If you lived next door to a volcano and for three days you had been hearing suspicious rumblings, noticing unexplained fissures of steam and spying cracks in the walls of your house, you’d probably pack it up and leave town, right?
According to “Pompeii,” the correct answer is nah.
Maybe the problem with the inhabitants of Paul W.S. Anderson’s new CGI epic is that they don’t realize they’re living in a disaster movie. For most of the film, even after the volcano finally goes off, everyone acts like they’re in a gladiator movie. And if that’s the case, then at least the dead can take solace in the fact that “Pompeii” is only the second-worst gladiator film of 2014. So far.
It should be simple enough to say that “Pompeii” is the story of a massive volcano that erupted near the Italian coast in A.D. 79, burying an entire city in 10 feet of ash. But here Mount Vesuvius is relegated to a supporting role. The film’s protagonist is Milo, a Celtic orphan who grows up to become a gladiator. He fights, he wins, he falls in love with the wrong girl, and then some stupid volcano messes everything up.
Kit Harington and his abs play Milo, and together they do a decent job of fighting and/or killing everyone they meet. Emily Browning plays Aurelia, the upper-class girl who catches Milo’s eye. Kiefer Sutherland plays Senator Corvus, the bad guy (conveniently) responsible for killing Milo’s parents, and (even more conveniently), Aurelia’s fiancé. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Atticus, a fellow gladiator who becomes Milo’s sidekick once the sky starts falling.
To tell the truth, Anderson would have been better off building the movie around Akinnuoye-Agbaje. The fan favorite from TV’s “Lost” is far more interesting and charismatic than the rest of the cast.
In “Pompeii,” little details such as accents and nationalities and century-appropriate haircuts are handled with the keen eye of a toddler attacking his first coloring book.
Funny thing is, early on “Pompeii” isn’t so bad. Sure, it’s derivative as all get out (His family has been killed! He must fight his way to his revenge!), but it’s watchable. Then, one piece at a time, the story unravels and gets sillier until finally the volcano goes off and all the main characters run around tying up plot lines and having peaceful moments of contemplation instead of RUNNING FOR THEIR LIVES. Bad movies that are all bad are forgivable. Bad movies that could have been good don’t enjoy the same luxury.
Back in the '70s, disaster movies were built around ensemble casts trying to survive earthquakes or towering infernos. They didn’t really have protagonists, and they certainly weren’t interested in sweeping love stories. But “Titanic” ruined that. Now the disaster isn’t enough. You’ve got to have a love story and a chart-worthy single along with all that CGI mayhem. That’s how we get “Pompeii.”
But maybe calling “Pompeii” “Titanic on a Volcano” is too simplistic. “Pompeii” is more like, “Titanic and Gladiator on a Volcano.” Or better yet, “Titanic and Gladiator and Kiefer Sutherland with a Really Strange Accent on a Volcano.” This film is bound to make “24” fans that much more relieved that Jack Bauer is returning to the small screen. At least Celine Dion doesn’t appear on the soundtrack.
If you look hard enough, you can find a silver lining in everything, even in the ash-heaped ruins of a volcano eruption.
“Pompeii” is rated PG-13 for plenty of blade-based violence, some mild profanity and some revealing Roman-era fashion.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.
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