Toward the middle of Pompeii, set mostly in 79 A.D., slaves gather in an arena to practice their fighting skills. The next day they will be the entertainment for 20,000 screaming savages eager to see them kill one another.
The main event will pit Milo against Atticus, two formidable foes who also happen to share a jail cell. Oddly, instead of merely trash talking at practice they proceed to duel, effectively beating the snot out of one another the day before they fight to the death. How is this a good idea?
The scene feels like fighting for the sake of fighting. It's a moment crafted by the film's four screenwriters and director Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil), probably out of fear that too much talking will lose the audience. And so they provide senseless, un-dynamic action to pass the time.
The scene does serve a narrative purpose, but we don't realize what that is until much later. And so it sits there like a lump, void of credibility and conviction, enough to take you out of the movie.
Not all of Pompeii is this senseless, but enough of it is to make it a disappointment.
In the days leading to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Milo (Kit Harington, wishing he was still on Game of Thrones), a slave who can handle a sword, is forced to compete in the arena against Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Lost). Prior to battle he meets Cassia (Emily Browning) and her assistant Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), and is immediately smitten with Cassia. She's also taken with him.
But Cassia's wealthy parents (Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss) need a smarmy visiting senator named Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) to sign off on their development plans, and Corvus wants Cassia's hand in marriage in order to seal the deal. So Milo and Cassia have little hope.
Throughout we see images of Mount Vesuvius starting to boil over, which foreshadows what's to come and adds futility to the proceedings. These people can maneuver, fall in love and politic all they want, but when a massive volcano is about to burn everything they know to the ground, all that petty personal stuff doesn't wind up meaning very much.
The visual effects vary from so-so to spectacular, an odd note of inconsistency for a movie of this scale. For reference, anyone who saw Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters knows what C-grade effects look like, and a handful of shots here fall in that category. On the other hand, there's a massive flood that's full of tension, and volcanic fireballs that are really something to behold. Overall: The picture looks fine in 3D, though unless you want ash flying in your face, it's not a necessity.
As for the story, it's as unoriginal as you'd expect. You know the love angles and twists early on, so the viewing experience ends up a waiting game for the inevitable eruption. If the action throughout were as tense and exciting as it is during the finale, Pompeii would've had a chance. Alas, it is merely another effects-driven historical saga that over-promises and under-delivers.