As I said in my most (un)anticipated list for 2014, “Although I love Kit Harrington’s sad puppy eyes on Game of Thrones, this Jon Snow knows nothing about picking a decent movie. A love story set during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius? No one cares. The characters are just going to die anyway (History spoiled that one for us).” But now that I’ve actually seen it, I have a few more comments.
Celt (Kit Harington) is the last alive of the Celtic Horse Tribes. After being enslaved by the Romans and forced to fight in arenas for their entertainment, Celt is taken to the luxurious city of Pompeii, which sits at the base of Mount Vesuvius. There, he meets Cassia (Emily Browning), the only daughter of Pompeii’s wealthy proprietor Severus (Jared Harris) and his wife, Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss). But Cassia is being pursued by the corrupt Roman senator, Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), who slaughtered Celt’s tribe. With the help of gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Celt races against the erupting volcano to save Cassia and avenge his family’s death.
Creating a movie about a historical event is difficult because it’s impossible to make anything surprising. We already know what happened to Pompeii after Mount Vesuvius erupted, so the only way to surprise us is by crafting a unique (Read: fake) storyline that takes place during the event. And that’s where Pompeii falls short.
Rather than coming up with something we haven’t seen before, we get a weird and extremely cheesy Gladiator–Titanic–Braveheart combination in Pompeii‘s plot. Most of the movie takes place during Celt’s struggles as a slave forced to fight in the arena (Gladiator), but there’s also a forbidden romance between Celt and a wealthy young woman engaged to another man while disaster strikes (Titanic), and a hint of rebellion against the empire (In this case, Celt would be the Scottish William Wallace, and the Romans would be the English).
It’s so ridiculously predictable that it became like a drinking game. You knew that Celt and Atticus would become friends after they crossed swords because of their mutual fate and gladiator prowess (Take a shot every time they call one another “brother”). You knew that Cassia was going to be engaged to Senator Corvus (the same man who killed Celt’s family because there wasn’t enough tragic irony already) after she left Rome early because she didn’t like the suitors there. You knew that Atticus and Senator Corvus’ number two, Proculus (Sasha Roiz), were going to end up fighting while Celt went after Corvus during the movie’s climax (because protagonist sidekick fights antagonist sidekick, and main protagonist fights main antagonist). I felt like I’d already seen the movie before it was over.
But Pompeii doesn’t just suffer from predictability. It also has really awful writing. I mean, every line Emily Browning utters from Cassia’s “poor little rich girl” script is worth several eyerolls alone (And don’t get me started on the scene where Cassia calls her black handmaiden “sister”). Even more annoying? I’d say all of the times when Kiefer Sutherland’s Senator Corvus says his full name (I forgot what it was, but I’m pretty sure it’s something like Senator Corvus Douchebagis Badguyus). Not only does Sutherland say it about six times in the movie, but he also plays it like a novice actor (which he’s not) trying to convince you that he’s a good villain (which he’s also not).
Now, I will say the arena scenes with Celt were pretty good. You can tell a lot of work went into choreographing each fight because they looked awesome, including the small fights between the slaves and the climatic duels between the good guys and bad guys. In fact, it might not have been very original to focus on gladiator fights, but those were at least more interesting than the forced romance.
I think Pompeii‘s filmmakers really wanted to make a disaster-ridden romance like Titanic. But they clearly forgot why Titanic did so well and left such an impact. It wasn’t because of the star-crossed lover plot (though that helped). It was because Rose and Jack had an intense chemistry and were established evenly so that, by the time the boat-sinking climax arrived, people were legitimately concerned about each of their fates, despite already knowing that most of the passengers would die. Harington and Browning didn’t have that.
One final observation: Why in the hell did the writers decide to reveal Celt’s real name (which was Milo)? I know they were trying to get us to care more about him, but you can’t tell me “Celt” wasn’t way cooler than “Milo.” It made him sound like more of a badass, which was kind of the point of making him an undefeated opponent in the gladiator arena. Also, by the time they’d already established him as “Celt,” I was sitting there like, “Yeah, I don’t give a f*** what his real name is.”
Overall, Pompeii is exactly what it looks like—a cheesy disaster movie with great action sequences and a chemistry-less romance. If that’s your type of movie, then by all means head to the movie theater. Otherwise, I’d say this is, at best, a movie you queue on Netflix one night when you’re bored. But, hey, A+ to Jon Snow’s soaking wet abdominals. Because that was the best part of this movie.