Pompeii (United States, 2014)

February 20, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Pompeii Poster

Pompeii is a big, glorious, cheesy mess. A fusion of Gladiator and Dante’s Peak, it can’t decide whether it wants to be an action film about coliseum combatants or a disaster flick. Predictably, by trying to be both, it ends up being good as neither. The movie is reminiscent of some of Hollywood’s bloated historical epics of the past, with Cleopatra coming to mind. In fact, Pompeii might be worthy of the dubious label of “guilty pleasure” if the truly awful 3-D didn’t dump it into the “hard to watch” category.

Pompeii unfolds in 79 AD. For anyone unaware that the volcano Vesuvius is about to erupt, director Paul W.S. Anderson makes sure that the mountain is visible in seemingly every shot. He populates the city with a series of thinly-drawn types. There’s the hunky young gladiator, Milo (Kit Harrington), who is driven by a thirst for revenge. Fellow arena fighter Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is one victory away from becoming a free man. Noblewoman Cassia (Emily Browning) has spurned the advances of the callous Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and keeps casting meaningful soulful glances at Milo. As for the Senator, he happens to be the evil man who put Milo’s parents to the sword. In a way, it seems a little pointless watching the struggles of these people play out since we know they’re all doomed. When it comes to dealing death, the mountain can’t be trumped.

It seems that director Anderson, whose past credits include classics like Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, and Aliens vs. Predator, fancies himself the next coming of James Cameron. The storyline follows the Titanic template and includes forbidden love between a low-class boy and a rich girl, a scenery-chewing villain with absolutely no redeeming qualities, and a big, special effects-rich disaster with genuine historical roots. While the romantic elements of Pompeii never quite get off the ground - due in large part to the lack of scenes shared by the two leads - it’s fun to watch Vesuvius get all hot and bothered as it blows its stack and rains Wrath of God material all over the poor city. Apparently, the Roman deity Vulcan wasn’t happy with Pompeii.

With the majority of the film’s budget having been invested on the special effects, there wasn’t anything left over to hire any big name actors. Kit Harrington is well-known to those who watch HBO’s Game of the Thrones, where he plays Jon Snow, and likely unfamiliar to everyone else. He’s an Orlando Bloom type and not much acting is required of him here. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays the stern veteran gladiator with just the right amount of dark humor and cynicism. Emily Browning doesn’t leave much of an impression in her Kate Winslet-inspired role. And Kiefer Sutherland, with a ridiculous accent, goes so far over the top that you need binoculars to see the apex of his ascent.

Visually, the most notable negative to be laid at Pompeii’s feet is the hideous 3-D treatment. Not only does the 3-D add little depth and definition but it darkens an already dim movie and makes everything look brown and murky. On one occasion, I took my glasses off to see if they were smudged. For anyone who wants to see this picture, 2-D would be the way to go.

Pompeii offers pretty much what one would expect from a summer-type would-be blockbuster being dumped unceremoniously into theaters in February. Despite opening with genuine quotes from Pliny the Younger’s first-hand account, historical veracity is not one of Pompeii’s objectives. The cliché-riddled screenplay works as an homage to bad disaster movies and Anderson’s direction owes more than a passing debt to Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich. Ultimately, Pompeii isn’t juicy enough (nor will it be successful enough) to inspire a rash of copycat movies. Too bad, really. I was looking forward to Krakatoa.

Pompeii (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2014-02-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1