A Song of Smoke, Mirrors, and Fire: “Pompeii” Movie Review

From the maker of the Resident Evil movie franchise comes a new movie about an old story, focused with a romantic twist. Pompeii will burn, and so will the hearts of two young lovers.


Pompeii strives to tell the story of the remote, small Italian city located at the base of an active volcano right at the shin of the Italian boot. History remembers it as the location of a devastating natural disaster when Mount Vesuvius – surprise! an active volcano – blew in 79 AD, burying more than 1,150 people in an ocean of ash. Before its destruction, Pompeii was a thriving coastal city with its own amphitheatre and almost 20,000 residents. Let it be known now that the actual residents of Pompeii were much more aware of the volcanos activity than the movie makes it seem. *Spoilers* Despite the fact that earthquakes begin occurring more frequently over time in Pompeii, not a single person is prepared when the beast blows in Pompeii. In fact, they are all downright surprised. And dead. Why? Because drama.

In an attempt to humanize the story of Pompeii’s demise, a young gladiator is pitted against the princess of Pompeii in the arena of love. Milo, a.k.a. “The Celt,” is an up-and-coming gladiator with killer abs. We know these things because we see his abs frequently and also see him routinely kill at least three people at a time. You might recognize the actor, Kit Harington, as Ned Stark’s bastard, Jon Snow (you know, from Game of Thrones!). Who knew he was hiding a six-pack under all those dark furs. Milo’s badger-rage-bloodrath comes from a dark place of brooding and resentment: when he was just a little boy, Roman troops slaughtered his entire tribe of Celtic horsewarriors in Northern Brittannia in 62 AD. He watched his father dual-wielding swords against a swath of enemies only to get brought down by a dozen Romans (there’s a smart little reference back to this in Milo’s adulthood, when he also dual-wields swords against great odds). As a boy, Milo also watches the guy from 24 (Kiefer Sutherland) behead his mother. These images haunt his dreams into adulthood, as does the image of his kinsman hung upside down from a tree with their weapons dangling and clanking in a twisted, bloody wind chime. As an adult, Milo gets brought to Pompeii for an epic gladiator match in honor of the Festival of Vulcanalia (a party for the God of Fire – ha!), and guess who shows up to watch? This guy:

His actual name is Corvus, and by the time he makes it to Pompeii, he's a Roman Senator...and a fan of sweeping gestures.

His actual name is Corvus, and by the time he makes it to Pompeii, he’s a Roman Senator…and a fan of sweeping gestures.

Not only is Senator Corvus in Pompeii to watch the games and enjoy the festival, but he wants to invest money in the town for his own gain and also force marriage upon the daughter of the town ruler. Cassia (Emily Browning), this Princess of Pompeii, arrives back home a couple days before Corvus and pretty much at the same time as the troupe of gladiators. There’s this moment when her carriage driver pitches her cart right into a giant ditch that could have easily been avoided (again…because drama). One of the horses tweaks its neck and collapses for no reason other than to have Milo wield the horse-whispering power of his native peoples to relax the beast before snapping its neck. While pretty much everyone calls him a savage for putting the beast out of its misery, Cassia recognizes it as a kind gesture. This is possibly the first romance that begins with the euthanizing of a horse. Their sparse but sexually tense scenes together do just enough to convince us of their romance, but not quite enough to convince us of their undying devotion.

Cassia had spent a year in Rome doing something that is never quite explained other than Corvus’ admission that they have a “history” which may or may not just be him talking her. Her loving parents Severus (Jarred Harris) and Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss) missed her dearly, but never really say why she was away for so long. I am not a parent myself, but I don’t think I would send my beautiful young daughter to any big city with only her servant-maid to look after her. Probably the best moment in the movie is when Severus sheds tears of joy at seeing his daughter arrive with her entourage before he screams, “Juno’s tit! Is that all your luggage!?” Another notable scene is when Cassia is along with her servant-maid in her quarters getting her hair done…and the camera focuses on the maid’s boobs rather than Cassia’s face. I kid you not. Director Paul W. S. Anderson is obsessed with boobs apparently. (I mean have you SEEN anything from Dead or Alive?)

Cassia gets her hair done by Ariadne moments before the camera zooms in on boobs at the expense of focus on Cassia’s face.

The driving force behind the narrative of Pompeii seems to be the developing love between Milo and Cassia, but I don’t think the movie is ever sure and as a result, neither is the viewer. Not only do they have The Celt’s slavery and the princess’s stalker Roman senator ex standing in their way, but they also have a pissed off volcano about to spew balls of fire, rock hail, and gallons of ash all over them. Every couple minutes, we get the obligatory grand aerial shots of the volcano as it grumbles. Random springs boil. Earth rumbles. In almost every case, these check-ins are used to force the passage of time and simplify the narrative. They also remind us that this is a movie about Pompeii and its destruction. Everything else is an afterthought.

Another supporting but important character is the African gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), portrayed by an actor I’ve always enjoyed since his time as Mr. Eko on LOST. By Roman Law, Atticus will be free if he wins one more gladiator match, so Milo is all that stands between Atticus and his freedom. As far as gladiators go, he’s remarkably humble, honorable, and kind. It’s supposed to be another grand Vulcanalia with accompanying bloody gladiator games, but the eruption changes everything and within minutes, everyone is fighting for their lives.

Atticus Milo Pompeii

Atticus and Milo doin’ work.

What we ultimately get from Pompeii is a bombastic film that is 25% Titanic and 50% Gladiator. There’s about one-quarter of a movie missing here. Imagine that James Cameron had greater technological tools and a weaker grasp on what a compelling narrative entails when he made Titanic (oh, oh! You mean when he made Avatar?), and imagine Ridley Scott had no clue how to characterize his heroes or his villains (which omfg he does). Senator Corvus is dull and menacing, but never fully fleshed out; no definitive motives or ambitions. His lead henchman is even more dull and nebulous. The romance between Milo and Cassia is convincing enough and actually quite good, but the logistics of their love affair is a complete mess. Don’t get me wrong; there are certainly a few good things here. The budding bromance between Atticus and Milo is endearing, especially once the devastation begins and they quickly team up to save themselves. Perhaps the best line occurs when Milo ruses to the villa to try and save Cassia. Atticus grabs his arm, telling him how foolish it is, and that he should just run for safety and enjoy his freedom. “You have your freedom, my friend.” Milo says. “She is mine.”

The biggest fault of Pompeii is the inorganic and forced plot beats that are manufactured out of necessity, which is to say that from scene to scene, none of it really makes sense. What little flow it develops is interrupted by the obligatory cuts to the grumbling volcano. Other specific things only happen to move the plot along or manufacture dramatic tension. Just before the volcano really starts to spit hot fire, General Jack Bauer is equally disgruntled and starts lashing out with threats and backhands to everyone around him. He sends Cassia to be locked in “the villa” (a.k.a. the single man-made structure absolutely closest to the volcano). He could have locked her in an ampitheatre cell, or even any nearby house. Instead,he chooses a far off location that has no access other than a narrow dirt path, and why? So Milo will be forced to save her as the villa is quite literally ripped apart by earthquakes and buried in ash. This is only one of the many outlandish and ridiculous decisions made by a character in this movie, but even they pale in comparison to the ridiculous decisions made by the director.

The critic in me cringed at much of this movie, but the kid in me cackled with glee. The destruction is outrageous and actually pretty entertaining. Pompeii was too reliant on technology in an effort to give the viewer a spectacle, rather than have the writer and director present a legitimately compelling story. I do have to admit that I actually enjoyed it quite a bit; that spectacle delivered a colorful splash of magma all over the place. I really like Kit Harington as an actor and have a total crush on Emily Browning. Harington carries one of the best stories in Game of Thrones as Jon Snow, where his acting abilities are put to the test much more than they are in this movie. The overly simple plot in Pompeii didn’t really give them room to act, mainly because Mount Vesuvius – and not Milo – is the main character here. Director Paul W. S. Anderson is known mainly for being the driving force behind the Resident Evil movies and other video game adaptations. To be honest, it seems like he came across the story of Pompeii on Wikipedia and made a really derivative gladiator love story as a reason to showcase the big BOOM! This Song of Smoke, Mirrors, and Fire is a total spectacle that’s fun for the show but lacking in substance. It’s possible to enjoy it, but you won’t love it. See it on a bargain day at your local cinema or don’t see it at all.

Just for fun, here are some other things I love tangentially related to Pompeii:

“Fires of Pompeii” – A David Tennant episode of Doctor Who in which he travels to Pompeii during the festival – and the eruption – with companion Donna Noble. Fun fact: the new Doctor (Peter Capaldi) plays a small role which is basically identical to Severus.

This awesome, albeit recently overplayed, song: