Well, I did it, you bastards. I saw Pompeii. Sorry that it took me 24 hours to get my write-up done, things were kind of busy today.
So this is the thing. I went into this movie expecting to be incredibly annoyed by the geology. But actually, the geology wasn’t that bad. There were volcanic bombs when there shouldn’t have been, there was a pyroclastic flow that apparently put on the brakes just for the purposes of barfalicious romance dialog, and there was an overly large tsunami. But that stuff, I can put down to dramatic license; it’s nowhere near Dante’s Peak, let alone The Core levels of badness.
What actually really ticked me off about this movie, far beyond the utterly tepid romance plotline that almost made all of the googly eyes in 47 Ronin look like a great love story and the mustache-twirling stylings of Senator Weaksauce Villainus Pantsius was the way it so blatantly and desperately tried to rip Gladiator off.
Do not fuck with Gladiator.
There was actually a gladiatorial battle scene in Pompeii that lurched along all the same beats as the reenactment of the Battle of Zama scene from Gladiator, down to the bit where the smarmy antagonist observes that he doesn’t recall the Romans losing the battle. But the reason that scene was so fucking badass in Gladiator was because Maximus just takes control of his fellow slaves as a general and uses Roman tactics to win.
Oh yeah. That’s the stuff.
Pompeii didn’t have any of the requisite badassery, and the main character was no fucking Maximus Decimus Meridius. And there was absolutely no good reason for the slaves designated as the losing team to win other than oh the script says we’re awesome so we’ll just like…shove people a bunch until Milo can use his magical Celt horse powers and stuff.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Warning: Spoilers. Like you give a fuck.
So, the plotline of Pompeii is no surprise. Literally, rocks fall, everyone dies. And the opening credits make no bones about that, hey look it’s the famous prone figures, uh oh we’re focusing on the ones embracing hoo boy this disaster movie is going to be some romance thing.
Then to England. Why? Because we need to see what assholes the Romans are. Senator Weaksauce Villainus Pantsius (known henceforth as merely “Senator Weaksauce” and played by Kiefer Sutherland doing his best Snidely Whiplash impression) is there with his second in command Weaksauce Jr. so we know who will have to get vengeance killed before the end of the movie. They slaughter the entire tribe of a kid, who is then enslaved by some random guys in the woods.
Fast forward however many years, and the kid is all grown up with soulful eyes and hair that I suppose is supposed to be sexily mussed but I feel like just desperately needs a good comb and some detangler, and he’s developed one hell of a sixpack. It’s Kit Harrington, doing his best British Dean Winchester voice, as the mysterious and broody gladiator called only… THE CELT. His name is actually Milo, by the way, but he refuses to tell anyone that until his male-bonding heart meter is filled up to the red level by Atticus (more on him later) and it’s so fucking melodramatic that by the time he admits his actual name I wanted to just laugh until I choked on my popcorn. Don’t give us that morose death shit, Celt Boy. You just didn’t want to tell anyone your name because no one would take a gladiator named Milo seriously.
THE CELT Milo is of course the most badass gladiator ever, so he gets picked up out of London (London’s a hell hole! It rains all the time! Romans are dicks!) and sent to Pompeii, you know, as you do. The minute he sets foot in Pompeii, one of the horses drawing Cassia’s carriage falls over in front of him so he can show off his magical Celt horse powers to snap the horse’s fucking neck. Because death was kinder, apparently. Cassia stares at him with her lips slightly parted and manages to convey that she really likes his sixpack and wants him to rub it all over her.
Which is basically all Cassia does the entire movie.
At the coliseum (we’re totally like Gladiator please love us oh god please) Milo meets Atticus who is the only character in the movie I liked. Atticus is a big black guy who is (of course) the hottest shit gladiator in the place until Milo shows up. But even better–and I need you to understand here that I am not making this up–Atticus just has one more fight (in which he will presumably have to fight Milo, only that changes at the last minute so the movie can take an even more pathetic stab at being Gladiator) left and then the Romans will grant him his freedom.
YES YOU READ THAT RIGHT. Atticus is the black supporting character and it is, LITERALLY, his final day before he retires. Really? REALLY??? You had to go there? Like everyone on this entire fucking area is capital-D Dead, but poor Atticus is special triple whip with a cherry on top fucked dead.
I may have engaged in some hysterical laughter at this point.
Once we’re in Pompeii as a location, the movie basically repeats the same structure over and over again. Some kind of manly bonding or fighting involving Milo, then a shot of the totally peaceful volcano (you know, just in case you forgot for ten second that everyone is going to fucking die), then a shot of Cassia doing something that normally involves staring, her lips slightly parted, or being creeped on by Senator Weaksauce.
Oh yeah, because he shows up, with Weaksauce Jr. Despite Milo having grown up in the gladiatorial pits of London with only a personal trainer and a shitload of protein to keep him warm at night, Senator Weaksauce and Weaksauce Jr. are completely unchanged since slaughtering his family. Like they haven’t aged a day. And Senator Weaksauce apparently just wants to bang Cassia because…reasons. He eventually demands that she marries him or he’s going to lie to the Emperor and get her family killed, but that was also the point where the volcano finally exploded so thank goodness for that.
I’m not going to rehash the plot for you. This review is already over a thousand words long, and frankly the plot really doesn’t deserve that kind of encouragement. Up until Vesuvius blows, the movie sort of half-heartedly tries to be about politics, but it’s kind of pointless because you know that ultimately none of that shit matters. The conflict between the Romans and the residents of Pompeii, Cassia’s dad going on and on about his construction projects to make the place a better resort, all of it feels like the movie’s just walking in circles and wasting time until we can kill the shit out of people with some volcanic bombs. The recurrent and generally pointless fight scenes are there to lend a semblance of life and excitement to a story that the audience knows from minute one has no fucking point.
When Vesuvius finally erupts, we get down to the business of just being a disaster movie. Extras get killed in droves. Minor characters either are tragically snuffed (one memorable shot involves a John Wu slow motion dive with bonus cleavage) or get their just deserts. As the main villain, Senator Weaksauce refuses to die (or, really, even get noticeably smudged with ash) until about five minutes before the end, when he gets handcuffed to a chariot by Cassia (the only interesting thing she does all movie) and flash cooked by the pyroclastic flow. Cassia, I will note, spends the entire disaster portion of the movie looking like she got rolled in a coal scuttle while the men around her are almost hilariously clean even though they have been beating the ever-living fuck out of each other. It’s kind of amazing.
Atticus, at least, manages to reach a level of badassery that can only be termed ludicrous; in the end, after killing Weaksauce Jr. by snapping a gladius off inside his own body and stabbing the guy in the neck with the broken end, he stands up to face the pyroclastic flow and literally salutes it. I really would have hated this movie a lot less if it had just been the story of how ridiculously badass Atticus was up until the moment it required an entire fucking volcano to take him down.
But unfortunately, the focus of the movie gets wrenched again and again to
Kai and Mika sorry, I mean Cassia and Milo. Milo has to chase Senator Weaksauce down because he’s (oh noes!) kidnapped Cassia on a chariot and who knows where the fuck he even thinks he’s going at this point because the entire area is a fiery fucking death trap. The movie’s score begs you to feel concerned about this, but what does it matter? They’re all going to die!
Then Cassia and Milo get on a horse and try to ride away from the pyroclastic flow, though thankfully the flow was still a ways behind them when they did that so I didn’t feel too ragey about it. But the horse rears and they both fall off, then the pyroclastic flow takes a coffee break while they argue about who is going to get back on the horse and ride away because no I love you no I love you. At which point Cassia just smacks the horse (which is still hanging around despite the fact that it was scared as all hell a minute ago) to send it off, so they can be kissing when the pyroclastic flow finally gets around to killing them.
And then “romantic” statues yay. You know. All the romance of agonizing, choking but thankfully brief death by flash cooking.
I’m actually sad that I can’t find it in myself to hate this movie more. But the problem is, it was one big pile of “meh” with some fiery death, and I couldn’t stir myself to care except for the moments where I wanted to scream at it to back the fuck off of Gladiator.
It’s hard to get excited about a movie when you already know the ending
No, that’s not even true. Because it’s been done. Nearly any movie about a historical event, you know what the ending is going to be, good or bad! Hell, just think about Titanic. I cried like a fucking baby during the scene toward the end when the band is playing on the deck and we see the shot of the elderly couple lying on the bed and holding hands. Now, some of that could probably be blamed on the fact that I was seventeen and a bundle of feelings as opposed to the cynical stone-hearted creature who takes such pleasure in writing mean things about movies, but I bet if I watched Titanic again now I’d still end up getting something in my eye during that scene.
(And yes, I’m sure you’re such a stone cold badass that you thought it was dumb and haw haw the boat sinks. But let’s consider this: in its opening weekend just in the US, Titanic made about $28.6 million both in 1997 and for the 2012 3D re-release. Pompeii made $11.1 million in the US–if you add in the rest of the world is claws its way up to ~$33 million for opening weekend. Obviously, Titanic has something Pompeii very much lacks. And I somehow doubt Pompeii will be getting a theatrical re-release in fifteen years.)
It’s harder for me to put my finger on what Titanic had that Pompeii completely missed. Maybe it was the fact that it didn’t feel compelled to remind us every five minutes that oh hey, everyone is going to die. Maybe the characters just had more life to them. Maybe Titanic knew what it was as a movie, and didn’t try to be about politics or gladiators, but was ultimately just about people even when it was time for most of them get turned into corpsicles. But whatever the reason, I gave a shit about Titanic. Maybe it was because, ultimately, Titanic gave a shit about the characters in its story, and wasn’t just caught up wondering if the volcanic bombs were going to look sufficiently awesome in 3D as they crushed hapless people in togas.
But instead, you get about two hours of just wishing the volcano would erupt already before your bladder fucking does its best Vesuvius impression.
Not nearly awesome enough to be Gladiator, nowhere near the heart necessary to be Titanic, and not gleefully terrible and explodey enough to be 2012 or any other of the masses of disaster movies that are at least fun to watch. You are an empty shell, Pompeii. You are weaksauce. And you would have been far more interesting if you had decided to fuck up your geology after all.