Pompeii is half sword-and-sandal epic, half disaster movie and all guilty pleasure. Director Paul W.S. Anderson, taking a break from cranking out Resident Evil movies, has a strong command of CGI technology and 3D effects, and the movie is so grand in scale that you can’t help surrender to the spectacle, even if the stuff that’s going on with the people in the film is often close to risible.
In his first starring role since becoming famous as Jon Snow on Game of Thrones, Kit Harington proves he’s much better as an ensemble player than as a leading man. As Milo, a slave-turned-gladiator who saw his family butchered before his eyes when he was young, Harrington is supposed to brood and smolder and emanate inner turmoil, but he comes across as a really quiet dude who’s good with a sword. The first half of the movie is strongly reminiscent of Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, as Milo and fellow slave-fighter Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) grow from mortal enemies into unlikely allies, plotting to take down the sneering Roman senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, in a so-bad-it’s-good performance). Milo also makes cow eyes from the arena floor at the beautiful Cassia (Emily Browning), who shares his attraction but has already been promised by her parents to marry Corvus.
Pompeii delves just enough into history to give you a sense of how politics worked in the era (Jared Harris plays a Pompeii entrepeneur who has great plans for the city), and the battle scenes are well-staged and exciting, if noticeably bloodless (that PG-13 rating must be observed). Then that pesky Mount Vesuvius starts belching, a tsunami plows into the region and an earthquake splits the ground, all at the same time (talk about worst day ever).
From here, Pompeii becomes a Roland Emmerich picture, perhaps a little more refined in sensibility and ambition but still silly enough to have characters running toward flowing lava. The dialogue is often pleasantly leaden (“I’ve never seen you look at any man the way you looked at that slave!” one of Cassia’s friends says as she ogles the buff Milo), but the sound effects are way cool, and the 3D is spectacular, with glowing ashes that seem to float off the screen and onto your lap. Pompeii is nowhere near good, but it’s quick and to the point and, although obviously aimed at teens, just fun enough to keep grown-ups entertained, if not always in the ways the filmmakers intended.