). He now, 20 years later, must relive the events of that night, only this time he changes his fate in a fleeting glimpse of the film's hopefulness.
As you'd expect, things go wrong and then we get to the "money shot", which is Vesuvius erupting mid-way through the battle. The destruction Anderson presents on screen is breath-taking and biblical and it is in no way "fun" to sit through.
It is hard to watch, as this unflinching glimpse into the past is brought to life using what is some of the best CGI I have ever seen on film, this would make Roland Emmerich blush and makes the destruction presented in Man of Steel seem G rated.
The decadence of the ancient city explodes, crumbles, and is lit ablaze along with everyone trapped within it's walls. Women run screaming from buildings as they burn alive, children are trampled in the streets, and glimpses of carcasses with their flesh burnt off (still smoking) are seen through the rubble. This is a PG-13 film, mind you.
None of this is ever presented to us in a way less than artistic. Anderson's crisp and clear camera-work is as noticable as ever, with no "shakey cam" action or "snap zooms", the chaos and pure death is laid bare for the audience to take in.
It's at this point to that Anderson's vivid imagery through the film's first half, with lush greens and deep golds and a living breathing painting in the richest of colors are muted in an instant to black, pitch black, gray, orange, and red both of blood and flame.
The grit and and ash in the film are palpable and you leave the theater feeling as if you've just left the ruin of Pompeii itself.
Once again, with a lesser director the film would have become sterile and cheap "disaster porn", with listless CGI and color-filters; but not with Anderson.
The film's leads, as I've said, all do fantastic work with that they're given; but they are a beautiful cast of people, with Harrington and Browning looking exactly like something out of a painting. Of course the cast's physical beauty has no impact on the film itself; but they are emphasized through costume designer Wendy Partridge who has done Oscar-worthy work with such films as HellboyII: The Golden Army, the Silent Hill franchise, and most recently Thor: The Dark World. A great costume designer coupled with a director like Anderson and you have almost every frame that could be printed off and hung in a museum.
District 9's Clinton Shorter scores the film, giving it a grand and wonderful sound that is as touching, frenetic, romantic, and chilling as the movie itself.
POMPEII's closure of character arcs are all brutally satisfying, with Atticus facing off one on one against Proculus as Vesuvius reaches it's hellish crescendo. Their exchange of blows is brutal and swift, elegant and barbaric, and bloody on both ends.
When you begin the film you believe that fairy-tales have happy endings and that there will be a rainbow at the end for the characters in Anderson's dramatic epic; but after a tight and thrilling horse chase through the exploding rotting carcass of Pompeii as Milo finally is united with Cassia and leaves Corvus to die you get a sick feeling, and that's when Anderson buries the dagger.
The final shot is the most sickeningly beautiful and gut-wrenching frame of cinema I've seen in a mainstream film such as this. This is something that makes TITANIC's tear-jerker ending look like the finale to an Air-Bud film.
POMPEII is a film unlike any other; and deserves a rewatch for it's themes alone as well as to properly appreciate every small gear in this well-oiled machine clicking into place with such perfection you don't want it to end.
A film that will be tore apart by critics; no doubt; but for those who seek an experience on a truly "grand" scale, this is the right film for you.