A film that feels like a cross between Gladiator and whatever killer volcano movie you want to think of, Pompeii is a dumb movie made even worse when you remember that the vast majority — if not all — of the melodrama will be completely pointless once the inevitable volcanic eruption occurs. We know the volcano will erupt, the film knows it will erupt, and even many of the characters seem to know it, and yet we still have to go through a “tragic” back story, the resolution of personal grudges, and a romance that lacks any sort of spark.
But let’s start at the beginning. In our first scene, we see the evil Senator Corvis (Kiefer Sutherland) slaughter an entire Celtic tribe, save for one youngster who feigns his death. This kid grows up to become Milo (Kit Harington), a slave/gladiator who seems invincible. He’s taken to Pompeii in AD 79 to fight against the reigning champion, Bridgageous (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), in one-on-one combat. This is teased at great length. You will never see that fight. I was disappointed, too.
Meanwhile, Senator Corvis is striking a deal with some rich guy (Jared Harris), whose daughter, Cassia (Emily Browning), falls in love with Milo … because he kills a horse the first time they meet. They get a couple of interactions and wind up falling in love, because there has to be a love story. Corvis is also attempting to threaten Cassia into giving him her hand in marriage. As a result, Milo not only wants to kill Corvis for that whole “killing his whole tribe” thing, but also for attempting to steal his love.
The film wouldn’t be Pompeii without an erupting Mount Vesuvius, and that’s what we get for the final 30 minutes or so. Unlike that one-on-one fight we never get, its eruption is teased and delivered on. But while we wait for it to do its thing, we have to suffer through this romance, these personal grudges — and none of it matters because we know it won’t matter soon, because the volcano will spew lava everywhere and kill everyone. It’s also far less interesting than the disaster spewed by the volcano.
I’ll give Pompeii this: Once we get to the eruption and basically the entire city winds up in ruins, there’s at least enough visual eye candy to hold our attention. It’s too repetitive and convenient — all the named characters have to survive the longest — to be entertaining, but at least it looks good. It’s certainly better than waiting for the volcano to erupt, that’s for sure. And that’s what most of the film feels like: filler so that we can stage the volcano scene.
It’s stupid. It gives us a bunch of things that don’t matter. It provides the smallest amounts of character, depth, personality, and motivation. It’s a Paul W.S. Anderson movie. I’m starting to wonder if I like the Resident Evil movies in spite of Anderson, not because of him. Apart from the visuals, Pompeii is an empty and relatively dull movie. There are a couple of sword fights to break up the mundanity of the second act, but they’re not very good and we can predict how they’re going to go rather easily.
I suppose some of the problem is that it’s impossible to care about anyone in the film, so even though the carnage put on this city is spectacular looking, it’s very tough to care. The characters are too thin for that to matter. About the closest Pompeii comes to having a heart is in the Bridgageous character, if only because he’s one fight away from being granted his freedom by Roman law, and then, well, you know. We also get mild commentary about how you can’t trust the government thanks to his character, but who hasn’t seen that before?
Kit Harington is a terrible lead. I have no idea if he’s better on Game of Thrones, but I certainly hope so. His complete lack of interest and involvement kills any potential for the romance to work. He displays one facial expression, and it’s one of pure apathy. It was like looking in a mirror for a lot of the running time. That’s how I felt. His lack of investment killed any chance of the film getting me to care.
Emily Browning gets to care slightly more, but a one-sided romance on-screen rarely works, unless of course that’s the point, which it isn’t here. Kiefer Sutherland is the bad guy because we need a human villain for reasons that someone else will have to figure out. Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss play Cassia’s parents and do nothing much at all. Jessica Lucas is Cassia’s friend and contributes nothing. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje tries hard but can’t save a dying film. And cast lists tell me Paz Vega was in the film but I don’t even remember seeing her. Maybe it was just a cameo.
A vapid and forgettable picture, Pompeii fails to generate anything more than complete and utter apathy. A lot of this is attributed to the lead actor simply not caring, but the poorly written characters doesn’t help, either. Earlier scenes don’t matter because we know everything will be wiped out by the volcano; it comes across as filler. The destruction looks cool but gets repetitive. The central romance has no, well, romance. You have no reason to see Pompeii.