“For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us’.” (Luke 23: 29-30)
“Pompeii” is about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., which completely wiped out the city of Pompeii and everyone in it. Excavations in recent centuries uncovered people “frozen in ash” in mid-stride, which indicates just how suddenly their lives ended. The cascading lava flow was preceded by earthquake, flying rocks like fire and brimstone from the sky, a tsunami in the harbor and flooding in the city. CGI technology makes this movie really spectacular in its special effects. But to its credit, it doesn’t content itself with just being a disaster epic. It tries to tell a story first, and attempts to develop characters that the viewers will care about, which makes the spectacular disaster that much more poignant.
Milo (Dylan Schombing playing the young version, Kit Harington the older) is a Celtic boy in Britannia in 62 A.D., when his tribe rebels against its Roman oppressors. Bad idea. Everyone in Milo’s village, including his family, is slaughtered before his eyes, and though he manages to escape after waking up in the pile of dead bodies, he is subsequently caught and sold as a slave. His owners discover his natural athleticism and make him a gladiator.
Now grown, Milo’s extraordinary fighting skills get him shipped to the Mother Country, Italia, to compete in the great Colosseum in Pompeii. On the way there, he encounters the Pompeian princess Cassia (Emily Browning), because one of her chariot’s horses has gone lame and Milo seems to be the only one around who knows what to do. That “Horse Whisperer” talent initially endears him to the Princess, because she, too, loves horses. But it’s not just their class differences that work against them; it’s also prevailing circumstances. Cassia is being courted by a Roman senator, Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), who is cruel and arrogant but insistent, and her father Severus (Jared Harris) has little choice but to comply with Corvus’s wishes.
A critic’s complaint: If you’re going to try to show all the Romans with a British accent, OK, that helps the viewers to distinguish them, but you have to be consistent. Kiefer Sutherland has rightfully made his reputation on the “24” television series, but he apparently cannot do a credible British accent, and for that reason is an unnecessarily poor casting choice, and a distracting one. The street scenes of Pompeii itself, however, are quite convincing. And the foreshadowing of the rumblings of Mt. Vesuvius help build the plot’s tension right up until the dramatic moment of the epic catastrophe, when their world literally comes to an end. For the Christian, this contains unmistakable echoes of the cautionary apocalyptic teaching of Jesus:
“For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24: 38-39)
RONALD P. SALFEN is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.