Let me set the scene. You’re a wealthy young woman from Pompeii. You’re traveling for days in an uncomfortable horse-led caravan, finally returning home after a strenuous visit to Rome. Along the way, one of your steeds drops to the ground with a desperate whinny. And because for some reason neither you nor any of your Roman military escorts knows the first thing about horses, your entire company is paralyzed with indecision.
Fortunately, a dreamy, impossibly good-looking young slave with perfectly coiffed hair is nearby, and he offers to show you and your compatriots basic equestrian logic: a wounded horse is as good as dead. He approaches the horse, shares a few quiet words with you, and snaps the neck of the beast. It goes without saying, but at this point you’ve fallen madly in love with him. That you just met him thirty seconds ago is immaterial; this encounter has made you so over-the-moon crazy for this guy that you’d risk anything – your family, your personal safety, your freedom – all for the sake of winning his heart.
I’m sure I’ve lost most of you with the sheer absurdity of the scenario. Your cognitive abilities have reasoned that this love scene is so trite it puts the Disney princess films to shame. This is a good thing. No one should accept this scene, and by extension, no one should enjoy Pompeii. It brims with these eye-rolling moments, where emotions are artificial and every line of overused dialogue is visible from miles away.
This movie is the consummate offspring of cliché archetypes, absentee character development, and a coincidence-driven story. It treats its audience like idiots, favoring awful revenge and romance subplots over meaningful character arcs. Pompeii is, in the kindest terms, an utterly missable, barely competent bore.
Here’s another scene, this one from the first moments of the film. Pompeii opens on a Celtic village somewhere in Brittania. A young boy watches as two cartoonishly evil Roman soldiers (Keifer Sutherland and Sasha Roiz) slaughter his entire family. The boy barely escapes with his life, but soon finds himself enslaved by the very people who massacred his kin. You can surmise the rest of the plot from there.
That boy grows up to be the gladiator Milo, played by Kit Harington. The actor does an admirable job as Jon Snow in Game of the Thrones and could probably carry a quality swords and sandals epic on his own. Pompeii, an abyss devoid of any worthwhile character moments, will not be his big break.
Co-starring is Carrie-Anne Moss, whose resumé speaks for itself. She plays the mother of Harington’s helpless love interest, Cassia (Emily Browning). Moss’ face was paraded in every ad that I saw for Pompeii, but don’t be fooled: her role is both minuscule and inconsequential. Seeing such a talented actress diminished by blatant bait-and-switch marketing is disheartening.
Coming into Pompeii, I was also excited to see Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje flex his acting talent beyond his one-note villain in Thor: The Dark World. But by the time he makes his first appearance onscreen, I had already given up hope that any new character could transform the movie into a fun popcorn adventure. This isn’t Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s fault; he gives his tired brother-in-arms character as much of his energetic spirit as he can. But like the slave character he portrays, the actor is shackled by the ideas of a greater power. Indeed, none of the problems in Pompeii are the fault of the cast.
Director Paul W.S. Anderson and his writers, Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson, fight an admittedly uphill battle with Pompeii. In an age post-Spartacus, post-Gladiator, and post-Blood and Sand, these dusty roads have been well-traveled. Yet, these intrepid filmmakers imagined they might give the gladiator genre a try anyway.
The problem is that we’ve seen this all before. Pompeii lacks the novelty of Kubrick’s film, the fine direction of Scott’s epic, and the carnal escapism of the Starz series. What’s left is Pompeii, a hollow shell of its forebears. This is a shame given the unique disaster-laden backdrop of the Pompeii narrative; foregoing the gladiator angle, Pompeii might have benefited from an eruption-centric story in the vein of a Roland Emmerich film. Alas, it was not to be.
Anderson’s vision is simply bloodless. I mean this in two ways. Aesthetically, this is a PG-13 effort from Anderson, meaning it lacks the adult language or violent imagery necessary to give a story about embattled gladiators any gravitas. But beyond its kiddy glove approach to death sport, the film also lacks soul. None of its characters are interesting or relatable. They are pallid imitations of real people, motivated by paper thin whim.
Cassia (Browning) and Milo are depressingly lazy amalgamations of gender stereotypes. What’s more, they are surrounded by ancillary characters who care more about their fate than the audience does. About halfway through the movie, I leaned over to my friend and said, “I hope everyone in this movie dies.” Do not mistake my meaning: I didn’t harbor any resentment toward the characters. I just wanted the movie to end, and I figured their meaningless deaths would expedite the process.
There’s a joke about how bad Pompeii is, buried somewhere among its ample computer generated ash and rubble. I’m sure it’d involve some snarky analogy between sitting through this film and experiencing the actual eruption of Vesuvius firsthand. But if the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to create a film that did anything new, creative, or interesting, I can’t be bothered to make the quip. It just isn’t worth my time, or yours. And neither is Pompeii.
Movie Verdict: Fail