‘Pompeii’ is more disaster than film

By Alex Frail

Caitlin Cronenberg/TriStar Pictures/MCT
Caitlin Cronenberg/TriStar Pictures/MCT

Savor the first shots in “Pompeii” of ashen corpses locked in eternal embraces – they’re the last of any artistic value. Not even 10 minutes in, the movie devolves into a messy, jarring action flick that forgets to develop any characters, build any cohesive storyline or engage us at all. It’s not so much a disaster movie than a disaster of a movie.

“Pompeii,” directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, tells the story of the Celt (Kit Harington), a young man who’s sold into slavery after his family is murdered. He works his way to fame in the gladiator ring, wins the love of a noblewoman and challenges the Roman despot responsible for his family’s death. Sound familiar? Probably because every sentence I’ve written describes 2000’s far superior “Gladiator.” In “Pompeii,” Vesuvius lurks in the backdrop of each scene, but that’s about the only difference between the films.

The plot never lands on its feet. It’s sort of about the Celt’s revenge. It’s kind of about the Celt and Cassia’s (Emily Browning) romance. It’s almost a story of liberation. But in the end, the only reason this film exists is so the CGI guys could rain lava on a bunch of random people.

Harington plays the Celt as a brooding gladiator with perfect hair and Gerard Butler-like abs. As strong as he is as Jon Snow in “Game of Thrones,” Harington proves he cannot carry a big-budget film on his shoulders. Facing death, he does his best to look serious, but just looks seriously constipated. “Pompeii’s” problems grow from there.

Browning (“Sucker Punch”) and Kiefer Sutherland (“24”) round out the main cast as the Celt’s love interest and an evil Senator, respectively. Browning fails to emote anything, donning the same expression for both excitement and terror. Her voice never fluctuates whether she’s embracing her parents or escaping from the erupting volcano. Sutherland rocks the same haircut as he did in “24” and everything else he’s ever been in. He’s Jack Bauer as Julius Caesar. Sutherland takes a stab at a British accent, but must’ve realized how bad he was at it, because midway through the film, he completely drops it.

To make matters worse, the actors stumble over the uneven script like a high school English class over Shakespeare. Unfortunately, Carrie-Anne Moss, who was awesome as Trinity in “The Matrix,” ranks among the worst of these offenders. Her British accent makes Sutherland’s sound legit.

In a movie about gladiators, I would’ve expected some compelling duels or battles. My hopes were dashed. The swordfights are as exciting as C-SPAN, while you might miss the major showdown of all the gladiators – the one every character drones on about throughout the movie – if you happen to blink.

When the volcano erupts, the movie finally approaches blockbuster territory. You can feel the magma crackle and the Earth tremble under your seat. It’s a spectacle to behold. There’s no doubt “Pompeii’s” visuals are stunning, but so are the visuals of every other blockbuster out there.

Last year’s “Pacific Rim” had a similarly simple premise, but at least all of its characters weren’t so paper thin. Charlie Day lent humor and even a bit of intrigue to “Pacific Rim,” setting it apart from other action duds. This movie is missing its Charlie Day.

The only saving grace of “Pompeii” is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who stars as Atticus, a spiritual African gladiator who befriends the Celt and helps him to find his humanity once more. His performance offers a few laughs, but ultimately, he’s one working cog in a broken machine. His efforts are further undermined when you consider that his role is a carbon copy of Djimon Hounsou’s role in “Gladiator.”

What the writers didn’t realize is that you can’t just blow up a volcano to make a movie. If the viewers know the ending, they need a reason to care about the beginning and middle, a reason to connect with the characters and to fear for them as they face impending doom. A decade ago, when blockbusters were few and far between, plots weren’t so necessary. People just wanted to see the new epic. Now there’s an epic for every week of the year. Visual effects alone just don’t have the same draw as they did years ago.

Maybe this one goes down as a cult guilty pleasure, but I don’t give it much of a chance. Someone in middle school could’ve written the script, the acting is as flat as week-old soda and the direction is scatterbrained and ineffective. A few pretty visuals elevate it near the epic territory it aspires toward, but like the city itself, no one can save “Pompeii” from ruin.

Alex Frail can be reached at [email protected]