In Pompeii, young Milo (Kit Harington) is left for dead after Roman soldiers murder his family along with the rest of his people – courageous horsemen who fought against Rome’s oppression. Before long, the orphaned child is found by slave traders who, years later, force Milo to fight for the entertainment of others. Discovered by Pompeii slave owner, and games organizer, Graecus (Joe Pingue), Milo (now known as “The Celt”) is pulled from the remote countryside and brought to the bustling city under Mount Vesuvius – where he enjoys a chance encounter with a beautiful merchant’s daughter, Cassia (Emily Browning).
The horseman also strikes up a fast friendship with soon-to-be freed gladiator, Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the two warriors openly threaten visiting Roman dignitary Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), the man responsible for killing Milo’s people. However, when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius rocks Pompeii, Milo must put his freedom and thirst for vengeance aside to rescue Cassia – before the volcano claims her life.
Pompeii was directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, known for a lengthy resume of divisive adaptations from well-known properties, including Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator, and The Three Musketeers that, typically, prioritize style over narrative substance. Slow-motion fight choreography, CGI-heavy set pieces, and in-your-face 3D filmmaking have earned Anderson a sizable action enthusiast fan base, as well as solid numbers at the box office; that said, even the director’s most adamant fans will have a hard time appreciating this swords and sandals epic – set during the horrific events of the well-known Pompeii disaster. It’s a tedious and derivative story with stiff (and some downright weird) performances that, worst of all, fails to shed impactful light on the people caught in the flames of Mount Vesuvius.
Understandably, the entire first half of the movie focuses on Milo’s zero-to-hero storyline, along with establishing all of the key players in Pompeii‘s core plot – with only minor volcanic rumblings and excessive shots of the mountain to remind filmgoers of the impending disaster. Yet, every single character in Anderson’s employ is a hollow cliche - the caring savage, honorable warrior, fiery love interest, corrupt politician, and malevolent guardsman, just to name a few – with equally flat performances from nearly every single cast member.
Considering the filmmaker attempted to weave a story of love, politics, revenge, social inequality, and heart-wrenching natural disaster into a single 105 minute movie, it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that the main players, thematic material, and larger story are either on-the-nose or completely underdeveloped – incapable of keeping viewers engaged in non-action scenes and, worst of all, failing to provide impactful drama when all hell breaks loose.
Kit Harington’s fan-favorite turn as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones paves the way for his take on Milo – another tough but sensitive hero. Harington checks all the necessary boxes during his fight choreography but falls short in bringing the character to life. Instead, he’s an expressionless, albeit capable, warrior who talks under his breath, and makes more enemies than friends. Browning’s Cassia is slightly more convincing – since she at least gets to play against the cliche’s of her affluent upbringing from time to time. Nevertheless, the lovers possess little on-screen chemistry, making any of their sacrifices seem foolish rather than impactful.
The supporting cast is full of accomplished performers – including Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss (playing Cassia’s parents) who are serviceable but forgettable in their roles. Sutherland is downright bizarre as Corvus – adopting a strange accent and hamming up his scenes to the point of turning the Roman senator into a cartoon villain. Fortunately, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s gladiator Atticus is the most entertaining aspect of Pompeii and the actor helps to elevate nearly every single scene he’s in – whether quietly bonding with Milo or battling with Corvus’ chief lieutenant, Proculus (Sasha Roiz).
Despite a few enjoyable elements, the core plot is convoluted, full of familiar setups with predictable outcomes, extremely melodramatic exchanges between principal characters, style over substance decisions that make it impossible to suspend disbelief, and romance that is neither believable nor earned. Worst of all, Pompeii is missing the one thing that Anderson typically delivers: stylized action. The fight sequences are average (at best) and it’s interesting to see select aspects of the actual disaster unfold as live-action spectacle – since Anderson and his team dedicated a significant amount of time to researching the eruption. Still, watching the characters scramble on the ground and dodge flaming debris isn’t nearly as exhilarating as viewers will expect – especially considering many of the bigger set pieces suffer from noticeable disconnect between practical and CGI effects.
Pompeii is playing in 3D and, this time, the premium experience is adequate – but nothing remarkable. Anderson shot the film using 3D cameras, resulting in added depth and immersion, especially in key eruption scenes. Yet, the 3D also makes green screen shots more obvious and given that Pompeii is difficult to recommend in general, it is even harder to encourage viewers to spring for the added 3D ticket cost.
Even though Anderson clearly had lofty ambitions for Pompeii, the film underwhelms in a number of key aspects: stale performances, an over-stuffed as well as ineffective narrative, and bland visual spectacle that, without captivating drama to make viewers care about the city and its people, falls entirely flat. In spite of a subject matter rife with potential, Pompeii does little to educate or entertain moviegoers – resulting in a clumsy character drama that turns one of the most interesting and heart-breaking natural disasters in history into a tiresome and unaffecting experience.
If you’re still on the fence about Pompeii, check out the trailer below:
Pompeii runs 105 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, disaster-related action and brief sexual content. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.
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