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D: Paul W.S. Anderson / 105m

Cast: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jared Harris, Jessica Lucas, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham, Sasha Roiz

Beginning in AD62 with the sacking of a Celtic village by Roman soldiers led by Senator Corvus (Sutherland), Pompeii uses this back story to illustrate the determination to survive of young Milo (Dylan Schombing). Having witnessed the deaths of his parents, Milo hides amongst a pile of dead bodies; in doing so he escapes the Romans’ detection.

Seventeen years later, Milo (Harington) is now in Londinium, fighting in the gladiatorial arena and gaining a reputation for himself. His owner, Graecus (Pingue), sees the potential in taking Milo to Rome. On the journey, Milo and the rest of the gladiators travel with Princess Cassia (Browning) and her friend Ariadne (Lucas). One of the horses is injured and at Cassia’s bidding, Milo is allowed to put the animal out of its misery… and so, in these oddest of circumstances, their romance is born. Arriving in Pompeii, Cassia travels on to her family’s home on the lower slopes of Mount Vesuvius where she is welcomed by her parents, Severus (Harris) and Aurelia (Moss). Severus has a plan to rebuild large parts of Pompeii and bring greater wealth to the area; he’s also expecting the arrival of a representative of the new Emperor, Titus, to discuss the necessary investment the plan requires. Cassia is shocked to learn the representative is Senator Corvus; when she was in Rome he made clear his liking for her, though it isn’t reciprocated.

Meanwhile, Milo acquaints himself with the dungeons below the arena, where he meets Atticus (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), an African gladiator whose freedom is assured if he wins his next fight. After another slave attempts to kill Milo during a training session, and Atticus saves his life, the two men strike up an uneasy friendship. That evening, Milo and Atticus are taken to Cassia’s home where a celebration is taking place. Cassia’s horse, which has been missing since the morning, returns, clearly frightened by something and without the steward that was attending him. Milo calms the horse and he and Cassia ride off into the nearby hills to be alone. They are pursued by Corvus’ men. Corvus wants Milo killed but Cassia intervenes, and making herself beholden to the senator, saves the young Celt’s life.

In the arena the next day, Atticus and Milo are amongst a group of slaves that are pitted against superior forces in a recreation of the sacking of Milo’s village. He turns the tables on Corvus’s plan to have him meet his end in the fighting, but before Corvus can retaliate further, the mountain begins to erupt. Parts of the arena collapse, leaving Corvus and Cassia’s parents unconscious in the wreckage. Milo attempts to find Cassia who fled the arena just before the eruption; when Severus and Aurelia come to they try to kill Corvus but he survives, and he too goes after Cassia. While the city is destroyed around them, Milo, Corvus and Cassia try to avoid being killed before a final showdown becomes inevitable.

Pompeii - scene

There’s a grim inevitability about the subject matter that makes Pompeii a hard movie to review. It’s a disaster movie, and while that’s as apt a description of things as you’re ever likely to get, the movie does have a compelling visual style, and Anderson, while not exactly the most subtle or dramatically creative of writer/directors, marshals the final third’s fireworks with an aggressive brio that suits the material perfectly. And therein lies the problem for any reviewer of a movie such as this one: ultimately, we’re only here to see the mountain do its worst and satisfy the devastation junkie within all of us.

But before all that, though, there’s the lead-up, an hour of uninteresting, derivative anti-dramatics that keep the characters busy until they have to start running and screaming and avoid being covered in molten lava. Milo and Cassia’s romance is lukewarm at best and is played with the same level of intensity by Harington and Browning as if they were choosing a mortgage provider. Sutherland makes a great villain but his accent is a weird mix of public school English and mid-American vowel mangling; it’s a mesmerising performance, and almost transcends the rest of the movie, as if the actor had the measure of the movie from the very beginning and chose to just have fun with it (if so, he more than succeeds). Harris and Moss are wasted in their secondary roles, Lucas’ role is one step up from the customary maid in waiting, and Akinnuoye-Agbaje does his best as the noble savage who’s naïve enough to believe he can win his freedom in the arena, and is called upon to refer to the mountain in hushed tones whenever there’s even the slightest rumble or disturbance.

On the plot side of things, there’s too much lifted from Gladiator (2000) for Pompeii to be anything other than – for the first hour at least – a pale imitation of that movie and its easily more credible heroics (and Harington is definitely no Russell Crowe), and the whole idea of a plan to regenerate Pompeii before the mountain erupts is either a gloriously ironic move on the filmmakers’ part, or just incredibly crass – and it’s hard to tell which is the more likely. As mentioned before, Anderson is less than gifted in the subtlety stakes, and he piles contrivance atop uninspiring dialogue atop simplistic character motivations with the giddy abandon of someone who can’t believe he’s been given an estimated $100,000,000 to make a movie in the first place. (Yes, you read that right: $100,000,000. Where did it all go to?)

But when it comes, the destruction – what we’ve all been waiting for – is magnificent. Anderson doesn’t skimp on the pyrotechnics and the flaming rocks and the mini tsunami and the exploding buildings and the suddenly yawning chasms, and after the fallout from the initial eruption, gives us the truly impressive sight of Mount Vesuvius blowing its top and then some. Forget Volcano (1997) and Dante’s Peak (1997), hell, even Mount Yosemite going up in 2012 (2009) – Pompeii gives us the eruption to end all eruptions, a staggering special effect that will take some beating, and which is easily worth waiting for. It’s the one moment the movie had to get right, and it does so, spectacularly.

Rating: 5/10 – yes it’s extremely silly in places, and yes it’s full of historical inaccuracies, but Pompeii brushes all that aside by piling on the destructive spectacle and providing plenty of “wow” moments; event cinema for the critically unconcerned and in some ways, all the better for it.