It’s not a disaster on the scale of the eruption it portrays, but Pompeii suffers from a very weak screenplay.
When I was a youth of nine or ten years old, I thought that the story of Pompeii was the coolest thing ever. Aside from all the deaths of course. But from the very beginning, volcanoes were definitely my favorite kind of natural disaster. So when I heard that they were making a movie about the AD 79 Mt. Vesuvius eruption, I was certainly quite excited.
But oft-maligned director Paul W.S. Anderson doesn’t do his spotty reputation any favors here with the simply titled Pompeii. It’s a little bit better and a lot more fun than the similar themed Legend of Hercules that came out last month, but its far from the epic success it was clearly intended to be.
For starters, the storyline was almost literally ripped straight from the James Cameron playbook. Much like Titanic, it focuses on the quick and tempestuous forbidden love between a girl of nobility and the handsome man of the lowest class who wins her heart over before tragedy ensues. This time though, our would-be Leo is Game Of Thrones‘ Kit Harrington, who plays Milo, a Celtic warrior doomed to slavery in the Roman empire. And yes, he fits every imaginable cliché of the swords and sandals hero. Is he shirtless at any point? You bet. Does he do something early on to establish himself as more moral than the rest of his kind? Of course! In this case, he soothes a wounded horse out of its misery against the wishes of the cruel bourgeoisie. Is he forced to become a gladiator and befriend the battle-hardened veteran fighter? Yes on both counts. We’ve seen all of this before, so don’t go to Pompeii expecting a fresh or unique story.
Milo’s love interest Cassia is played by Emily Browning, who I haven’t seen since she played Violet in the pretty awful A Series Of Unfortunate Events movie. She’s all grown up now, but her role suffers from being severely underwritten to the point of becoming almost a static character. Once she falls for Milo, that’s that. From then onward, her love for him is unquestionable and unmoved, setting up the predictable melodrama of the final act. Unlike the highly unrecognizable cast of Legend Of Hercules, Anderson was able to bring in some well-known names to fill in his supporting cast. Leading the way is Kiefer Sutherland as the villainous Roman Senator who forces Cassia to marry him, setting up the romantic conflict that has been rehashed a thousand times too many (I wouldn’t even consider it a spoiler to tell you that Milo must fight him at some point in the final half hour). Also making small appearances are Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix series) and Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows) as Cassia’s well-intended yet powerless parents.
Before the actual eruption happens approximately an hour into the movie, the derivative and lackluster story slogs along for what seems to be an eternity. When the mountain finally decides to blow, Pompeii is injected with some much-needed vigor and urgency. The visual effects are far from Oscar-worthy, but Anderson does a pretty decent job depicting the ancient city plunged into darkness by the fiery eruption. The last 40 minutes of the film are essentially one drawn-out escape scene, and it is then when Pompeii is at its best. We’re finally provided with enough eye candy to distract us from the highly forgettable dialogue. Because let’s be honest. No matter how bad the movie around it is, a little bit of explosions and collapsing buildings never fails to make an audience excited.
So in the long run, Pompeii was not as bad as it could have been, given Anderson’s track record and the horrendous screenplay. But then again, the story of a city forever lost to history by one fateful day is one worth telling, and I had much higher expectations. I do believe that a great movie can be made about the destruction in Pompeii, but this is clearly not it. That being said, it’s definitely fun to watch (for the last 40 minutes at least) in the Roland Emmerich style of utter destruction, so I can’t regard it as a complete failure. I do hope one day that somebody has the skill to make a truly engaging volcano movie, because Dante’s Peak and Pompeii failed to meet my needs.
RYAN’s RATING: 1.5 Stars out of 4