Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii leaves you pondering some of life’s most useless questions, like, “Could one pick a handcuff lock with a splinter of wood?” And “Did Romans actually use the phrase ’Juno’s tit’ as a stand-in for ’good grief?’” If only the filmmakers behind this $100 million disastrophe had the gumption to let such risible, campy details wash over more of the production. Things start off promisingly enough, with Milo (Dylan Schombig), a young member of a Celtic horse tribe, watching his family and friends get slaughtered by a scenery-gnawing, vaguely Brit-accented Kiefer Sutherland, who plays Corvus, a Roman senator prone to shouting, “Kill them all!” Seventeen years later, Milo is reintroduced as a slave turned gladiator played by Kit Harington, whose ab-licious entry proves that Anderson knows full well how to plant his tongue in his cheek. Unfortunately, the director spends most of his time staging a lot of tiresome non-action, as if anyone came to see the Resident Evil maestro’s take on historic calamity to watch ploddingly thin political discourse or the charmless, sexless courtship of Milo and Pompeiian beauty Cassia (Emily Browning). In short, this movie has no business being this boring.
Pompeii does find some effective irony in highlighting the frivolity of making plans, when the gods, or whatever forces you believe wield more control than puny humans, have a stronger agenda. Still a powerful douchebag under the corrupt reign of Titus, Corvus has trekked to Pompeii not only to claim Cassia as his wife, but to sponsor the plans of her wealthy father, Severus (Jared Harris), to rebuild the doomed city. Such pointless endeavors run parallel with Milo’s arrival from Brittania as an arena favorite, fated to square off against Pompeii’s reigning champion, Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). As slaves and politicos quarrel in halls we all know will be buried in lava, Mt. Vesuvius makes the occasional grumble, but be prepared to wait for the fireworks.
If writers Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson had any compelling foreplay to offer in the way of dialogue-based drama, it might have been forgivable, even virtuous, that Pompeii waits until the final act for Vesuvius to blow its load. But despite Anderson’s intermittent, crisply choreographed battle scenes, which are shot and edited with a vigor to match every thrusted spear, the movie makes the foolhardy mistake of thinking it’s the West Wing of ancient Rome’s southern territories—a po-faced display of folks chatting in rooms instead of running for their lives. Shockingly, the violent release of smoke, fire, and meteoric debris is positioned more as a climactic afterthought than as the main attraction.
Anderson should at least be applauded for using 3D cameras (as is his wont), instead of lazily relying on post-conversion. The subject matter eventually proves highly amenable to the format, as the raining ash adds a naturally enhanced depth of field to the imagery. But the director’s aesthetic is also remarkably uneven, with wonky CG aerial shots that were clearly low on the priorities list, and a bookending pair of petrified-corpse sequences that, however nifty their plays on texture, can really only be described as shamelessly vulgar. The one standout set piece is a (presumably) earthquake-induced tidal wave, which may be stretching the laws of science for the sake of spectacle, but is plenty welcome after listening to, say, Cassia prattle on with her mother, Aurelia (a painfully flat Carrie-Anne Moss), and her black lady servant, Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), about Milo’s poor-boy virtues.
Once Pompeii has thoroughly plundered Gladiator, stolen bits from Dante’s Peak, and even lifted lines from Jurassic Park and The Dark Knight (“Why…so…serious?” Atticus eventually asks with a grin), it becomes a full-tilt Roman twist on Titanic, with a star-crossed, class-divided couple scrambling for safety amid a catastrophic equalizer, and their power-drunk nemesis aiming to thwart their success to the bitter end. Much more curious, though, are Pompeii’s hints of Doctor Dolittle, or, more specifically, The Horse Whisperer. Thanks to the ways of his people, Milo has a gift for calming, and communicating with, trusty steeds, whether they’re pulling Cassia’s carriage or having a conniption in her private stables. Milo knows that the horses know that disaster’s brewing. Too bad the folks behind Pompeii didn’t have a little horse sense of their own.