I went into “Pompeii” expecting a disaster movie and ended up getting a pretty disastrous movie, but then what else would you expect from notoriously mediocre director Paul W S Anderson? I do mention the volcano erupts, so *spoilers* ahead, I guess?
The film opens with a largely unnecessary and bloodthirsty sequence set in 62AD where a young boy watches helplessly as Roman General Corvus (Keifer Sutherland) personally kills his mother and then order the rest of his village slaughtered, right before his eyes. Feigning death, the boy manages to clamber out of the pile of bodies only to be captured by a roving band of slave traders. Fast forward 17 years and the young boy has grown into The Celt (Kit Harington), and he is ripped. He’s spotted by a sleazy gladiator dealer and taken to Pompeii where he encounters rival gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and meets Cassia (Emily Brown) the daughter of the Civic leader of Pompeii. Also in the city is Senator Corvus, there to meet with Cassia’ s father (Jared Harris) to discuss investing in a massive civic construction project. As these characters’ fates intertwine, the mountain which looms over the city of Pompeii is growing restless and will soon erupt.
This film so badly wants to be “Gladiator” with a volcano that I almost felt sorry for it. But in place of the Ridley Scott sword and sandal epic’s fully rounded characters and expertly layered motivations, we are offered characterisation so wafer thin that even Mr Creosote would be able to accommodate them without difficulty. Riddled with convenience and hand waiving, the script moves the characters around as needed by the clichéd disaster movie set-up being used as the template for this film.
Kit Harington makes a brave attempt to fill the sandals of Russell Crowe as the lead gladiator but his wavy locks and soulful sad-eyed stare aren’t enough and only underline that while he is a fine member of a television ensemble cast, he’s not quite ready to be a cinematic leading man. At least not yet; and not with material this poor to work with. No doubt his oiled-up abs were intended to be a big selling point, so you may be disappointed to know that once he gets to Pompeii, he takes to wearing a much more modest armoured tunic. Well, all those pasta carbs must take their toll.
His love interest is played by an emaciated Emily Brown, who shared almost no chemistry with Harington and it doesn’t help that their romance is kindled by her witnessing The Celt breaking the neck of a horse, a romantic wooing technique that’s straight out of the Anakin Skywalker murder-as-seduction-technique playbook. While there is an attempt to portray her as a feisty, independent young woman, she is invariably and repeatedly used as a damsel in distress; albeit a surprisingly robust one given how many times she’s flung about.
Some of the performances are truly inexplicable and suggest that several cast members’ research involved watching British classic “Up Pompeii”. Keifer Sutherland as the villainous Corvus struts through the film, declaiming his terrible dialogue in such a bizarre trans-Atlantic accent that he must have been doing it as a joke – he certainly seems to be constantly on the verge of bursting out laughing. You sometimes get the sense that Jared Harris, son of the legendary Richard Harris, must have spent much of the making of this film wondering what the low pitched whirring noise was (it was his father spinning in his grave). Currie Graham is hopelessly miscast as callous gladiator trainer Bellator (GCI Oliver Reed was more credible) and Joe Pingue seems to actually believe he is appearing in “Up Pompeii”, delivering a performance as gladiator and slave owner Graecus which is one part Lurcio and two parts Hedonismbot from “Futurama”. Carrie-Anne Moss and Jessica Lucas (as Cassia’s loyal handmaiden) do decent work with the limited screen time they’re given but only the immense Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje manages to emerge with much credit, his sheer bad-ass gravitas allowing him to chew the scenery without losing his cool.
So, the performances range from terrible, through unfathomable to acceptably mediocre and the story is laughably thin and tediously predictable, but how is the main event? Surprisingly, the recreation of Pompeii is very well done – the architecture and civic life staged authentically and with real care and attention to the layout and design of the real city. The eruption of Vesuvius itself looks amazing on screen and is largely a triumph of special effects and apocalyptic visual storytelling. There are a couple of point where, in the rush to get to the money shot, some set up is skipped, notably in the tidal wave sequence (as shown in the trailer) which kind of comes out of nowhere and could have used an establishing shot of the sea bed collapsing due to earthquake to make it flow better but aside from that, the majority of the gratuitous destruction on screen manages to avoid the common pitfall of looking like a videogame cut scene. I mentioned in my Liebster Award Acceptance that when 3D is used well by skilled filmmakers, it can be spectacular. It appears that the opposite can also be true, because not only is the volcanic eruption stunningly rendered, the 3D is excellent and actively enhances the eruption experience.
There’s a lot to criticise in this poorly composed, badly acted movie but as someone once said, it’s wicked to mock the afflicted and, if you’re looking for a film to deliver on the special effects front with some reasonably good fight scenes to punctuate the tedium of the unsatisfying romance and revenge plots, you’ll probably ask yourself, ‘Am I not entertained?’ and conclude that yes, yes you were.