This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, March 2014
If you’ve ever had the chance to visit the ruins of Pompeii, you’ll know that the 79AD eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius, which demolished a flourishing city and decimated its population, left a special kind of scar. Tourists can peer into glass cases to see human corpses covered in volcanic ash, their contorted faces frozen at the moment of death. While the cobbled streets, replete with chariot tracks, make you feel more like you’re on a film set than a real historical site, there is an eery ambience of human terror.
It’s a smart move, therefore, for Hollywood to capitalise on an actual natural disaster for its contemporary version of Dante’s Peak and Volcano. Instead of watching Pierce Brosnan hurtle up a mountainside in a jeep to save children, here we’re treated to a tale more akin to Gladiator in setting and sentiment, where slaves fight to the death while Vesuvius bubbles away quietly until the third act. This ought to serve as the ultimate ticking time-bomb.
Also financially smart but creatively disappointing is the film’s reliance on Kit Harington from megahit TV show Game of Thrones to be our Russell Crowe in this adventure – sorry Throners, but while Harington’s superficial charms are evident (and he’s got a lovely accent), he’s not ready to be film-carrier or scene-stealer. That part is shared out between Jared Harris (Moriarty in the recent Sherlock Holmes movie), The Matrix’s Carrie-Anne Moss (looking very well, it must be said) and the peculiar casting of Australian actress Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) as the governor of Pompeii’s feisty, preternaturally feminist daughter. The obligatory African fighter who’ll have your back is the chap best known for Lost. Oh, and wait – there’s also Kiefer Sutherland as the evil Roman senator, though most of the time it’s hard not to just see Jack Bauer flouncing around in a cape.
But back to our hero. Orphaned on the battlefield as a child, Milo grows up to be a slave carted around for gladiatorial shows, wearing his vengeance quietly under his armour until opportunity knocks. You can fill in the rest of the narrative gaps yourself as this one doesn’t digress from formula, so let’s move swiftly to considering the merits of the action – since director Paul W. S. Anderson is the Resident Evil Paul Anderson, not the one who makes well-acted, wordy epics like There Will Be Blood.
So Pompeii rises and falls on the strength of its CGI (Is that a backdrop I see behind you?), its fight scenes (actually rather good, particularly a centrepiece in the colosseum which pitches an army against two) and its overall effect in terms of conveying the horror that befell a whole city (alas, it doesn’t).
As far as disaster movies go, this is enjoyable enough, diverting and well-paced. But it’s not going to set the world on fire.