Set in the days leading up to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, a slave on a ship heading for Naples works to get home to save the woman he loves and his best friend, a gladiator trapped inside the city's coliseum.
In Paul W.S. Anderson's 'Pompeii', we get yet another sword-and-sandal epic that only remembers classical empires for their gladiator sports and bloody battles to the death inside grand arenas. Plot elements such as these are a near epidemic that says something about Hollywood's limited knowledge of ancient civilizations.
There is definitely an intriguing "bromance" brewing between Kit Harington and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje underscoring much of the narrative. Both play gladiators, Harington as Milo the Celt and Akinnuoye-Agbaje as the reigning champion Atticus, at the top of their game — and fame — set to battle each other only days away from the legendary volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius near the heavily-populated city of Pompeii. Atticus first notices Milo from a distance and watches the newcomer with wide-eyed interest. Later, the two bunk together, where they bat eyelashes and steal glances while mumbling about each other's strengths and weaknesses. It's a typical first date, testing the waters to determine if there's a connection but soon realizing the spark was always there.
Alright, but back to the issue at hand. I'm a bit more concerned about whether or not today's culture only knows the legacy of the Greek and Roman empires for their gladiators and thus, the reason why we're starting to see movies set during those periods as if immersed in complete adoration of the sport. It would seem as though Ridley Scott's 'Gladiator' and Starz's 'Spartacus' have left a lasting unconscious impression or rewriting of history. Granted, there is some truth behind these depictions, but is this the only theme filmmakers can conjure up? At this point, seeing a historical piece set in Rome involving aristocrats and politicians overcoming the cataclysmic force that is Mother Nature and surviving a catastrophic disaster would be seen as original and refreshing, if not boring by those wanting gladiators.
Nevertheless, I suppose it's understandable why this is growing into a popular, somewhat formulaic theme. A gladiator that fights the ruling class system as well as other fighters is your typical "hurrah," feel-good underdog story, and the writers are not ashamed of using it for a mostly bland, generic disaster flick. Only, Anderson and his team add the twist of "poor boy/rich girl," star-crossed lovers formula into the mix for an even grander disaster of 'Titanic' proportions. Emily Browning plays Cassia like a prop piece with her waifish, doe eyes on a round, puffy-lipped face, a threat to the "bromance" of Harington and Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Kiefer Sutherland shows off his terrible British accent as Senator Corvus, who at once forces Cassia's hand in marriage but also serves as Milo's object of vengeance for breaking the heart of his younger, more innocent self.
But in all serious, what do we care about plotting, pacing, creative camerawork or the subtle hints of homoeroticism in a big-budgeted, CGI-infested genre piece such as 'Pompeii' anyhow? What we want — nay, demand — in our disaster flicks is death, carnage, and pandemonium. In this respect, Anderson does reasonably well where the second half of the movie suddenly comes alive with larger-than-life, grandiose spectacles of destruction and mayhem, although I must admit forty-minutes of flying fireballs, a massive tidal wave, and a gush of scorching ash actually left me wanting. As if Roland Emmerich were the actual mastermind behind this, the screen fills with plenty of visual delights but also leaves us thankful the volcano brings the dreadful plot to a painful and merciless end.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment brings 'Pompeii (2014)' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed inside a blue, eco-elite case with a flyer and code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy. After several skippable trailers at startup, viewers are taken to a static menu screen with the standard set of options along the bottom and music in the background.
The sword-and-sandal disaster flick nearly escapes catastrophe with an explosive and highly-detailed 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Shot on the Red Epic digital system, the deliberately stylized picture comes with a subtle amber, golden sheen and a color palette that generally favors yellows and various earth tones. Nonetheless, primaries are sumptuously rendered, giving the presentation a lively, energetic feel. Fine lines and objects are very well-defined while background information remains crystal clear and distinct. Facial complexions are also revealing with strong textures and visible pores. However, a couple scenes are a tad less satisfying and softer than others, but they can be the result of contrast levels falling a bit short and overall flat. Blacks, on the other hand, are inky rich and plentiful, yet the finer details tend to be engulfed by the darkest shadows. All in all, the 2.40:1 image is sure to please genre fans.
Leaving its mark on history, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack erupts with fiery, volatile action and excitement, especially when the gods let loose the volcano's wrath.
The first half of the movie, understandably, is more on the quieter side of things and largely feels like a front-heavy presentation. Nonetheless, imaging is broad and expansive with excellent channel separation and effortless movements, creating a large wall of sound with convincing off-screen effects. Dynamic range and acoustics are precise and extensive, delivering distinctly detailed mids and sharp, crystal-clear highs, while dialogue remains well-prioritized and intelligible throughout. The score bleeds into the surrounds to keep viewers engaged, and subtle ambient effects create a believable and satisfying soundfield.
Of course, with a disaster epic such as this, with all the explosions, the chaos, the destruction, the pandemonium and what not, the second half of the story is usually the best part. And thankfully, 'Pompeii' does not disappoint with endless activity occupying the entire soundscape, creating an awesomely immersive 360° soundfield. Panning is fluid and flawless, as fireballs fly through the air and crash down all over the room. Debris shatters everywhere; people are heard in the back screaming in fear and agony; and volcanic smoke, ash and thunder move overhead. Added to that, the design comes with a deeply powerful low-end that rattles walls and shakes the couch with palpable force, occasionally plummeting to the lower depths with enjoyable authority. (Check out the graph here to see just how low the bass goes.) It may not be quite as demanding as a few soundtracks already available, but it will test the capabilities of one's subwoofer, making this an awesome lossless mix.
When it's all said and done, Paul W.S. Anderson's 'Pompeii' is just another sword-and-sandal epic that only imagines classical empires by their gladiator sports and bloody battles to the death inside grand arenas. Blending the plots of 'Gladiator' and 'Titanic' for a rather dull and generic storyline, the movie's real success is its concluding second half with larger-than-life, grandiose spectacles of destruction and mayhem. The Blu-ray erupts with excellent video and a reference-quality audio presentation. A decent collection of supplements are enlightening enough, but the overall package will ultimately attract only the fans. The curious are better off with a short visit via a rental.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.