Pompeii Film Commentary: More Than a Visual Extravaganza

PompeiiMoviePosterOverly ambitious, Pompeii falls a bit short of its reach but helps us ponder the human heart by exploring the range of human responses in the face of unexpected tragedy. 

It’s hard to talk about a film in the disaster genre without giving away what happens: who survives and who doesn’t? Also, I need to add a disclaimer: disaster movies are one of my least-favorite genres because the plot is so predictable and the “narrow escapes” of the characters are so unrealistic. Despite these weaknesses, I’m glad I chose to see this film.

While primarily a disaster film, Pompeii is also a mix of several other genres—historical, love, action, etc. I think this is both the film’s strength and weakness. For me, Pompeii tries to do too much in its mere 105 minutes, ending up somewhat shallow and unsatisfying. But I prefer the choice of trying to do too much in too little time rather than forcing an audience to undergo a three-hour film that drags. Surprisingly, despite the predictability of the plot, Pompeii flew by for me…and left me wanting more.

The story of Pompeii is, of course, the destruction of the entire city of Pompeii whose population is oblivious to the threat of Mount Vesuvius’s active volcano. The biggest reason we come to care about the destruction of the city is the young couple who fall in love, although they are separated by social status: Milo (played by Kit Harington) is a gladiatorial slave who reveals unexpected compassion for horses and Cassia (Emily Browning), who is a beautiful young noblewoman pursued by Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), the powerful but not-so-noble senator from Rome.

As entertainment, Pompeii has a lot going for it: solid acting, an amazing re-creation of daily life in Pompeii, lots of intense action (although the gladiatorial fights are gratuitously violent), admirable integrity in the characters of Milo and Cassia, strong pacing, stunning visual effects, and a use of 3D that visually makes us feel we are participants in the most dramatic moments. Despite these strengths, the film would have been stronger if it offered more depth in character and relational development. Most of the characters are portrayed in black and white terms, tending towards archetypes rather than complex characters. The exceptions are Cassia’s parents, whose short time onscreen offers a refreshing complexity.

Pompeii is far from a family film, due to the catastrophic destruction of the city of Pompeii, the gratuitous yet mostly bloodless violence of the gladiatorial fighting, and the troublesome aspect of revenge portrayed as justice. Yet,Pompeii offers more mature audiences the opportunity to reflect deeply on both the human condition and the human heart.

Pompeii’s filmmakers make the brave choice not to shirk from the question many of us ask in the face of overwhelming disaster—and they put the question on Cassia’s lips: Why does God allow so much suffering and destruction? (Cassia, of course, asks it from her perspective: Why do the gods allow this?) Instead of trying to give us a pat answer, the film instead shows us how various characters choose to face the threat of death, and how they live their last moments when death become inevitable. This exploration of our humanity—the weakness and glory of the human spirit, and the struggle to find meaning in the midst of the most terrifying of circumstances—left me pondering my own courage and cowardice in the face of my life’s challenges.

An entertaining film with crowd-pleasing merits, Pompeii can help us to explore deeper questions as well: Where do we choose to focus our gaze when tragedy strikes? And where does God invite us to look?

* * *

Below are some suggestions for viewing Pompeii in the light of Scripture and as a window to the soul of humanity.*

Suggested Scripture passage to accompany your viewing: 

Hebrews 12:1-14

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:1-2).

Themes:

  • Nobility
  • Freedom
  • Courage
  • Revenge vs. justice
  • Preciousness and fragility of life
  • The power of love

Questions for personal reflection and/or sharing:

  1. Where do we find true nobility, and how is it expressed?
  2. Which act of courage in the film do you admire most, and why?
  3. How important was revenge throughout the film? And at the end of the film, is revenge still important?
  4. Who in the film is truly free? Who becomes truly free, and how?
  5. After seeing Pompeii, would you agree with the statement: “Love overcomes all?” Why or why not?
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