If you need a villain for your terrible movie, you might as well hire Kiefer Sutherland. In the opening scenes of Pompeii, we see Sutherland's Senator Corvus lead his troops in the wholesale slaughter of a whole village. Sutherland has always seemed like a creepy fellow on screen, and if you need a shorthand for an unlikable bad guy, he does the trick just fine. Corvus growls cheesy villain-y things like "kill them—kill them all," and he doesn't look embarrassing in his skirt and sandals. Of course, one boy survives the opening massacre scene and is taken into slavery. We then see that boy all grown up (Kit Harington, whose abs make an impressive first appearance.) Known as The Celt, he's an appropriately angsty gladiator who kills men four at a time. He's shipped to Pompeii, where he will fight in gladiatorial combat for the amusement of one...Senator Corvus. (Dun-dun-DUNNNNN!)
When you see "Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson" at the opening of a movie, you know you're not in for high art. Weirdly, Pompeii feels like it started out as a passion project—as though Anderson thought it would be his Titanic—but it features the same boring cliched characters and shitty computer graphics as every other Anderson film. The man just can't rise above generic. For its first 45 minutes or so, Pompeii is flat-out terrible. It's boring, everything feels cribbed from another, superior sword-and-sandal movie, and the romance between The Celt and Emily Browning's high-born Cassia never gets off the ground.
After the first couple miles of trudging through melodramatic boredom, Pompeii becomes a perfectly acceptable b-movie for a while, with a large gladiator battle followed immediately by the volcanic eruption that will destroy the village of Pompeii. (A movie like this would ideally feature Mount Vesuvius as a kind of additional character, but all Pompeii manages to do is to intersperse the dull early scenes with occasional shots of Vesuvius sulking off to the side of the city, looking like an angry, veiny protuberance. It doesn't inspire awe, it just...grumbles a lot.) The b-movie part has some decent acting in the form of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who hams it up as The Celt's fellow gladiator, and Carrie-Anne Moss, who feels wasted as Cassie's mother. But once the shit really hits the fan and Vesuvius threatens to bury the city in ash, the computer graphics hover around the level of mid-list video game. What should have been epic in scope instead looks ridiculous, flat, and, worst of all, fake.
Look: Here in Seattle, on a pleasant summer day, we all stop to appreciate a beautiful view of a volcano that might one day suffocate us all in a thick blanket of ash. We are a city that is primed to be alternately horrified by and drawn to an excellent volcano disaster movie. I was ready to give Pompeii all kinds of passes, if it managed to poke at that repressed simian fear of death-by-volcano. But this is a movie that squanders every last bit of the good will that its audiences throw at it. What a waste.