It’s worth getting one thing straight right now. Pompeii, as a film is a ludicrous concept. A volcano is going to go off, that cannot be doubted. All plots regarding gladiatorial combat, love and romance, or political intrigue are ultimately secondary to the fact that, come sundown, a mountain is going to explode and pour molten hot ash and debris over every character, location or perfectly sculpted archway. Both literally and figuratively, the volcano looms over every scene from the first shot of the city of Pompeii (the action starts in a Roman London) right the way through to the final apocalyptic scenario.
As a film concept, to sentence your character and context to imminent doom is a relatively refreshing one. Nothing is impermissible – nothing, even Kit Harrington’s stupendously sculpted abs – are safe when the forces of nature are involved. What distinguishes Pompeii from other natural disaster movies like 2012 is, aside from the utter lack of redeemable qualities in 2012, the historical grounding. 2012 was conjecture, it could go anywhere across the globe and the characters could fly away to safety at a moment’s notice. Pompeii could ramp up the suspense with far greater conviction, and you stare at the intricate, supposedly meticulously accurate sets with an appreciation of the fact that, ultimately, they would be reduced to nothing more than rubble.
After the failings of recent classically-inspired movies, including 300: Rise of an Empire, Immortals or The Legend of Hercules, it is surprising first that Pompeii was given the ability to pump so much money into the disaster project, and secondly then to give it such a high-calibre cast. Kit Harrington, looking to break from his Game of Thrones success onto the big screen, Emily Browning, Jared Harris are all high-quality stars capable of pulling audiences in, but to see them reduced to such a tiresomely two-dimensional script (Harrington is slave brought to Pompeii days before the fateful eruption, he navigates his way through gladiatorial life) is almost a farce. Kiefer Sutherland as the antagonist Corvus delights himself with this freedom, being able to vocally imitate Lion King’s Scar on a scenely basis (once you realise it, you won’t be able to ignore it).
The film is ridiculously premised, just as it promises to be. Every twenty minutes or so a rumbling cuts through the action, followed by shifty glances and a nod towards the titular volcano. Characters are thrown in front of us, half formed and woollen, before being cast away in slow-motion death scenes with little room for sentimental recollection or respite. The graphics are generally strong for a B-movie, and while some moments are visually impressive (the flood scene in particular was, while stupendous, incredibly well depicted), other moments can let down what is visually a surprisingly well done film.
That said, it is impossible to ignore the fact that this film is, and always will be, a flawed piece of cinema. The tragedy is fake and uninspired, and the premise alone will turn off audiences in droves – to the extent that it seems shocking that sales have managed to break even on a $50 million budget. To round off with the almost obligatory pun, the film adds a whole new meaning to the words ‘disaster movie’.