Knowing exactly how a disaster movie is going to end hasn't stopped Hollywood from making them. Pearl Harbor and most obviously Titanic are the clearest examples of films we know are going to end with practically none of the principle characters walking away, and yet some love these movies as inevitably tragic romances. And now you can throw Pompeii into the mix, a lava-filled historical action flick from Resident Evil director Paul W.S. Anderson. Blending the swords 'n sandals combat of Gladiator with the doomed love affair of Titanic, we could probably fill the Roman Colosseum with all the corny clichés until the volcano erupts and destroys everything.
Game of Thrones star Kit Harington packs on some serious muscle as Milo, a Celtic slave held as a gladiatorial combatant by his Roman captors. Flashbacks take us back to Milo's childhood, when his family and entire village were wiped out by the evil senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), filling the boy with a lust for revenge. Now an adult, he's been sent to Pompeii where he'll continue to serve and fight. But during the trek, he encounters the broken down carriage of Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of Pompeii's head family (Stephen Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss). Milo's soft features and humane treatment of her injured horse melts Cassia's heart, but obviously any love between them can never be due to their stations in life.
Just in time for Mt. Vesuvius to start rumbling, Corvus arrives in Pompeii as an emissary of Emperor Titus. Looking to strike some sort of business deal, he uses his position to try and worm his way back into Cassia's life after they shared some sort of history back in Rome. Meanwhile, Milo becomes reluctant friends with Atticus (Adewale Akkinnuoye-Agbaje), a champion gladiator one victory away from freedom. It's all very Gladiator-lite up to this point, but it's entertaining in a cheesy, predictable sort of way. And really, it would work perfectly fine as such without the intrusion of the erupting volcano, which arrives and renders literally everything we just watched as meaningless.
Anderson shows surprising restraint for a good deal of the film, holding off on many of the big set pieces until the lava starts flowing. There are a number of solid sword clashes, in which Harington gets to show off his well-versed combat skills from Game of Thrones, and despite the PG-13 rating they are sufficiently brutal and bloody. Harington gets plenty of opportunity to show off his glistening abs and glistening locks, although his romance with Browning lacks any true spark. Once Vesuvius blows, Anderson gets to show off the talent for visual effects spectacles he's always been known for. More than lava threatens to destroy the city as Anderson hurls giant fireballs, rains burning ash, and unleashes a deadly tsunami that would have Noah racing to build another ark. These are captured in epic fashion, seen from up close and afar to encapsulate the entirety of the devastation.
If looked at merely as an action film, Pompeii has all the technical merits, rippling muscles, and chariot battles one could ask for, but as a romance it's something of a disaster itself.
Go here for my interview with Kit Harington where he talks Pompeii and how Game of Thrones helped him prepare for it.