You can say this for director Paul W.S. Anderson: He gets the basic purpose of 3-D movies. While the current renaissance in cinematic stereoscopy is touted as a method for creating more "immersive" experiences for audiences, the list of movies that achieve that lofty goal can be counted on one hand: Gravity, Hugo, Life of Pi. Most 3-D exists to bilk customers out of a few extra bucks.
But as it was conceived back in the mid-20th century, 3-D was all about kitschy spectacle, about giving an audience a cheap thrill by making them duck involuntarily in their seats. In that context, Anderson's repeated hurling of flaming volcanic projectiles directly at the screen — the dominant feature of the latter third of Pompeii — is firmly in the lovably trashy spirit of the '50s drive-in.
Pity that beyond those pyroclastic missiles, Anderson seems to want us to see his film and its hackneyed romance — basically Titanic with swords and sandals — as a serious-minded historical epic. If there were a hint of a sense of play or humor in the filmmaking, beyond a briefly amusing moment of comeuppance for a foppish slaveowner, Pompeii might be a fun February diversion instead of a dull, eye-rolling slog.
Maybe it's not all Anderson's fault. The fact is that our expectations for this sort of thing have changed in recent years, thanks not least to Game of Thrones. While HBO's popular series is technically a fantasy, and not set in our world, it doesn't look so different in many respects from Europe in the first century A.D. The show sets a high bar for depictions of romance and political machinations in an ancient world, as well as for pure visual grandeur. It's a bar so far above the reach of the video-gamey digital backdrops of Pompeii that it might as well be on top of Vesuvius.
Any hopes of dodging Game of Thrones comparisons are dashed by the casting of Kit Harington — Thrones' Jon Snow — as Milo, a prodigiously skilled Celtic gladiator with a long-simmering vendetta against Rome. While Game of Thrones mostly effectively employs Harington's knack for brow-furrowed brooding, Pompeii looks to use his full range: that brooding and his well-chiseled torso. ("Didn't you see his muscles?" asks one character excitedly, early in the film. Yes. Yes, we did.)
As the fates and the screenwriters would have it, Milo arrives in Pompeii at the same time that Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of the local governor, is returning from a year in the imperial capital. After a standard rom-com meet cute, in which they find starry-eyed love over the corpse of a dead horse on the highway, she goes to her opulent villa to be petulant with her parents while he heads to the dungeons below the Pompeiian coliseum, where he'll forge an unlikely friendship with a fellow gladiator (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
Also arriving at the same time – fortuitous coincidence! — is the Roman Senator Corvis (Kiefer Sutherland), who 17 years earlier slaughtered Milo's entire village and left our hero for dead. It's a good thing this is history, as it would otherwise be pretty tough to believe that the cards would be set up with such unlikely perfection for Milo to find love, friendship, and vengeance all in one crazy Vulcanalia-festival weekend.
If I sound flippant, it's only because Pompeii invites so many unintended laughs, from the puppy-eyed romance of Milo and Cassia (which makes Twilight look like Casablanca) to the ridiculously implausible final chase, which is essentially Fast & Furious on horseback. The lengths they go to in order to salvage a PG-13 rating — multiple slit throats result in almost no blood at all — make the whole thing seem like a pantomimed rehearsal. Meanwhile, the movie's final image, which I won't spoil here, caused an eruption of laughter at my screening that was louder than any response to most straight comedies.
The only person in the entire cast who seems remotely aware of the ridiculousness of the whole thing is Sutherland, who chews scenery like a starving man handed a turkey leg. He certainly had more laughs making it than anyone will watching it; if only he'd let the rest of the cast and crew in on the joke.