Once a thriving part of the Roman Empire, the city of Pompeii was buried in nearly two stories of volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius exploded in 79 AD. It was a rare volcanic event that, instead of lava, threw out waves of deadly heat and ash that more or less cemented the inhabitants of Pompeii in place, leaving their corpses as eerie evidence when they were unearthed centuries later. Experts have spent lifetimes analyzing these remains to understand the daily life of Pompeii, and undoubtedly there are many compelling narratives that could be born from this inspiration.
But make no mistake, Paul W.S. Anderson's Pompeii is not one of them.
As follow-up to Resident Evil: Retribution, Anderson offers a surprisingly ambitious narrative that blends elements of the swords-and-sandals genre with that of disaster movies. Kit Harington stars as an enslaved gladiator sent to Pompeii to battle and die before a bloodthirsty audience. Unexpectedly, he catches the eye of an affluent young woman (Emily Browning), incurring the wrath of her would-be fiancé, a homicidal Roman senator (Kiefer Sutherland). As the two fall for each other, the world literally falls to pieces around them, daring them to escape.
Considering the setup, you might suspect Pompeii would play out like Dante's Peak meets Gladiator. That would be giving Anderson way too much credit. It's actually astonishing how little the explosion of Vesuvius plays in the film, quarantined mainly to its final act. Instead, most of the film focuses on the political manipulations of Sutherland's smirking senator, and the lackluster love story between Harington and Browning. It's shocking, really, that the filmmakers thought people would welcome this much plot in a movie that is selling itself as "watch people run from an exploding volcano."
Let me be clear. No one runs from lava in this film. (Turns out, Vesuvius is one of those rare eruptions that didn't involve thick lava flows.) Anderson favors fireballs, rains of ash, ground-shredding earthquakes, and a massive tsunami, because why the hell not? And yet for all this mayhem, Pompeii is profoundly boring. The blame for this can be shared all around.
The script is laughably bad, offering up dialogue that is cheesy and obvious. It also spends far too much time spinning subplots out that are totally uninteresting when we know the whole town will be under ash in mere hours. Making matters worse, the romantic leads of Harington and Browning are both beautiful, but bland, offering just one emotion that is essentially big-eyed sadness. With a love story this tired and flat, it's impossible to get invested, making their romantic finale downright laughable.
Sadly, even the action sequences are underwhelming. In his Three Musketeers, Anderson showed talent for directing action that is high-energy and entertaining, but little of that flare is present here. Watching it, I realized Pompeii was rated PG-13 because the violence goes for the jugular--often literally--but then overtly shies away from showing the carnage, all to maintain its required rating. There are loads of slit throats, all off screen. Many swords drip with blood, but few wounds do. And just so nothing looks too brutal, Anderson employs a quick-cut method in the gladiator fight scenes that keeps them from being too brutal. It also makes them a blur of action that is largely indecipherable. The volcano sequences aren't much better, constructed by crude CGI with a stunted pacing.
One final action sequence in the arena is actually lively, imaginative and fun to watch. And this dovetails with the film's only other worthwhile element: the casting of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as long-time gladiator Atticus. An African made a slave -- then gladiator -- 20 years ago, Atticus is on the verge of completing his contract with his owner, and becoming a free man. Fearsome and brawny, you believe him as a warrior as he wields weapons and threats. But Akinnuoye-Agbaje also knows how to wield a one-liner, charming smile and the twinkle in his eye to imbrue his gladiator with a soul. His is by far the best performance in the film, so much so that he even brings a bit of life into Harington's portrayal in their shared scenes. If anyone deserves to break out from this, it's Akinnuoye-Agbaje.
In the end, it's a shame. Pompeii could have been a heart-stopping thriller that put audiences into the terrifying final hours of the doomed city of Pompeii. But instead, it's a convoluted yet clichéd love story with some ill-executed gladiator antics and a barrage of bad CG and screaming crowd scenes. It's a bad movie, but not even bad in a way that makes it fun to watch with friends. (That would be Winter's Tale.) All in all, Pompeii is a disaster, pure and simple.
For a review of the film's use of 3D, check out To 3D Or Not To 3D