Pompeii has served as a morbid theme park for tourists for the past 250 years or so, a place where you can stroll through the ancient Roman streets, visit the bakeries and brothels, and stare at the gnarly grey plaster casts of corpses of former Romans, frozen in their last agonies. It’s all a bit like a grisly movie set, and has often been a favourite subject of films and television shows, including the setting of a 1971 Pink Floyd concert film.
Now we have a new Pompeii movie, from Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil), a mindless but watchable fondue pot of high-calorie visuals and ready-made plotting: a tale of love in the lava with the poor-boy/rich-girl plot of Titanic, the brawny battles from Gladiator, and the flying projectiles of a vintage video arcade game. As an Anglo-friendly entry point to this ancient mayhem, we begin as a shaggy-haired Celtic boy witnesses the slaughter of his tribe at the hands of Roman soldiers, led by the sneering Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and his henchman, Proculus (Sasha Roiz).
Jump forward 17 years, and the kid has grown up to become a gladiator named Milo (Kit Harington from Game of Thrones), a.k.a. the Celt, sporting long, flowing locks and abs so chiselled any self-respecting Roman sculptor would reject the look as excessively idealized. En route to Pompeii from Londinium, where he was recruited for the gladiator big leagues, Milo makes the acquaintance of Cassia (Emily Browning), and makes a warm impression on her when he breaks the neck of an injured horse. Cassia is the pampered daughter of local Pompeii developer, Severus (Jared Harris), and Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), who are anxious to marry their daughter off after her gap year in Rome.
At the same time, Corvus the Celt-killer is visiting Pompeii as a senator for the new emperor Titus. As played by Sutherland with a smug manner and a fey, nasal British accent, Corvus might better be named Sleazius Maximus. His assignment in Pompeii is to evaluate whether the city is worthy of a major investor in its infrastructure, which would benefit Severus. But no sooner does he lay his eyes on the milky-skinned Cassia, than he lets her father know that a side deal may be required for the Roman coffers to open.
Meanwhile in the gladiator cells, Milo meets his chief rival and eventual ally, a massively muscular African named Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje of TV’s Lost), a champion who has been promised his freedom after this last death-match victory in the ring. With Atticus working for his freedom, Milo out to avenge his family and save Cassia, and Cassia defiantly avoiding a forced marriage, there’s a lot of pressure building up.
Before the mountain gives the city its mighty kick in the ash pit, there are a few tender moments as Milo and Cassia go on a rustic horse ride. There’s also some tumult in the arena, where Milo and Atticus dispatch a Roman legion or two as the gladiatorial games go a little off-kilter and turn into a prerevolutionary rally. Finally, after an hour or so, the mountain cracks, belches and spews forth screen-filling, fiery 3-D lava bombs, grey ash and black clouds. For good measure, there’s also an earthquake and tsunami, making this sort of a one-stop disaster movie.
No doubt the audiences in the Coliseum would offer a thumbs-up to the scale of the destruction, though even they might have had some quibbles about the special effects, which, too often, resemble a very large pile of melting crayons.