Not since “Melancholia” obliterated the entire Earth in its opening stanza has a film been so upfront about its designs on extermination as “Pompeii.” Every school kid knows the Italian coastal burg that Vesuvius croaked under 20 feet of hot ash almost 2,000 years ago. It may be the most famous ghost town in the world, mass-murdered in a hot minute by a volcano that apparently didn’t give proper warning of its intentions.
For all the permeating lameness of “Pompeii,” at least it excludes that old natural-disaster movie stock character, the ignored doomsaying scientist. If only we’d listened to the astronomer/seismologist/climatologist! We wouldn’t be caught so unawares by this asteroid/freak earthquake/gradual melting of the ice caps! No Cassandra PhD’s here in “Pompeii.” Practically everyone is going about the business of the Roman Empire, shrugging off Vesuvius’s sudden venting and rumbling as so much Olympian indigestion, until, Wham!, pyroclastic hellfire everywhere. Then, it’s all futile attempts at scramming.
We focus on Kit Harington (a.k.a. Jon Snow in “Game of Thrones”) as a slave called the Celt. His formative years are spent watching his clan slaughtered by Romans. He plays dead in a pile of corpses, survives and grows into a serious badass. He’s dragged to Pompeii to participate in gladiatorial contests, making no friends but for a champion named Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, televised in “Oz” and “Lost”). The catch is, they’re scheduled to fight to the death. Except the Celt gets entangled with a princess-type (Emily Browning) who needs his help fending off creepo-Senator Kiefer Sutherland … who just happens to have slit the Celt’s mother’s throat in front of him years back. Oh! And there’s a volcano that’s going to wipe them all out no matter what they do. So, try to focus on the niggling nattering details of love, courage and revenge. As in real life, we all wind up dead at the end.
Director Paul W.S. Anderson, known mostly for his video game adaptations (“Mortal Kombat,” “Resident Evil”), turns in a movie here that plays like a dress rehearsal for an Xbox version, with many flaming chunks of digital debris crashing against flocks of panicked extras. (The credits list them as stunt performers; you’ll see them as expendable yellers.) People accustomed to blowing up digital villages via handheld controllers will dig on “Pompeii.” Also, people who enjoy the sight of grimy, chiseled man-abs and pretty horses will enjoy fleeting moments. It may in fact be the perfect date movie for couples who met in third period or at the orthodontist.
It also verges on the humorless, with nary a memorable quip or cheeseball punchline to leaven the lurching plot, so dry at times you’d swear George Lucas wrote and directed. We’ve seen this old story before. (Boy sees parents killed. Boy meets girl. Volcano incinerates girl’s town.) And yet, against all odds, “Pompeii” squeezes some charm out of its $100 million budget. The action sequences are gritty and fun. The Romans are so vile it’s rewarding to watch the movie snuff them out one by one, as if smashing fleas between its nails. The good guys are good, the bad guys are Kiefer Sutherland-grade bad, and the volcano takes no prisoners. This melodrama demands a nod of respect, at the very least, for its shameless scorched-earth approach.