It is 79 A.D. and the Roman Empire is at the height of its power as the new Emperor looks to the luxurious city of Pompeii where the governing body is hopeful that he will finance the long awaited upgrade the city has been in need of for years. Just when Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) arrives to conduct business though, he reconnects with his former conquest Cassia (Emily Browning) who just so happens to be the daughter of the man who governs over Pompeii. The vile and treacherous Corvus will stop at nothing to have Cassia as his bride, but his plans are complicated even more when Cassia falls in love with a local gladiator named Milo (Kit Harington) who seeks revenge on Corvus for killing his people.
As much grief as people give James Cameron for his Titanic and how melodramatic or how typical its story of star-crossed lovers who meet amidst a well documented cataclysmic event, no one really seems to truly understand how difficult it was for him to attach a fictional story that audiences would actually care about to a significant historical event. Well, no one but maybe two people. Michael Bay for his abysmal attempt to attach a love story to the attack on Pearl Harbor and now Paul W.S. Anderson for attempting to attach a love story to the disaster that destroyed Pompeii.
To be fair though, Anderson got a whole lot more right than Bay ever did. Aside from Harington, who is proving to be a very one note actor, the cast for Pompeii are all perfectly fit for their roles, as generic as they are, and often times even elevate the material more than it deserves. The one actor who showed up to give it his all was without a doubt was Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as a hardened gladiator who is only one kill away from becoming a free man. He not only looks the part, but his ability to shift gears from badass gladiator to a more insightful individual left his leading man co-star Harington in the dust most of the time.
The others were adequate enough in their parts. Browning as the helpless damsel in distress finally found a role where she was allowed to smile and be happy for a little while, but her role sadly doesn't require much more of her than to swoon towards Harington's blandness or sneer towards Sutherland's evil. Speaking of Sutherland, who strangely decided to make his long awaited return to the big screen as a cookie cutter villain, he has the distinct honor of being the only actor in the film who struggles constantly with whatever accent he is going for, which often times sounds more like a lisp than anything else.
However, no matter the caliber of actor in the film, nothing could save it from just how pedestrian the entire production feels from beginning to end. You will see glimpses of much better films in there such as Gladiator, 2012 and the aforementioned Titanic and start to wonder why you aren't watching them instead. The story, which involves this tired government political angle and two men fighting over the same woman, leaves much to be desired and fails to properly set up the impending doom that is literally just over the horizon for the people of Pompeii.
Where the story parts of the film fail to get us invested in any of these characters, the fireworks at the end of the film when the volcano Mount Vesuvius explodes is fun in a very simple minded sort of way. Somehow, someway, Anderson has found a way to suck all the excitement and all the horror from the single event the entire film is about. When fireballs start hitting ships, falling rocks crush entire buildings and a tsunami wipes out thousands of people, it is all lacking any sort of emotional connection to anything or anyone that is being destroyed and will likely leave audiences cold to its effects.
You would think that the visual effects would be enough eye candy to keep you interested as you watch thousands of digital people get swept away or incinerated into ash, but no. While the effects for the film aren't a slouch by any means, it just all feels way to similar to just about every other volcano movie to come out in the past couple decades (Dante's Peak, Volcano and once again, 2012, all did this much better and those aren't even good films themselves). The question that kept popping up during the last 30 minutes of the film was how could any of this have been fixed?
Well, for starters, the build up to the actual eruption lacked any sort of tension. We have one scene with some dude who falls into a crack in the Earth and a single horse who gets upset every time the ground shakes. Then, aside from the actual eruption sequence itself which was admittedly well done, that's it, no other indicators as to the smack down that is about to occur. Given that this was 79 A.D. and that the inhabitants of Pompeii likely had no idea what a Volcano was and thus had no idea what was happening, there should have been more panic throughout the city as cracks appeared everywhere and visible steam could be seen coming out of the sides of the mountain. For a culture so controlled by their belief in gods, none of Pompeii's population once thought it was a higher power attacking them which felt sort of odd.
But that sums up the film as a whole though, it just failed to create any sort of tension for anything. The love story was pretty much cut and dry, the revenge story was telegraphed the second it was set up, the individual stories for certain other characters were also predictably underwhelming as well and even the destruction by the volcano felt by the numbers. Just about the only thing Anderson didn't get wrong is that even with all of those issues, the film isn't a total piece of garbage like many of his other more recent tragedies. There is still some slight entertainment to be found in the midst of all this negativity, most of which centers on the ending of the film which thankfully didn't follow suit and delivered a finale that wasn't a traditional Hollywood ending.
Making a disaster film isn't an exact science. All you really need are some interesting characters (or at least interesting actors), some cool set pieces to demonstrate the destruction and to make sure the effects work is up to the task. Even with those very minimal considerations, Pompeii still can't find its voice and just like the people of the real Pompeii will likely be buried in the bargain bin at Walmart by a number of other miscalculated event films.