Pompeii: Swords-and-Sandals Flop

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PompeiiAs a film setting, the town of Pompeii in the first century CE is a lot like the deck of the Titanic in 1912: no amount of special effects or clever script writing is going to save it from the disaster awaiting. As a film, Pompeii has a lot of the former, but precious little of the latter to rescue it. That’s probably why it’s in the $7 section at the DVD store.

Let’s start with the history. Pompeii was a Roman town on the west side of Italy close to the slopes of an active volcano, Mount Vesuvius. The recipe for disaster starts with the question: why would anyone build on the slopes of an active volcano? You might ask that of the many towns and villages that currently encircle its slopes, including the city of Naples, a mere 9 km away.

Vesuvius has been active for most of recorded history. The biggest eruption took place about 1800 BCE and the last one in 1944, with many, many in-between. None of the post-Pompeii eruptions have been as violent as the one on August 20, 79 CE, however. None, however, were as great as the eruption of Thera in 1570 CE, which destroyed the Minoan civilization and radically changed the face of civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean, but I digress.

The great drama happened in 79 CE when Vesuvius exploded spectacularly, and in doing so wiped out the town of Pompeii, killing an estimated 16,000 people. Good setting then for a disaster film, right? But it wasn’t quite like in the movie – well, nothing ever is.

In fact the event took place over two days, not simply a couple of hours, for a considerable part of the first day after the first explosion around 1 p.m., people were able to flee – those with the common sense to do so. I suppose they conflated the time because few folks have the patience for a 12- or 15-hour film (although there have been longer ones made).

Rescue and escape efforts were successful early on in the first day. But then the cloud of ash from the first eruption – 15 to 30 kms high – collapsed and the pyroclastic waves began as subsequent explosions pushed more debris into the air, which then also collapsed, rising and falling in surges. The pyroclastic surge that wiped out Pompeii didn’t happen until the following morning.

But there were earthquakes and possibly a tsunami – the only eyewitness account, from Pliny the Younger – noted, “…the sea seemed to roll back upon itself, and to be driven from its banks…” but no archeological evidence of damage from waves has been found. Certainly nothing like the massive surge of water that lifts and carries ships from the harbour through the main streets.

Pliny’s uncle, heading on a rescue mission, was able to sail into the bay, and although he found the waves too dangerous near the harbour, the crew was able to land a few kilometers away. Pliny and said uncle get not even a cameo here.

Herculaneum, a town to the west, was buried first – it doesn’t even get a mention in the film. Before the waves of fire and ash that destroyed Pompeii, hot ash and pumice rained down on the town for several hours. But not the exploding incendiary rocks we see so many of in the film. As Scientific American noted, the director applied some artistic and geological licence to the effects:

The rendition of the volcanic eruption itself also required taking several “artistic licenses,” as Rosaly Lopes, a volcanologist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, puts it. For one, the large chunks of flaming, semimolten rocks that crash down onto the city normally would not occur in this type of eruption, Lopes says. So-called Plinian eruptions—named for Roman statesman Pliny the Younger, whose written observations of this very eruption have helped scientists piece together the story of Pompeii and Vesuvius—would instead send large and small chunks of solid, nonflaming pumice flying through the air. “Those incandescent lava bombs didn’t happen with that kind of eruption,” Lopes says. Whereas there were likely widespread fires as shown in the film, they would have been caused by toppled oil lamps rather than flaming projectiles.

Still, geology notwithstanding, the film is chock-a-block with drama: the mountain blowing its top and spewing flaming debris and ash with such ferocity and terror that the cast is barely able to gambol about, fight, make windy speeches, breathe, kiss, ride horses, attend parties, fight some more, save children and for most of the eruption outrun the inevitable disaster.

Just as a sidebar: the CGI of the pre-eruption city and the sets are spectacular and historically accurate. I’d love to have an app for that so I could explore the virtual city as constructed for the film. ||if only the script had been as meticulously crafted.

Disaster films like this should be rollicking, frenzied fun, full of passion and stunts, that keeps the audience glued to their seats – and at times, Pompeii is all of that, but not consistently. For an action film, it should have been a lot better, had the writing been equal to the CGI.

Sadly, it’s played by cardboard cutouts – or perhaps they’re just reflecting the woodenness of the script. Kit Harrington plays the same mumbling, sour-faced character he does in Game of Thrones, but with more musculature. Keifer Sutherland plays a blowhard caricature of a corrupt Roman senator with a clumsy English accent. Emily Browning mailed in her part as the Governor’s daughter and walks about with a puppy-like expression like a Cameron Diaz wannabe.

And how do gladiators who spent their whole life in captivity become so damned articulate while the supposedly educated Romans speak in cliches? Perhaps because so much of the plot consists of cliches…

The script takes us to the eruption circuitously, making the most of the remnants of Gladiator’s popularity. Throw in some gratuitous violence (but not sex), a down-in-the-boondocks love story, a money-besotted and municipally ambitious father, a slave who sacrifices himself so his new BFF can chase the bad guy and save the love of his life, a slave girl who dies trying to save her mistress, an oily slavemaster, a few evil Roman underlings, a chance meeting between slave and the Roman guy who killed his family, runaway horses, people who die because they’re wearing red shirts (okay, just togas…) … rumble, rumble – that sound may not be the volcano. It may be my stomach.

The ending was a small glimmer of redemption: at least no one could run faster than a pyroclastic cloud (although a racing tidal wave? no problem…).

Pompeii gets one star out of five for its script, acting and dialogue, but the special effects earn it two-and-a-half. It might be worth waiting until it migrates into the $5 bin before you buy a copy.

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