Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl, boy and girl run around while SHIT BLOWS UP AROUND THEM.
It's a classic formula that's fueled many a Hollywood film over the years, and here's another one. Unfortunately, that tired-and-true formula isn't the foundation for the screenplay of Pompeii, it is the screenplay. There are three writers credited here, but one comes out of the film wondering just how on earth it took three people to write this script. (Hypothesis: one to copy down the most obvious bits from other movies; one to strip out all the character development and humor; and one to...I don't know...sharpen the crayons?)
Sigh: let's dispense with the "story" first. It is the year 79 AD, and Milo (Kit Harington) is a surly slave and fierce gladiator known as "The Celt," the last survivor of a clan of horsemen slaughtered by the Romans. Cassia (Emily Browning) is a rich society girl of Pompeii, whose eye Milo catches when he snaps the neck of her injured horse. (Because, let's face it, there's no foreplay more seductive than manfully euthanizing large domestic animals.) Cassia has a father named Severus (Jared Harris), who is in the lucrative business of Pomepiian Urban Redevelopment. (How could that go wrong?) To build his bigger, better Pompeii, Severus is courting financial investment from evil Roman Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), who conveniently also happens to be both a lecherous suitor for the lovely Cassia and the man who slaughtered Milo's family. (Why write three villains when you can fold them all into one hammy, all-purpose nemesis?)
All of this, it should be noted, takes place in a version of the Ancient Roman Empire only slightly less realistic than the one in which Bugs Bunny outwitted Legionnaire Yosemite Sam. (About the time Jarred Harris shouts "Juno's Tits!" as an expletive, we realize we'd be better off looking for historical accuracy at the craps tables in Caesar's Palace.)
Rich girl, poor boy, evil suitor: basically, it's Titanic on the edge of a volcano, except that the sub-literate tween-bait of James Cameron's blockbuster looks like a Shakespearean romance compared to the leaden, lumpen thing that is Pompeii. For the first half of the film, Cassia and Milo gaze at each other longingly across a Roman villa and coliseum—occasionally bonding over his skills as a Neapolitan Horse Whisperer—but they never really have a conversation, let alone develop a relationship. (I'd have to watch the film again to be certain—something I have no intention of doing—but I don't believe she ever actually learns his name.) While Vesuvius smokes and gurgles in the background, we pray for it to erupt, not only to relieve the boredom but also because we know that, even 2,000 years on, the faceless plaster casts of the volcano's victims will have infinitely more life and character than either of the two leads here.
(The fault is not really with the actors: on Game of Thrones, Kit Harington handles himself ably enough when called upon to embody his character's two emotional states—surly nobility and surly self-abasement—but that's a greater range than either he or Browning are allowed to travel here. Sutherland, at least, seems to be having fun as the over-the-top villain—speaking in a ridiculous accent somewhere inexplicably between Addison DeWitt and Foghorn Leghorn—but watching him one fears that his incessant scenery-chewing will cause more damage to the City of Pompeii than Vesuvius could ever bring.)
To kill time before the inevitable main act, director Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil) might have dallied with such radical notions as character development, meaningful dialogue, or believable romance, but no: instead, he stages a series of coliseum fights in which Milo and his new-found slave-buddy Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) have to fight a lot of people, affording Anderson the opportunity to tack a derivative sand-and-sandal gladiator pic on the front of his derivative disaster movie. (Akinnuoye-Agbaje—best known to viewers from the TV shows Lost and Oz—is an always-fascinating actor, and he alone does manage to invest a little life into the proceedings; unfortunately, it's in the clichéd role of "the white hero's noble black friend," written by someone who vaguely remembered the Djimon Honsou part in Gladiator.)
But, I hear you saying, one does not go to see a movie like Pompeii expecting historical accuracy, profound character development, or an engaging love story: one goes to see shit blow up. And I was more than willing to embrace Pompeii on those terms: I even saw it in 3D, wanting to give the inevitable apocalypse of the third-act its best opportunity to impress me with trashy, guilty-pleasure pyrotechnics. Alas, even here—in the scenes that were presumably the only justification for Pompeii's production–the film disappoints. Yes—spoiler alert—a lot of shit blows up: Vesuvius does not so much erupt as perform a Dresden-style tactical strike on Pompeii, complete with cruise missiles and napalm. There are a few moments of preposterous but imaginative fun—as, for example, when a tidal wave drives a ship up the crowded streets of the city—but the incessant CGI firebombing is ultimately just a lot of empty noise and meaningless flash. That the storytelling is visually clumsy and narratively chaotic is one problem; that the characters aren't developed enough for us to care whether we lava or leave 'em is another.
The biggest problem, however, is that Anderson has made an absolute piece of brain-dead trash that wants to pretend it's a real movie. There's a strange, utterly humorless restraint in the filmmaking here, and restraint is the last thing we want from a movie like this. (Even the use of 3D is oddly solemn: what the hell is the point of seeing a movie about the most famous volcano in the world if you're not going to have HUGE BALLS OF FLAMING LAVA FLYING AT YOUR FACE?) Just as James Cameron revealed in his Oscar-acceptance speech that he thought Titanic was a powerful work of historic importance, one suspects Anderson thought he was making a serious epic here, one that would leave us emotionally wrecked by the noble tragedy of it all. (He wasn't, and it won't: if you can watch the wannabe-moving last scene without laughing out loud, you're either a better person than I am or a much, much worse one.)
If Anderson had admitted—to himself, and to the audience—that he was basically making a big-budget, lava-driven version of Sharknado, Pompeii could have been a lot of dumb fun. Instead, he left out the "fun" part of that equation completely, leaving only the sadly appropriate adjective behind.