December 30, 2014  |  Film
The Contenders: Paul W. S. Anderson’s Pompeii
Pompeii. 2014. Canada/Germany/USA. Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures/Photofest

Pompeii. 2014. Canada/Germany/USA. Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures/Photofest

Paul W. S. Anderson’s Pompeii is the very model of the kind of movie usually dismissed from contention during awards season. It’s a genre piece, pure and simple, directed with great skill and efficiency but innocent of any desire to impress Oscar voters with flashy performances or profound moral lessons. Yet, as the history of Hollywood tells us again and again, genre films can often confer a creative freedom on their makers that eludes the more closely supervised directors of prestige pictures.

The screenplay, by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson, seems undisguisedly in the debt of Titanic for its theme of a rigidly oppressive social structure (literally) upended by an overwhelming natural force, taking with it two young lovers representative of the opposed classes: Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) as Cassia, the privileged daughter of Pompeii’s benign ruler (Jared Harris) and his elegant wife (Carrie-Anne Moss), and Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) as the Celtic slave Milo, whose skill in one-on-one combat has brought him to prominence as a gladiator. The film’s other stock figures include Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as the Nubian warrior who becomes Milo’s closest friend and ally, and, in a portrayal that leaves no stick of scenery unchewed, Kiefer Sutherland as Corvus, the heartless Roman senator who, decades earlier, had been responsible for the bloody death of Milo’s parents, and is presently in lustful pursuit of Cassia.

Anderson breathes life into these familiar characters by setting them out as markers on a complex, three-dimensional game board. The playing field extends horizontally from the port of Pompeii to the base of Vesuvius, and vertically from the dungeons beneath the local coliseum, where the gladiators are held, to the top of the volcano, where ominous rumblings seem to give voice to the rising anger of the slaves and other social outcasts of the empire. This is a configuration common to many of Anderson’s films, most conspicuously in the underground redoubts of the villainous Umbrella Corporation in Anderson’s Resident Evil films, where it is emphasized, as in Pompeii, by frequent eye-of-God shots that reveal the setting as a schematic diagram. For Anderson, drama is less a question of psychology that geometry, as he tracks his characters’ efforts to move from one point on the diagram to another.

Anderson (not to be confused with his California counterpart, Paul Thomas Anderson) comes from a family of Welsh coal miners, and so might be supposed to come by both his political concerns and spatial metaphors quite naturally. Less accountable is Anderson’s loyalty, virtually unique among contemporary action directors, to the classical concept of the match cut. By carefully aligning his shots to create a sense of continuous screen direction, of coherent spaces unfolding in a consistent and meaningful manner, Anderson rediscovers a presence and physicality missing from many of today’s CGI-generated blockbusters, even as he uses CGI techniques to create his screen spaces. By combining match cuts with the depth of field of digital 3-D, Anderson rediscovers the ideal of classical filmmakers like Raoul Walsh, Allan Dwan, and Jacques Tourneur: to create a whole world, rather than a jumble of impressions.

Pompeii screens at MoMA on Sunday, January 4, as part of The Contenders 2014.