Unfortunately, most of them aren’t very watchable. True, what qualifies as a “good” film in the subgenre of the “Swords, Shirtlessness and CGI” epic is a relative thing, with subtlety beaten to death in the name of spectacle. That mix will be back on screens in both “Pompeii,” which opened this Friday, and “300: Rise of an Empire,” which will open March 7.
But both “300” and the “Clash of the Titans” remake at least managed to be mindless, pretty fun, a fact played out by the fact that they’re the only two movies in the subgenre that managed to top $400 million at the box office. On the other end of the scale is “Legend of Hercules,” which opened in third place this past January and fell out of theaters before making back even a third of its $70 million budget (this is both foreign and domestic gross we’re talking about, folks).
Where will “Pompeii” and “300: Rise of an Empire” fall? Though I can’t say for certain – the studio refused to screen “Pompeii” – here’s a few factors to help determine whether it’s worth your time to step into the CGI madness.
Attractiveness of the cast vs. awfulness of their acting
A major requirement for a successful “Swords, Shirtlessness and CGI” epic is a cast that looks fabulous without their clothes on. A second, less commonly recognized requirement is that they actually have some acting talent – specifically, the ability to deliver melodramatic lines in a way that sounds meaningful rather than stupid. Gerard Butler was excellent at this, and Sam Worthington was pretty good.
In “Pompeii” we have Kit Harington, best known as Jon Snow in the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” Anyone who’s seen “Thrones” knows that delivering melodramatic lines is pretty much Harington’s entire job on that show, and a quick Google search shows that he pulls off the shirtless aspect nicely (if you doubt me, take a gander to your left).
In “Rise of an Empire” we have Sullivan Stapleton, best known for a much more obscure TV series called “Strike Back.” There, he’s mostly required to look brooding and hit things instead of talk, which means he’s an unknown quantity when it comes to the dialogue. And, as Kellan Lutz proved so tragically in “Hercules,” looking good shirtless isn’t enough.
Eva Green, on the other hand, has a full and happy career of entertainingly chewing up the scenery in everything from the “Dark Shadows” movie to the TV series “Camelot.” The trailers show her with swords in her hands, which is exciting since women in these sorts of films rarely do more than vamp menacingly.
Familiar directors vs. something new
These have always been an unpredictable quantity in these epics. Paul W.S. Anderson, the guy helming Pompeii, has done enough “Resident Evil” movies to prove he can deliver mindless action. At the same time, his non-“Evil” movies tend to hit the box office with a crushing thud (as someone who had to sit through 2011’s “The Three Musketeers,” let me assure you that the thud was well-deserved).
The man helming the “300” sequel, Noam Murro, has helmed only one other full-length feature film – the 2008 comedy/drama “Smart People.” It’s putting it mildly to say that it’s an unusual fit.
On the other hand, Kenneth Branagh was just as odd a choice for the first “Thor.” Branagh knocked it out of the park, but he at least had experience directing the grandeur of Shakespeare. Will Murro be able to make the same kind of leap? If not, may his crash at least have the decency to be inadvertently hilarious.