It's a classy move, opening a movie with thoughts from Pliny the Younger. Especially from Paul W.S. Anderson, a director who has previously put Alien vs. Predator and the Resident Evil franchise into cultural history. But both classicists and cheesy-movie fans will be disappointed with Pompeii, a rather — ahem — overheated account of the very bad day in the year 79, when Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the titular Italian town.
The quickie plot is hard to invest in when you know, at best, the characters end up as plaster-preserved tourist attractions. It centers on a slave-turned-gladiator named Milo (Game of Thrones' Kit Harrington) who comes to Pompeii just in time to: bond with Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), another slave-gladiator; fall in love with a local rich girl, Cassia (Emily Browning); meet the evil Roman senator (Kiefer Sutherland) who slaughtered his family; wage a few sword fights; and watch a volcano destroy everything. (Bonus sub-plot: He's also a horse-whisperer!)
Despite the imprimatur of Pliny, Pompeii's antecedents are decidedly low-brow — a mash-up of swords-and-sandals, doomed romance and disaster pic. Even more disappointing, it fails to embrace the sublime Majesty of the Dreadful and the knowing Wink of Schlock that could have elevated this love-and-lava spectacle to something entertaining.
It has its moments, including the aforementioned horse-whispering; a delirious scene where the townsfolk are mowed down by a boat (!); and a lot of men in short skirts, mashing their well-honed physiques into one another. (In an era before readily available erotica, I could see Pompeii providing a few thrills.) If you spring for the 3-D glasses, you get some flaming rocks in your face (and those oiled-up man-muscles really pop), but the glasses also make everything on screen — already covered in a hazy light from ash clouds — a lot darker.
Only Sutherland seems to get that everything about Pompeii needs to be more ridiculous: He delivers his lines with a clenched-teeth unctuousness that denotes "dastardly villain who will later die screaming." It made me pine for the classic Irwin Allen disaster films of the 1970s, and I wiled away Pompeii's duller parts re-imagining the film as a sprawling feature packed with a dozen mini-melodramas, acted out by a variety of hack and has-been actors. More evil Romans, some slinky slave girls, at least two more love stories, a dog, a Kardashian, a haunting love theme and a flowing-lava cam. Now, that's a movie!