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Thirty minutes into Pompeii I could have sworn I was watching a direct-to-video sequel to Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Enslaved gladiator Milo (Kit Harrington) is forced to fight in the arena for Rome's amusement, and a cruel senator (Kiefer Sutherland) threatens Milo with death after he catches the eye of the mayor's daughter (Emily Browning). For Rome, for glory, for love! Wait, isn't this movie about a volcanic eruption? It is, in fact, at least as far as the marketing executives want you to believe. This new visual effects extravaganza from Director Paul W.S. Anderson is decidedly short on any ash-and-lava action, and most of the film's 105 minutes are spent on the tedious human drama that unfolds at the base of the angry mountain. I would say you know exactly what you are getting here, but that is not exactly true. I wanted an hour and a half of eruption porn action - sorry - dammit! Pompeii is dull, cheesy and forgettable, and, while the latter two attributes are forgivable, the first is not.
Milo walks into the ring like a first-century Abercrombie & Fitch model to dispatch his opponents with PG-13 efficiency. As a boy, Milo watched Senator Corvus (Sutherland) ransack his village and kill his parents before slave traders captured him. Seventeen years later, Milo is a fierce warrior dubbed "the Celt," and is brought to Pompeii, Italy, to fight in a festival staged to entice Roman Emperor Titus to invest in the city. He meets Cassia (Browning), the daughter of Pompeii's mayor Severus (Jared Harris) and wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), who returned to Pompeii after spurning propositions from Corvus in Rome. The Celt is forced to fight increasingly lethal opponents as the city celebrates in the shadow of a restless mountain.
Auteur-de-junk Anderson (Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil) drops the ball here as Roland Emmerich did with 10,000 BC, and shoots a dull sword-and-sandal epic that is ambitious in neither scope nor dramatic heft. Three people are credited with writing this screenplay, which uses Mount Vesuvius as a backdrop for its boring, bloodless combat and human melodrama. The characters are paper-thin, motivations are simple, and lead Harington spends most of the film staring into space. He is not a bad actor (see his Jon Snow on HBO's Game of Thrones), but the lightweight narrative gives him little to work with. Harington has approximately fifteen lines of dialogue in the movie. Just kidding... mostly. The supporting cast is largely wasted, and you know from the opening credits that most of these people are just filler waiting to be knocked off by the volcano.
Speaking of the volcano, I wanted to see more of it. The opening hour includes a few inserts of lava bubbling and some minor tremors, but you could be forgiven for forgetting what is coming later given all the other nonsense on screen. When the volcano finally erupts, the payoff is pretty anti-climatic. There are some decent scenes of fireballs wreaking havoc on the townsfolk, but the film has the overly digital appearance of a cheap cable disaster film. It is obvious that Anderson used little in the way of practical effects, and there is plenty of unconvincing fire and rubble to surround the actors, who do their best to appear panicked in front of a green screen. Pompeii was a big, fat, $23-million bomb in America, and I can't say I blame audiences for avoiding this dull disaster film that is mostly just a disaster.
This two-disc edition of Pompeii includes a 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded 2D image and a 2.40:1/1080p/MVC-encoded 3D image on separate discs. Sony does not disappoint in the tech department, and the image is expectedly strong. The digitally shot movie is crystal clear and highly detailed, with excellent fine-object detail and expansive far-range texture. The digital source is pleasingly film-like and lacks the usual motion blur and softness of the format. The VFX-assisted production design falls victim to the sparkling clarity here, which is not so forgiving to the sets and iffy effects blending. Colors are bold and perfectly saturated, skin tones are natural, and black levels are quite good. There is some minor digital noise in darker scenes, but this is hardly a distraction. The 3D image is slightly darker but displays nice spatial separation and good depth. Fireballs leap from the screen and ash floats down in the foreground, and the gladiatorial arena appears quite expansive in three dimensions. There is some minor ghosting on the opening titles and a bit of blur elsewhere, but this is a good 3D presentation.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is similarly impressive, and provides the surround-sound workout expected for this type of production. The action effects are given full range, and the mix makes good use of the entire sound field. Swords clash from behind, fireballs swoop across the room, and the volcanic eruption is accompanied by a thunderous bass response. Dialogue is crystal clear, and it, along with the effects, is perfectly balanced amid Clinton Shorter's score. English, English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc "combo pack" includes the Blu-ray 3D, the Blu-ray and a code to redeem an UltraViolet HD digital copy. The discs are packed into an Elite Blu-ray case, which is wrapped in a slipcover. There are a number of extras:
- Audio Commentary by Producer/Director Paul W.S. Anderson - This is available on both the 3D and 2D presentations. Anderson, who is joined by Producer Jeremy Bolt, offers a lively discussion of the production, from the historical impact of the eruption to his shooting schedule to the effects.
- Deleted and Alternate Scenes (23:32/HD) - There are a bunch of deleted and alternate scenes, none of which is particularly compelling.
- The Assembly (7:14/HD) - This mostly concerns the cast and the characters they portray.
- The Journey (7:42/HD) - Learn a bit about the real Pompeii and what the filmmakers did to recreate the Italian city.
- The Costume Shop (6:52/HD) - Costume Designer Wendy Partridge discusses the film's costumes.
- The Volcanic Eruption (7:06/HD) - This touches on the real eruption and the film's version.
- The Gladiators (6:23/HD) - See the actors train and rehearse their stunts in the featurette.
- Pompeii: Buried in Time (24:06/HD) - A decent overview of the production and how it relates to history.
I wanted to like Paul W.S. Anderson's Pompeii, but the director insists on boring the audience with a Gladiator-knockoff story and dull melodrama before finally letting his angry volcano loose. This eruption is too little too late for this cheesy film, which fails to impressive with action, drama or visual effects. A talented cast is largely wasted, and Anderson does not provide much entertainment here. The Blu-ray features great picture and sound, but the film is a dud. Skip It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.