Pompeii (2014) / Action-Adventure

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense battle sequences, disaster-related action and brief sexual content
Running Time: 98 min.

Cast: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kiefer Sutherland, Jared Harris, Carrie-Anne Moss, Ron Kennell, Joe Pingue, Jessica Lucas
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Screenplay: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson

Review published February 22, 2014

As an student of the times of Ancient Greece and Rome, and lover of stories about it, initial advertisements intrigued me about Pompeii.  Well, that was until I saw at the end of the ads and trailers that it is directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, who gave us most of the Resident Evil films, Alien vs. Predator, and Mortal Kombat  -- slick but entirely empty action films that deliver copious amounts of special effects and tightly edited action, yet they are so generic, those are the only facets you'll remember when all is said and done.

One might think this film has the chance to be different than the rest, as it isn't a science fiction premise, as well as being rooted into reality somewhat in that it is based on a real historical event -- the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. and its destruction of nearby coastal city of Pompeii, which nearly perfectly preserved its dead inhabitants under ash and lava unearthed centuries later.  That event is the only facet of the film that isn't fiction, as the rest of this movie is very clearly the result of someone's overactive imagination.  Or, perhaps, lack thereof.  It's an obvious mix of prior Best Picture winners Gladiator and Titanic, although not nowhere near as good or even as broadly appealing as those acclaimed blockbusters.  The best scene in Pompeii wouldn't even be as worthy as a deleted scene in either of those visionary works.

The fictional story follows a Celt orphan named Milo (Harington, "Game of Thrones"), who finds himself thrust into slavery at an early age after the bullying Romans decimate his family when they slaughter his village in Northern Britannia.  Now grown up, Milo makes a name for himself as a top-notch gladiator, who ends up sent to Pompeii to battle in the arena in front of a powerful senator named Corvus (Sutherland, The Sentinel), who was the man responsible for Britannia's demise, looking to renovate the town in Rome's image.  Along the way, he catches the eye of a noblewoman named Cassia (Browning, The Host), though Corvus wants to coerce her hand into marriage first.

As we know the fate of Pompeii, there is a bit of an anticlimactic quality to Pompeii that makes us wonder just why all of the politics and personal conflicts we see will ultimately matter.  I suppose there is some question as to whether characters like Milo and Cassia will get away, but given that their relationship never progresses much beyond mutual attraction, the notion that this is one of those heart-wrenching love stories amid tragedy is muted when Anderson's thrust is so clearly slanted toward the hand-to-hand gladiatorial combat and computer-generated destruction sequences.  This "Last of the Red-Hot Lava" tale never generates any heat in the romance department, despite all of the hot, molten fireballs crashing down all around them.

Fight scenes progress with the development of a video game, as Milo and his fellow slave Atticus (Akinnouye-Agbaje, Thor 2) must fight increasingly difficult levels of "boss battles" along the way. Things get downright ridiculous as the Roman heavies continue to battle over petty issues with these characters when the entire area is threatening to kill everyone who doesn't get out of the vicinity.  One would think that any chips on someone's shoulders would get blown off when the "angry wrath of the Roman gods" is raining down all around them. But, this being a stupid movie with a wafer-thin premise that needs beefing up, we must endure these personal squabbles that ultimately are a moot issue when we know, and they know, that everyone is about to meet their makers.

Pompeii will likely go down better for those viewers just looking for a lot of special effects and wanton destruction -- the finest its $100 million budget can buy -- as this Anderson outing definitely doesn't skimp out on either.  But without a rooting interest in the characters or their plights, watching the impending doom close in on them is only interesting from the perspective of how much detail goes into the volcanic eruption display, and not because we're biting our nails hoping our heroes prevail.  But the biggest tragedy of this tragedy is how absent our feelings are to everything we see on the screen; there is absolutely no emotional connection to us at all seeing thousands of people die in front of our very eyes.  All we can do is marvel at the ground cracking, walls crumbling, and towers toppling and think to ourselves, "Hmm, that was a kinda cool effect.,"  as dozens more Pompeiians get swallowed up to their grisly demise.

So, do our would-be lovers escape, or are they consumed by the disaster around them?  The fact that you'll probably feel the same way about this poorly written, gloss-coated film in either direction only speaks to how empty an experience it is all around.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo