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Review: POMPEII

Historians must be having a rough time lately. Thanks to the critical success of movies like Ridley Scott’s overrated and dreary Gladiator, and the financial success of the over-stylized, callow Zack Snyder-directed ab-fest 300, we now have a whole new, very unfortunate, decade-long genre trend to contend with. And boy, it ain’t pretty. Marked by muddy, dirty photography, and featuring blasé dismissals of anything that comes remotely close to actual historical accuracy, this new subgenre of ancient world mayhem has been hitting us a lot lately. Just last month (in what can be considered the worst January for movies in recorded history) we saw the terrible The Legend of Hercules. This month, we are treated to Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii. Next month, I am already wincing in anticipation of 300: Rise of an Empire.

Pompeii is the subject of the day, however, and I am here to report that it is – as one may expect – a totally stupid, brainless disaster entertainment. At the very least, Pompeii has some pretty slick special effects, and it seems that Kiefer Sutherland, as a mincing, horny, villainous Roman senator named Corvus, seems to be camping it up to a gleeful degree. But the rest of the movie is pretty dumb, sub-average stuff, featuring a typical glowering hero, typical sexless romance, and a boring story that doesn’t seem to drive forward. When Mt. Vesuvius finally erupts, killing most everyone (that’s not a spoiler; the movie is called Pompeii after all), it’s almost as if the mountain itself has had enough of the turgid drama going on below, and brings everything to a close by burying it in lava.

Pompeii Kiefer

Kit Harington, this season’s Taylor Kitsch, plays a Celt slave named Milo who has been forced to compete in gladiatorial combat. His Laughton-ish master brings him to Pompeii, where he is to perform for a visiting Roman senator, and kill off star fighter Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). While there, he catches the eye of the pretty aristocrat Cassia (Emily Browning), and the two of them… etc., etc., while Corvus tries to blackmail Cassia into marrying him so he can… etc., etc. There is then an exciting slave revolt, but just as things are ramping up, Vesuvius explodes, cutting every story short. There is a Greek chorus making announcements at a public sporting match (?), and Jared Harris shouts the phrase “By Juno’s taint!” Or maybe it was “By Juno’s tit!” The robes draped elegantly across the female cast members are so diaphanous that I could swear I saw at least one modern-day brassiere. Another odd detail: Some of the music cues in the film were lifted wholesale from the recent Spartacus TV series. Was this supposed to be a Spartacus movie?

To be fair, there is a rollicking dumb appeal to Pompeii that cannot be denied, mostly stemming from Sutherland’s enjoyably broad performance. He doesn’t merely speak, but recites proclamations, boldly announcing his misogyny and treachery without discretion of apology. In the midst of a volcano explosion, Corvus handcuffs the damsel in distress to his chariot, and races through the streets of Pompeii, just barely avoiding flying lava bombs. I’m not sure where he’s going at that moment or why, but the stupid fun of the sequence is palpable.

Pompeii chariot race

It’s a pity the hero of the film couldn’t be equally charismatic. Harington is required to do nothing more than glower silently, staring daggers from his black eyes. I suppose he does this well, but it would be nice to have a hero who was motivated by more than violence and revenge, which seems to be every hero these days. Also, Harington has the now-perfunctory scene wherein he shows off his impeccably sculpted abs. If there’s one thing slaves in the ancient world had time for, it was 1000 crunches a day.

If you’re a fan of Roman history, Pompeii is yet another film that will likely make you want to throw you copies of Gibbon at the screen. If you’re an average film-goer, then, frankly, you can do better.

Rating: 2 burritos
2 burritos

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23 comments

  • Thank you! My recommendation is just read Pliny the Younger’s account of this disaster, it’s much more interesting than the typical drivel being forced on us by Hollywood. I really don’t know if they have a consultant for these films anymore, but I bet if they do there will need to be surgical reconstruction when they remove that facepalm.

    • You are correct.  At end of the movie you can see some ships made it past the tsunami.  The lead characters could have escaped – so that was a spoiler.

  • Those burritos looks gross, and you should probably remove the html that allows me to click the image.

    Pompeii was a bad and unimaginative idea for a movie.

  • I agree with this review pretty much except for the 300 example. That book and later never claimed to be remotely historic, at the same time it was very enjoyable. Others in this genre are single watch movies with almost multiple viewing appeal while I can still watch 300 and be entertained. Pompeii on the

  • I majored in History, and I honestly think its great that we have so many films using history as a canvass for entertainment. The problem isn’t the films are inaccurate, the problem is people expecting to get good history from the movies. Movies don’t do history well. It is a bad medium for factual events. Film is a visual and audio story telling medium. So stuff like Gladiator, 300, and so on are all great. Some movies and television shows will cleave more closely to history than others. For all its flaws, Rome wasn’t half bad in that department. My feeling here is people who love history should be happy that audiences are going to films set in distant periods. That gives us an opportunity to educate people about the real history, because these films plant seeds of familiarity that open people up to reading about the subjects.

  • While I like Gladiator and 300, I agree that they have spawned a hideous and boring sub genre of ancient world action movies. I was made to suffer through The Eagle, Clash of the Titans, and Centurion. Pompeii looks just as dreadful. I understand the appeal, but they all lack substance. I love Kit Harrington in GOT (or maybe I just love his character Jon Snow) but even that isn’t enough to get me in the theatre to see this film.

    I’m surprised it even earned 2 burritos. I would have guessed one stale taquito at best.

  • Why is this person the reviewer on Nerdist?! Every time I try to read a “review” by this person it’s the most a$$hole-ishly written thing. I understand watching a bunch of movies like this may not be the most fun thing, however at least try to make your reviews fun. It’s your job, so try giving a damn…maybe just list any positives you can find and then an opinion of the movie, minus the bitterness and b.s. Nerdist is a positive source in my life, however you as a reviewer alter that mostly incredible experience.

  • This “review” starts with the one sentence dismissal of a decade of movies just to set the tone. Fair, now we know what to expect from the rest of the review. It is followed by incoherent ramblings, a massive spoiler even if the reviewer claims that it isn’t one. Expecting historic accuracy after neither 300 nor Pompeii claimed that “they” aimed for it is just another basic mistake.
    The movie might be garbage (haven’t seen it) but this review sucks massively, too.

  • This has got to be one of the worst movie reviews I’ve ever read. Written by someone who quite obviously disdains his job as a reviewer.

    And yes, as others have pointed out, saying “everyone dies” is a big spoiler. Not everyone in Pompeii died.

  • I love how you are saying how stupid the movie Pompeii is and yet you don’t seem to know your facts. Pompeii was not actually buried in lava as you said. It was only buried in ash. Maybe you should learn facts before you dis the movie.

  • I haven’t seen Pompeii yet, however, I thought Gladiator was one of the great films. I know Roman history well, but the invention didn’t matter one jot to me. Gladiator was an extremely moving and tense film, it looked fabulous and Hans Zimmer gave it his best ever sound track. The similar dismissal of the very clever 300 was equally ungenerous.
    That said, this Pompeii romp looks like a total missed opportunity to produce something clever, and let’s face it, Pliny the Younger has already provided a script outline. What a waste.

  • The issue here is not that it’s ‘historically inaccurate’–that’s just part of the problem (and it’s sad to see how many people just latch on to that one comment as an excuse to trash the review). If evaluated as merely a movie, this one fails on so many levels. The story and plot was shallow, the characters were cliche, their motivations nonsensical, and the acting was sub-par. Vesuvius spitting out lava was spectacular to watch, but if you think that sort of eye candy alone makes a good movie, you should stop watching movies and go stand under a traffic light and watch it change.

  • Being a bird expert, I loved the brief close up of the hawk, but wondered, as I have with so many movies, how a Harris’s Hawk, native to the western hemisphere (Texas and Arizona south into South America) found it’s way to Italy so long before Columbus bumped into the West Indies, but maybe brought their by the Black African slave with the West Indian accent?   Dumb movie; great special effects.

  • You’re an idiot.  The eruption was based entirely on the writings of Pliny the Younger and on actual study and footage of volcanic eruptions over the last 10 years.  The layout of the city was CG’d over aerial footage of Pompeii itself, and radar scanning of the ruins.  Everything from the cobblestones to the bread was checked.  Independant volcanologists and historians have praised the accuracy of the film, with only minor criticism that the director admits he had to do for modern audiences (like the depiction of women – if he showed them as they would have truly been, feminists would have had him hanged).  As a historian and educator who specialized in the ancient period and worked at an armory museum, I was blown away by how well done this movie was – it’s the first movie EVER to get Celtic swords right!!!  Why don’t you try watching it with your eyes and brain rather than your anger and self righteousness.  It’s not the greatest movie of all time, but it’s definitely one of the best historical fiction movies I’ve ever seen.