For a minute, I thought Pompeii was going to do something narratively exciting. We can’t have a 105-minute movie solely devoted to Pompeii being annihilated, so we get a few feeble plot threads we’re supposed to pretend to care about while waiting for Vesuvius to do its thing. We’ve got Milo (Kit Harington), the hero, a soulful Celtic slave turned gladiator, whose gentle way with horses catches the attention of young noblewoman Cassia (Emily Browning). Milo is pissed because when he was a boy, stinky Roman soldier Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) killed his whole family. Wouldn’t you know, though, that Milo is brought to the city of Pompeii as a gladiator around the same time that Corvus, now a senator, shows up there looking to invest in rebuilding the city and take Cassia as his wife?
What would’ve made Pompeii fantastic would be to sink forty minutes or so in all this plot and then have disaster strike, wiping out both the city and the narrative. Milo, Cassia, Corvus: none of that matters now, everyone’s going to die, the Romans along with the “savages,” the innocent next to the corrupt. But Pompeii insists on riding its threadbare story to the bitter ashy end. Everything is resolved tidily. Pompeii crumbles, drowns and burns — the gods throw every last element at the city — but a few characters skitter around in the wreckage to tie up loose ends. I’ve said it for a while now: if there’s one genre that doesn’t need neat three-act structure and character development, it’s the disaster movie. We don’t go to a fireworks show to be involved in the plight of a young fireworks technician who must win the hand of a comely young pyromaniac. We just go to see the lights and feel the thunder in our bellies.
Pompeii leads up to perhaps the biggest fireworks show in recorded history, but its impact is muted by the dull foreground figures. I suspect a better movie could have been made from the 2003 novel of the same name by Robert Harris, who wrote a script for Roman Polanski to direct; the Actors’ Strike in 2007 killed the project (Polanski and Harris turned to The Ghost Writer instead). To be fair, though, few would wish a megabudget disaster flick on a master of intimate menace like Polanski in his dotage. One requires a director with a more enthusiastic chessboard-scattering hand, like Roland Emmerich (2012, The Day After Tomorrow).
Paul W.S. Anderson got the job instead, and his resumé — including a batch of Resident Evil films and assorted other works in the realm of sci-fi or horror or both — reveals more ease with post-apocalypse than with ongoing apocalypse. Anderson knocks out a few reverberant images early — for instance, dead Celtic warriors hanging from a tree — but doesn’t find much in the repetitive shenanigans of Vulcan to sustain his energy. The festivities begin as tremors that everyone either ignores or comments on with a frown (“Is that normal?” asks Milo after a particularly demonstrative rumble). After a while, as fireballs rain down on Pompeii, the wrath of the gods is just something from which heroes and villains alike must flee. To the harbor! No, wait, the harbor’s rubbish now. To the hills! Oh, hell, we’re all buggered — let’s fight, or kiss, or do something that the audience deems a worthy stance in the face of lava!
Kiefer Sutherland milks a few suavely evil moments out of his rotten senator, accompanied by right-hand man Proculus, played by Sasha Roiz of NBC’s guilty-pleasure series Grimm. This started me thinking that a better actor for steadfast Milo than the inert Kit Harington would’ve been Silas Weir Mitchell, who plays Grimm’s fan-favorite character Monroe; lost in that reverie, I let about five expensive minutes of the movie slip away from me. (Pompeii is another $100 million baby, which in this era of the $200 million blockbuster practically makes the second Terminator film look like the first Terminator film; remember when Terminator 2’s $102 million price tag was considered scandalous?) Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss dither around as the benevolent but weak ruler of Pompeii and his wife; they’re supposed to reassure the audience that not all rich people back then deserved to turn into ashtrays. Pompeii may or may not have an Occupy Rome message rattling around in it; the nobles who come to see the slaves kill each other are vaporized, all right, but so are the common folk for whom Rome intends gladiatorial combat as panem et circenses to distract them from gross inequity. In the end, the gods wipe the slate clean regardless of who was nice to horses or nasty to women and children. I suppose Pompeii can lay claim to being possibly the year’s only movie to kick off with a quote from Pliny the Younger, though we should cautiously note that Transformers 4 hasn’t come out yet.