dir. Paul W.S. Anderson
Release Date: Feb 21, 14
Pompeii is a movie desperately in search of a reason to exist. The ostensible one is because the eruption of Mount Vesuvius did indeed consume the coastal city of Pompeii in 79 A.D., and to be callous for a moment, that’s a pretty good backdrop for a disaster movie. The trouble is that Pompeii was swallowed by the eruption in roughly 15 minutes or so, and scientific records have long indicated that much of the citizenry was killed simply by the heat or by ash inhalation. Rapid, ignoble deaths caused by a volcanic eruption offer less overhead for a feature-length movie, and so we instead get the Paul W.S. Anderson version of the destruction of Pompeii, one with little interest in the history of the region and even less in anything resembling compelling storytelling.
A mild spoiler: Pompeii takes a really, really long time to get to the volcanic bits on which the film has been sold. Before that Anderson offers up an amalgam of Gladiator and a doomed Harlequin romance between the young baroness Cassia (Emily Browning) and Milo (Jon Sn…I mean, Kit Harington), a chiseled slave brought to Pompeii as high-end competition for Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the arena’s current champion who only needs to win one more death match to earn his freedom. (The film is hardly self-effacing enough to acknowledge the hilarity of this variation on the “he’s one day away from retirement!” trope.) Because any overblown love story worth its salt needs a dramatic complication, Pompeii offers Senator Corvus (a gloriously miscast Kiefer Sutherland), a shady Roman politician who desires Cassia and won’t take “no” for an answer.
By and large, Pompeii’s first hour feels like a prolonged waiting room, the film making its way through hamfisted beats one after the next until Vesuvius blows and the film gets around to its point. Cassia’s loving father is torn between doing right by her and doing what will most benefit his people, Milo and Atticus slowly become friends and allies despite being pitted against one another in the arena, and Corvus stops just short of twisting his nonexistent mustache while plotting to possess Cassia by any nefarious means necessary. A sharp observer of rote ancient-era period melodramas could probably piece together the whole of Pompeii within its first 15 minutes, and the film at no point subverts audiences’ initial expectations of how all of this will shake out.
There isn’t a scene in Pompeii that hasn’t been handled before (and better) by other films throughout history. Even when the volcano blows, and a tidal wave adds additional escape complications because why the hell not, Pompeii feels less like a movie than a mad dash to resolve every unremarkable plot thread before the film mercifully ends in exactly the way it must. Failing that, it’s a movie Roland Emmerich would turn out if he completely misplaced his cockeyed sense of humor about high-casualty property destruction. Pompeii is sporadically preposterous in an engaging way, usually when Sutherland shows up with American cinema’s most inexplicable accent in a good while, but mostly it’s just tedious.