Pompeii, the new historical-kitsch disaster movie, raises the question: Is there something about ancient settings that inspires actors to act badly? Or is it just that in a movie where everyone knows that they’re destined to be upstaged by a volcano, there’s a tendency to either pile on the ham or fade blankly into the crumbling, melting scenery? Pompeii is set in 79 A.D., in the outlying Roman metropolis that sits just under the gaping crater of Mt. Vesuvius. Most of the film is a chintzy but watchable B-movie knockoff of Gladiator, with Kit Harington, the English actor from Game of Thrones, mustering very little in the way of facial expressivity in the role of Milo, a slave-gladiator whose Celtic family was slaughtered by Corvus, a nasty Roman officer-turned-senator played with smarmy superiority by Keifer Sutherland.
In Gladiator, Russell Crowe proved for all time how an actor can simmer and throw lightning bolts with his eyes. Harington knows how to handle a broadsword, but mostly he comes off as the British Taylor Kitsch, a glorified fashion model striking Blue Steel poses that smolder, boringly. He’s supposed to fall for Emily Browning, who plays the sheltered-princess daughter of Pompeii’s leader (the always excellent Jared Harris). Browning looks tiny on screen, but still has a vivid presence, with cheeks and lips that are one part Geena Davis, one part Angelina Jolie. The romance itself is utterly rote, but then, the entire movie is basically foreplay leading up to that epic eruption.
When Vesuvius finally does blow its top, there’s plenty of impressive CGI, but the film’s innovation is that we don’t get rolling rivers of lava. Instead, the volcano spews an endless shower of fiery asteroids trailed by smoky plumes — an apocalyptic fireworks show that takes down the city. Walls collapse, buildings collapse, the ground collapses, and it all comes down to Sutherland racing through the rubble inferno with Browning in his chariot, trailed by Harington on a horse that might as well be a motorcycle. The end of the movie borrows from, of all things, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, as the spreading fire-cloud of Vesuvius consumes everything in its path. Bodies get frozen into sculptures of ash that will last forever. It’s supposed to make this love story timeless, but by the end of Pompeii, you’ll be grateful that the movie only lasts 104 minutes. C+