Film review: ‘Pompeii’ is its own natural disaster

Film review: ‘Pompeii’ is its own natural disaster
Milo (Kit Harington) and Cassia (Emily Browning) star in “Pompeii.” Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg

High on spectacle and history, but low on acting caliber and story, “Pompeii” gets trapped in its own unrelenting rain of volcanic fire.

Aug. 24, 79 A.D. is the day when slave-turned-gladiator Milo (Kit Harington) fights in the Amphitheater of Pompeii.

It is also the day when his true love Cassia (Emily Browning) finds herself forcibly betrothed to the corrupt Senator Corvis (Kiefer Sutherland), who was responsible for slaughtering Milo’s family years before.

But most important of all, this is the day when Mount Vesuvius buries Pompeii under layers of ash and balls of fire, leaving no means of escape for the terrified citizens. As the volcano unleashes its destructive power, Milo must rescue his beloved Cassia and flee from the crumbling city.

OK, so director Paul W. S. Anderson (“Resident Evil,” “Death Race,” “The Three Musketeers”) knows how to utilize his penchant for stunning visuals to wreak both havoc and destruction, which means the eruption of Mount Vesuvius is no challenge.

When the volcano spews forth ash and pumice toward Pompeii, it strikes with full force and doesn’t relent. I asked for a visually impressive catastrophe, and it looks like my wish has been granted.

In addition, I am impressed with the amount of attention to detail in terms of historical accuracy; an approximate 70 percent of what appears onscreen is how Pompeii looked like back then. Whether it has to do with politics, entertainment, architecture, fashion, or social standards, the lost city comes to life.

Underneath those layers of magnificent scenery and period details, however, “Pompeii” is an empty spectacle — one that sets itself up for total annihilation.

From what I understand, the overall story consists of two components: a prolonged gladiatorial contest and the ensuing destruction of Pompeii. While the latter emerges in a timely manner, the former plods along, lengthening the fierce fights between gladiators to an unnecessary extent.

This is where the age-old rule of “less is more” is ignored and the resulting consequences are merciless.

To make matters worse, Milo’s quest for vengeance feels as though it had been tossed into the mix just for the sake of moving the film along. No development occurs, especially when his chance to exact revenge reaches its climax on the last days of Pompeii.

Plus, the romantic subplot is weak and devoid of energy — not that I’m shocked to notice this, considering how obvious it is that the male and female leads have no chemistry.

And the sad part, this film fails to give me any reason to care about the countless deaths that transpired as Vesuvius wiped Pompeii from the face of the Earth. As unsettling as it is for me to hear Pliny the Younger’s haunting eyewitness account of the event, it is even more problematic to see this big screen depiction not highlight any souls to remember.

The “characters” are no different from the stereotypes you’d expect to see in a fictional work set during the days of the Roman Empire. Why the cast didn’t make an effort to imbue them with more substance, I’ll never know. Of course, this is to be expected whenever you pay to see a Paul W. S. Anderson movie; the man has never been one for engaging characterizations.

Kit Harington, who plays Milo, spends all of his screen time staring into space with an expressionless visage, and therefore drags the film into a flurry of aimless motivation.

I’m not surprised that Emily Browning offers a flat performance as Cassia, because she functions as eye candy here and not much else. As for Kiefer Sutherland…well, he hams up his dialogue so much that his Senator Corvis comes off as a tasteless parody of a corrupt Roman politician.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje breathes a convincing combination of physicality and emotion into the veteran gladiator Atticus; unfortunately, he is forced to play second fiddle to Harington.

Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss do what they can with their roles of Cassia’s parents Severus and Aurelia, respectively, but even they cannot save the film from being obliterated by its own shortcomings.

Flee “Pompeii” while you still have a chance. This lovechild of “Gladiator” and “Titanic” isn’t worth your time and money.

 

MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense battle sequences, disaster-related action and brief sexual content.

Run time: 1 hour and 45 minutes

Playing: In general  release

 

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