TriStar Pictures via Everett Collection
An hour and change into Pompeii, there's a volcano. You'd think there might have been a volcano throughout — you'd think that the folks inhabiting the ill-fated Italian village would have been dealing with the infamous volcano for the full 110 minutes. After all, volcano movies have worked before. Volcano, for instance. And the other one. But for some reason, Pompeii feels the need to stuff its first three quarters with coliseum battles, Ancient Rome politics, unlikely friendships, and a love story. But we don’t care. We can't care. None of it warrants our care. Where the hell is the volcano, already?
To answer that: it's off to the side — rumbling. Smoking. Occasionally spiking the neighboring community with geological fissures or architectural misgivings. Pretty much executing every trick picked up in Ominous Foreshadowing 101, but never joining the story. Not until Paul W.S. Anderson shouts, "Last call," hitting us with a final 20-odd minutes of unmitigated disaster (in a good way). If you've managed to maintain a waking pulse throughout the lecture in sawdust that is Pompeii's story, then you might actually have a good time with the closing sequence. It has everything you’d expect — everything you had been expecting! — and delivers it with gusto. Torpedoes of smoke running hordes of idiot villagers out of their homes and toward whatever safety the notion of forward has to offer. Long undeveloped characters rising to the occasion to rescue hapless princesses who thought it might be a good idea to set their vacation homes at the foot of a lava-spewing mountain. The whole ordeal is actually a lot of laughs. But it amounts to a dessert just barely worth the tasteless dinner we had to force down to get there.
TriStar Pictures via Everett Collection
To get through the bulk of Pompeii, we recommend focusing all your attentions away from the effectively bland slave/gladiator/hero Kit Harington — sorry, Jon Snow (he's actually called a bastard at one point) — and onto his partner in crime: a scowling Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje — sorry, Mr. Eko (he and Snow actually trade valedictions by saying "I'll see you at another time, brother" at one point) — who warms up to his fellow prize fighter during their shared time in the klink, and delivers his moronic material with a sprinkle of flair. Keeping the working man down is Kiefer Sutherland — sorry, Jack Bauer — as an ostentatious Roman senator, doling out vainglory in Basil Fawlty-sized portions. When he's not spitting scowls at peasants, ol' JB is undermining the efforts of an earnest local governor Jared Harris — sorry, Lane Pryce (he actually calls someone a mad man at one point) — and his wife Carrie-Anne Moss — sorry, Katherine O'Connell from Vegas (joking! Trinity) — and finagling the douchiest marriage proposal ever toward their daughter Emily Browning — sorry, but I have no idea what she's from.
But questionable television references and some enjoyably daft performances by Eko and Jack can't really make up for the heft of mindless dullness that Pompeii passes off as its narrative... until the big showstopper.
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In truth, the last sequence is a gem. It's fun, inviting, and energizing, and might even call into question the possibility that Pompeii is all about how futile life, love, friendship, politics, and pride are when even the most egregiously complicated of plots can be taken out in the end by a sudden volcanic eruption. But you have to wade through that egregious complication to get there, and you shouldn't expect to have too much of a good time doing so.
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Back before the first Twilight novel hit bookshelves, few would have anticipated the vampirious takeover of screens big and small that would eventually come to be. Without considering the surge of attention that would center on the Mayans' dire predictions about 2012, you wouldn't project the apocalypse to be the topic of every other movie to hit theaters that year. It's hard to predict the subjects that will sweep American audiences — comic book heroes, '90s reboots, duck dynasties. So, the next big thing could come from anywhere. Or anywhen. Say, 79 AD. Say, the coast of the Gulf of Naples. Say, gasping for breath under a sheath of molten lava. While initial news of a Mt. Vesuvius might not have struck you as the fad that will sweep the nation next, we're inclined to believe that Paul W.S. Anderson's Pompeii is setting up for a hefty hit.
The Resident Evil series director's adventure film has been scheduled for a February 28, 2014 release, hitting just before the 86th Annual Academy Awards, combatting the glitz, schmaltz, and historical gravitas of next year's Oscar candidates with a steamship of adrenaline.
While Anderson's RE movies don't guarantee confidence (while viewers keep returning for new chapters of the director's video game adaptation franchise, the films have a fair share of detractors in critics and fans of the original game alike) in Pompeii, there's been something of a growing vigor for the volcano flick through these early days. The odd combination of Anderson and screenwriter Julian Fellowes, the man responsible for Downton Abbey, inspired a flare of perplexing intrigue. Ever since, we've seen a team with seductive star power amount.
Pompeii has the TV fan base factor, a big pull for modern audiences: the cast includes Kit Harington (for the Game of Thrones fans), Jared Harris (for the Mad Men fans), Kiefer Sutherland (for the 24 fans), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (for the Lost fans), and, of course, writer Fellowes. Not to mention the Matrix pull earned by star Carrie-Anne Moss. But this is all just gravy — people won't be flocking to the theaters based solely on their desire to see Lane Pryce traipse through Ancient Rome. The big star here is Vesuvius himself.
The volcano eruption: the fan favorite of natural disasters. The focus of not one but two memorable 1997 adventure features, Volcano and Dante's Peak (and a Tom Hanks movie!). It's the stuff of legend — which is exactly what the story of Pompeii is.
A well-known account of seemingly otherworldly happenings in a long-ago land, Pompeii is nearly a fantasy story — a duly profitable genre, of course — but with the bonus of actually having happened. Never underestimate real world weight.
It's that authenticity that can really pluck viewers from the cinema seats and drop them right into the action. If there's one thing that Jurassic Park's theater resurgence reminded us (other than just how debonair Jeff Goldblum is), there's nothing like a wholly immersive adventure film — one so human as to make you feel on edge through its entire run but so overwhelmingly fantastical as to provide pure, imaginative fun from beginning to end.
We don't know if Pompeii will boast the imagination or humanity of Jurassic Park. Most things don't. But Pompeii looks to have the same goals in mind. And via the melding of the fantastical, the real, and the realm of TV fandom, it might just capture our hearts (or at least unblinking eyes) come Feb. '14.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter
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