Everyone knows the story of Pompeii and the almost inevitable ending that will see everyone perish. No one has quite seen the story of Pompeii delivered as many lavish special effects though. In a time period where science has not pulled alongside religious belief, this movie will move from political battle to colluseum battle via unintentional comedy. Thankfully when the volcano goes off, all hell breaks loose to make up for a messy but interesting first half.
The disasters faced
Mount Vesuvius, lava, earthquakes, horses, Kiefer Sutherland’s age changing make-up, entire armies of people whom will line up and attack one at a time, dodgy politics, Kiefer Sutherland’s libido, a tsunami and a lovely pyroclastic cloud!
Pomeii revolves around the story of slave turned gladiator Milo. I don’t mean the drink but Kit Harrington’s abs will make you thirsty and possible want to by a new washing up rack. He is last of his people who have an affinity with horses. After seeing his entire village butchered in the opening scene by Proculus, he is then caught and sold into gladiator warfare. After impressing in London, he is sent off to Pompeii to take part in a blood bath for freedom.
On the way back to Pompeii are Cassia and Ariadne whose horse breaks its leg in front of Milo. In one of the weirder moments of initial bonding, Milo snaps the horses neck and Cassia is immediately smitten. Who knows what kinks she’s got in the bedroom…
Cassia and Ariadne are daughters to Severus and Aurelia – the leaders of Pompeii. The husband and wife duo are stuck in a bit of political bother with Rome which is where our lead baddie Corvus comes in. Although he is friend to Rome, he is busy manipulating a desperate shine Pompeii to take from one city and underhandedly steal from Rome too. In doing so, horny Corvus has decided that he’ll be marrying Cassia as part of the deals he makes. This all escalates when after some fateful encounters and horse whispering later, Milo and his gladiator buddy Atticus are stuck in a bloodbath battle in the coliseum. Cassia has to trade her hand in marriage for Milo’s life and in doing so seals peoples fate.
Throughout all of this, Mount Vesuvius has been bubbling away and rumbling in the background. When it finally breaks loose in style our main cast are all in different places. Cassia and Ariadne are trapped in their villa. Milo and Atticus are trying to survive various gladiator dungeon encounters. Corvus, Aurelia and Severus are in the royal balcony in the giant coliseum. Slave leader Graecus, literally the only person who seems to have seen carnage incoming, as already made a dash for the port to try and sail out of Pompeii. Who will survive and will anyone save the horses?!
Why is it worth watching?
The effects in the final half hour or so where the eruption takes centre stage has some great scenes of panic, a tsunami and a pyroclastic cloud. Fire, smoke, water and debris effects have come such a long way in the last few years yet this 2014 movie still looks spectacular. This is also because of how beautifully lavish the sets are which are being ripped apart.
Up until then you have some great turns from Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as the gruff gladiator Atticus that is both a friend and an enemy to Milo. He is shot in the dark so often, you just see his piercing eyes and they command the screen. Kiefer Sutherland reminds me of Tim Curry in this movie when Curry decides to play over-the-top. Corvus is someone who just wants to get laid and then screw over Pompeii and as the film progresses he gets more and more theatrical in his baddie streak. He was just missing a moustache to twirl. Sutherland also looks like his face has been CGI’d to look younger but I don’t know why. It is clear from the start that he is no match for Milo and so the movie goes out of its way to never have them square off. Kit Harrington is like a dark haired Orlando Bloom for most of this movie. Whilst his skills in battle and stuntwork is excellent, he isn’t given much to work with script wise and spends too much of the film silently brooding. At least he is topless or close to it throughout most of the brooding.
There is also some interesting political gamesmanship up until the eruption which I found quite interesting and it comes to a head when tough decisions to kill or be killed come into play later on. The Romans were often thought of as ruthlessly barbaric at times and this storyline feels like a cheer to that.
A lot of work went into the historical accuracy of the sets, props, tech, layout and deaths of Pompeii. In real life, ash-covered bodies embraced were actually found (known as “The Lovers of Pompeii” and also a large man’s body was found in Pompeii’s arena. So at least some deaths in the film are historically accurate!
Firstly, hats off to the set design. There’s some amazing work that is all around the actors and often outshines them. Apparently a lot of work went into the historical accuracy of destruction and although I have no clue how accurate it is – it does look phenomenal. I’d love to watch a in depth documentary on how they researched and made it all. The CGI of the destruction is also very well done and looks great. The actual volcano is surprisingly only shown spewing lava and ash out a few times. The majority of the shots are focused on the chaos reigning down onto Pompeii itself. It took me a few viewings to appreciate this way of directing the action and effects but I really enjoy this take on things now.
Without doubt the city of Pompeii is the biggest and brightest character. You can feel the love that the film wants to give the city by the way so many shots are framed. There are shots where you look out of a window and it looks like a beautiful painting. Elsewhere it is delicate, other times grande. Each shot is spectacular.
The human characters rarely have progression. Atticus and Milo become friends after being enemies in order to survive but its a jarring snap rather than a progressive change. I guess that could be down to being about to die every day though. Cassia is under utilised in her political prowess as she is clearly intelligent and quite forward thinking for her time. I also wanted more time with Aurelia and Severus as there is clearly a lot going on there which is alluded to and not seen. I feel like there is a directors cut with another 20 minutes worth of character evolution that would make this a better movie.
Cassia (on watching gladiators killing each other) – ‘Is this what you call sport?’
Corvus – ‘No, Lady Cassia. This is not sport. It is politics.’
Three memorable moments
- The entire coliseum collapsing
- The pyroclastic cloud sequence
- The tsunami sequence
The obligatory weird moment
Love blossomed over the killing of a horse does stand out as a weird way to fall for someone. The other thing I found slightly annoying is that in the gladiator sequences, often all the gladiators line up one after the other to take their turn to attack. It is not the worst movie for this sin but it does revel in the cinema rule ‘1 man against 20 stands a better chance than 20 men against 1’. When you see their other friends all dying, they are all being attacked from all angles but they won’t do that to the main cast members!
The drinking game
Is that Orlando Bloom or Kit Harrington? (Admittedly this drinking game must include the admission that I’ve never watched nor been interested in Game of Thrones.) If that drinking game doesn’t apply to you, take a shot for every time Mount Vesuvius sends a warning that its active and about to blow. I love the mild comedy of everyone thinking its just a God being a bit stroppy.
Pompeii will be a film that is easy to leap critical hate onto but if you give it a chance, it improves with repeat viewings and develops its own character over time. Whilst the human characters pale compared to the lavish detail and beauty that the city itself receives, the special effects will hold your attention throughout. Its a directors cut away from being excellent but in its current form, its a good volcano disaster movie.
Rating: 3 / 5 – Good
If you liked Pompeii then you may like…
- Volcano – Tommy Lee Jones takes on a city based Volcanic eruption
- Dantes Peak – The better of the two big 90’s volcano movies imho
- The Day After Tomorrow – some scenes from Pompeii are lifted from this
This review was updated on 02/05/20 to conform to the new ILDM review format.