Movie review

'Pompeii' explosions excite; film falls short

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Nero was singing, rather than fiddling, while Naples burned. It was A.D. 64, and he was there in the middle of his first public vocal performance when a medium-sized volcanic earthquake occurred. The show must go on, and the emperor -- always a trouper -- continued undaunted till he finished his song, shortly after which the theater collapsed. Overall damage was severe, not catastrophic. But it was a bad omen.


Starring: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Keifer Sutherland, Jared Harris.

Rating: PG-13 for intense battle sequences, disaster action and brief sexual content. 

Fifteen years later in A.D. 79, the main event -- Mount Vesuvius' eruption -- spewed a 20-mile-high mushroom cloud of molten rock at the rate of 1.5 million tons per second, releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, burying the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum under ash after incinerating most of their 16,000 inhabitants in temperatures above 600 degrees.

Movie? What movie? Oh, right ... It seems a shame to interrupt such fascinating factoids with a film review, but one can procrastinate only so long and duty calls.

"Pompeii" is director Paul Anderson's epic 3-D rendering of history's most famous natural disaster. It is not based on "Last Days of Pompeii," the popular novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (of "It was a dark and stormy night" fame), which featured Roman legionnaire Glaucus returning home from the wars to find his father murdered, his revenge stoked and his volcano erupting.

Mr. Anderson's version features Milo (Kit Harington), a captive-slave-turned-invincible-gladiator, racing against time to save beautiful Cassia (Emily Browning) from a forced marriage to evil Roman Senator Quintus Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland).

And -- a bit more urgently -- from the lava. Pompeii in its heyday was a magnificent resort town for the Roman elite, a pleasure dome of bars, brothels, opulent villas (complete with under-floor heating and second-story plumbing) and restaurants that served every imported delicacy, from medallions of giraffe to filet of flamingo. Think of it as Las Vegas, without the slots -- until Vesuvius' eruption and resultant tsunami from the Bay of Naples blew it all away.

The volcano, like the film, takes its time gearing up for the Big Event, with lots of rumbling and tremoring and gladiator-school violence in the warm-up. When, finally -- Thar she blows! -- it is spectacular indeed, the lava bombs exploding not just in our faces but in our very laps, thanks to state-of-the-art 3-D. These Zamboni F/X pay off. They are employed rather minimally and tastefully throughout the film, for that matter, along with excellent aerial cinematography.

But where are the great mosaics and murals? The art, set and production designers supposedly paid fastidious attention to detail, but I found the results dreadfully deficient -- generic Roman provincial, straight out of the old sword-and-sandals props department and Hertz Rent-a-Chariot.

Similarly deficient is Lee and Janet Scott Batchler's screenplay, with the standard predictable formula of disaster survival and romance: "Gladiator Meets Titanic in the Towering Inferno."

Hunky Harington (from TV's "Game of Thrones") functions more or less competently in his thankless, poorly written role -- unobjectionable as well as uninteresting. So does Ms. Browning, and her cleavage. But their sexual chemistry is closer to the room temperature of a nice Chianti than to that of the lava.

As Atticus, the African gladiator longing for freedom, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is quite good. He may want to do something about that name if he ever hopes to see it on a movie marquee.

In any event, he and Mr. Harington bond like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in "The Defiant Ones," even though the only thing they have in common is shopping at the same discount outlet -- Loincloths 'R' Us.

And villainous Mr. Sutherland, always fun to watch, camps it up nicely. All in all, it's not a terrible film, by any means. Just not a very engrossing one. Too much Waiting for Gotterdammerung instead of Godot.

OK, can I get back to my factoids now? Mount Vesuvius is still considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, especially for the 3 million people in the vicinity. Scientists say it is overdue for its next explosion, predicted to be much bigger than that of A.D. 79. If it happens in our time, I can see archaeologists of the 24th century puzzling over people frozen in the act of texting/sexting on cell phones.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust ...

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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