Fashioning compelling stories even when the ultimate outcomes are already known can be a tall order, but when done well, it can still pack a punch. In this regard, Pompeii (2014) fails miserably; directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, it’s a film which takes cues from many a film before it while failing to improve on them in any way. Set in 79 AD, Pompeii follows Milo (Game of Thrones star Kit Harington), a gladiator whose family was slaughtered by the Romans when he was a little boy. Known as ‘The Celt’, Milo’s impressive fighting skills have him shipped off to Pompeii to do battle in the arena for the town’s citizens. Along the way he meets Cassia (Emily Browning), the beautiful daughter of a local merchant.
Cassia is unwillingly being courted by corrupt Roman senator Corvus (an awful Kiefer Sutherland), the same man responsible for his family’s death years before. As Mount Vesuvius erupts, Milo teams up with rival turned ally Atticus (Islington-born actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) to rescue Cassia before the volcano destroys the entire city. There’s a great deal of set-up before Pompeii becomes the CGI semi-blockbuster fest its various trailers have marketed it as. However, rather than getting us to invest in these stock characters, the vast majority of the opening hour is ineffectual, with the film continuously hampered by a poor script that does little to add layers to its cast of players. Indeed, Pompeii may tick all the necessary movie checkboxes, but its execution is unoriginal and uninspired.
Nowhere is this more exemplified in the romantic sub-plot, which sees Milo and Cassia fall in love after a few amorous glances in one another’s direction (though Milo’s talent for horse whispering also serves him well). Action sequences are reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s swords and sandals epic Gladiator – a much better effort in every way – and are competently, if unspectacularly staged. Similar can be said for the volcano itself, though after almost an hour of foreshadowing the quality of the CGI chaos is grossly uneven, not helped by the fact that we haven’t been made to care about the film’s various characters. As Cassia’s parents, Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss are particularly dull and unmemorable.
Harington makes for a bland protagonist; the fight choreography is handled as capably as you might expect, but he isn’t as effective in portraying Milo’s sensitivity and emotion as he is Jon Snow’s. Faring far better is Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Atticus, an imposing gladiator who is one victory away from earning his freedom when we first meet him. It’s a predictable arc, but Agbaje manages to bring a not indiscernible amount of weight to his scenes. As for Sutherland’s Corvus, it’s a performance that’s only noteworthy due to it being remarkably over-the-top. Occasionally entertaining in its silliness, Pompeii just about avoids total disaster, but even the volcanic spectacle underwhelms in this largely joyless blockbuster.