I won't begrudge it to those who seek nothing more than pure sensation from their movies. This latest account of the 79 A.D. volcanic disaster that laid waste to Roman city Pompeii doesn't play games. Rather, it serves up large quantities of gladiatorial clashes, disaster-movie mayhem and fleshy bits (rock-hard abs and juicy thighs, as per the PG-13 rating). But in place of actual drama, the screenplay by Janet Scott Batchler & Lee Batchler ("Batman Forever") and Michael Robert Johnson ("Sherlock Holmes") actively works to make you remember other dramas you've seen, in the hope that narrative shorthand will be enough.
And so "Pompeii" is a cynical stew of "Gladiator" and "Titanic" — words to make dollar signs dance in movie executives' heads but that should give pause to discriminating filmgoers being served cinematic leftovers that are all empty calories. The film's release date appears to be calculatedly synergistic due to its star, Kit Harington. Harington's TV series "Game of Thrones" (perhaps you've heard of it?) had a home-video release on Tuesday and premieres a new season in 46 days (not that the Internet is counting). Anyway, Harington and his torso play Milo, who as a wee Celtic boy survived a Roman victory over Celtic rebels only to find himself pressed into slavery and a "career" as a gladiator. (Actual sample line: "Didn't you see his muscles?")
Coincidentally, the very Roman general who led the slaughter that orphaned Milo is now kicking around Pompeii: Senator Quintus Attius Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, whose lispy evil here shows he's finally begun turning into his father). He's not only a corrupt schemer but lascivious as they come, which spells bad news for Cassia (Emily Browning), the pouty-lipped daughter of wealthy merchant Lucretius (Jared Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss).
Moss' role is what some actors call "a nothing part," but that's basically the widespread problem of "Pompeii": They're all nothing parts. Either as scripted or, more likely, as directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (the "Resident Evil" movies), "Pompeii" fails to make us care about any of its stock characters and, therefore, any of its predictable plot developments. That might be passable were the accompanying compensations more than 3D spectacle (and, granted, Anderson commits to showy 3D). But absent the all-star camp of Irwin Allen, we start counting the minutes of each choppily edited, sword-clanging fight.
The Pompeii and circumstance of billowing ash, earthquakes, flaming meteors, tsunami and pyroclastic flow (look it up) finally adds some liveliness to otherwise steady genericalness, but the poignancy-free special-effects spectacle isn't insanely intense, as it should be, instead evoking green screens and video games.
Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, disaster-related action and brief sexual content. One hour, 45 minutes.
— Peter Canavese