Tragedy plus time equals disaster movie, as the saying almost goes. The more time, the better, if you’re going to transplant fictional characters into real situations. James Cameron’s Titanic may look like passable entertainment in 200 years but, for now, that film’s implicit suggestion that the ship went down because two young lovers dared to cross the class divide seems tasteless at best. Pompeii, shot in 3D, has the balance right. As it is set in a-long-time-ago AD, it doesn’t breach propriety when imagining the doomed souls who perished as the city was transformed into the world’s largest ashtray. The love story between a slave and a noblewoman is influenced by Titanic but the film could also be described as Gladiator served with a topping of molten lava.
As a child in Britannia, Milo (played as an adult by Kit Harington) sees his mother slain by a vicious Roman leader. No sword-and-sandals hero ever got anywhere without first witnessing the death of a parent and vowing revenge – just ask Conan. Milo is put into slavery and becomes a gladiator with a formidable fighting style and an even more formidable bounce to his ringlets. (I’m betting he uses Miss Jessie’s Pillow Soft Curls.) His owners recognise his special aptitudes for combat and for keeping his stubble the same length at all times. He is transported from Londinium, also known as the Land of Too Few Extras, to the arenas of Pompeii, where vast and unconvincing CGI vistas extend in every direction. His black suede jerkin and the leather bootlaces he wears around his neck suggest that he came to Italy via Camden Market.
In Pompeii, Milo is pitted against the towering African slave Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who has the uncanny ability to sound like he is being dubbed at all times. The two adversaries defy their masters and become allies, clapping each other on the back and swapping tips.
“Your right arm is stronger than your left,” says Atticus.
“You should learn to thrust when you shift your weight,” replies Milo. Boys, please. Get a cubiculum.
Milo also comes to the attention of Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of the city’s ruler, Severus (Jared Harris), and for a few scenes they engage in some light flirtatious simpering: catch one another’s eye, look down coyly, look up again, bite lip. It seems as if it’ll be a fine romance, or at least a contest to see which of them can show the greatest amount of thigh. Unfortunately, Cassia is desired by the tyrant Corvus (played by Kiefer Sutherland), who was a total A-hole to her during her gap year in Rome. More pressingly, Corvus turns out to be the brute who killed Milo’s mother. Hell’s bells! Or, as Severus would say: “Juno’s tit!”
Corvus doesn’t take kindly to Cassia galloping across the countryside bareback with a slave and concocts various punishments, stripping Milo to the waist and doling out 15 of the finest homoerotic lashes.
“I could have prevented that,” gasps Cassia. “What was I thinking?”
“He made you feel alive,” whispers her handmaiden Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), angling shamelessly to write an advice column in one of the Sunday supplements.
Every now and then, there are some violent tremors and an urn falls off a shelf. “It is the mountain,” observes Atticus. “It rumbles from time to time.” Finally, Mount Vesuvius erupts in a fury, possibly in response to the dialogue it has been forced to hear, and all of Pompeii resembles an explosion in a crematorium. A tsunami hits the city, the streets are flooded and, in one of the most unexpected causes of death in history, hundreds of pedestrians are killed by a longship whooshing down Main Street.
It would be hard to begrudge a movie in which Atticus invents the Black Power salute moments before being pelted fatally with magma, while Corvus’s response to being double-crossed by Cassia is to yell: “You bitch!” With scenes such as those, Pompeii has some claim on being the greatest lava story of the year.