1 March 2014

“Is the volcano erupting yet?” (A quick Pompeii review)

Posted by Jessica Ball

Credit: Tri-Star Pictures

Credit: Tri-Star Pictures

So, you may have seen me mention on Twitter that I was planning on seeing Pompeii this week – and I did, properly fortified with some nice cider at a nearby pub beforehand. I’m not going to give you the full rundown of the science and history of the eruption, because David Bressan is already working on a series of excellent posts about that. Instead, I’m going to treat this as a quick-and-snarky guide to whether you want the movie to feature at your next “bad geology movie night”.

The answer? Maybe. Expect it to be an exercise in completely transparently appropriated storylines, minimal character development, and pretty much spending the first half of the movie waiting for the volcano to erupt. That said, the eruption wasn’t all that bad (if you can ignore the overabundant lava bombs and the tsunami). In the tradition of thumbs up/thumbs down verdicts for movie reviews and gladiatorial fights (even though it turns out thumbs down doesn’t actually mean “kill him”), here’s my take on the awesome, the “meh” and the cringe-inducing.

Two thumbs up:

  • The pyroclastic flows. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the depiction of how these moved, and especially how they added in some lovely glow-in-the-dark effects. The animators even managed to capture how the bottom of the flow travels faster than the turbulent top, and how the top layer lofts off of the flow (the “phoenix cloud” effect).
  • The depiction of the town itself. I haven’t been to Pompeii but I have been to Herculaneum, a similar ‘resort’ town nearby, and the movie showed exactly the sort of sunken stone roads and highly decorated buildings that the excavation site had. It looked like they put a lot of thought into the scenes where we’re introduced to the city, and I appreciated it. (According to this article, the producers used a LIDAR survey and aerial photos to recreate the buildings and streets, which is a great use of technology and pretty dedicated to historical accuracy.)
  • The way the filmmakers took every opportunity to frame the volcano in the background of the shots. “Remember, this thing is going to erupt soon. Here it is, just in case you forgot. By the way, there’s a volcano! Definitely a volcano back there. Did we mention there’s a volcano?” I feel like Vesuvius should get nominated for best supporting actor.
Vesuvius from Herculaneum, June 2009. (See? Volcano!)

Vesuvius from Herculaneum, June 2009. (See? Volcano!)

  • Kiefer Sutherland as Senator Skeezy. Seriously, I will watch this movie again just to see him oiling around the scenery, because it looked like he was having a hell of a lot of fun doing it. No complexity here, just a great big old cheeseball of villainy. He was great. 
  • Senator Skeezy…er, Corvus blatantly cribbing a line straight out of Jurassic Park. I won’t tell you which – you’ll know it when you hear it. The inadvertent homage to one of my favorite geology movies made me laugh at a very inappropriate moment.

Indecisive thumbs:

  • Pretty much the whole plot up until the volcano erupts. Imagine a time-condensed version of Gladiator with less politics and you’ve got it – right down to the dialog, the character motivations, and the predictable cross-class forbidden love interest. Watching gorgeous women in togas and muscle-bound men beating the crap out of each other in an arena only kept my interest for about half an hour before I found myself asking “Isn’t it about time for that thing to erupt?”

Thumbs way, way down:

  • Lava bombs. The 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius was known for pyroclastic surges and pyroclastic density currents – but not for lava bombs destroying Pompeii, as they do in this movie. I think it’s a symptom of a perpetuated misconception in the movie industry that lava bombs behave like actual bombs – that is, they explode. Exploding things are supposed to make movies more exciting, so why not have an exploding volcano and exploding lava bombs? This was the most cringe-worthy bit, honestly. One of the main reasons that Pompeii is so popular now is that it was really well preserved – just like Herculaneum, another nearby resort town that I visited a few years back.
The excavations at Herculaneum - with very little lava bomb damage.

The excavations at Herculaneum – with very little lava bomb damage. June 2009

  • Giant ground-crack producing earthquakes. This is one of the biggest issues I had with 2012, mainly because of the space problem. No matter how big the earthquake, you are not magically going to produce a giant underground void that can swallow up whole arenas, chariots, boats, etc. Unless you’re in someplace like Florida, where there’s a lot of karst topography, the space just isn’t there. The ground may shift, and there may be bits of it that move up and down along fault lines that already exist, but the ground isn’t going to crumble into empty space.
  • Tsunami! And boat-related mayhem! Archaeologically, we do have evidence from Herculaneum that people tried to escape the eruption via the harbor, although Pompeii’s harbor is still missing (archaeologists haven’t found it yet, and it may have fallen victim to changes in the landscape long before they began searching). But for a major tsunami to happen, you need vertical displacement of the seafloor OR great big landslides, neither of which happened in the 79 AD eruption. The earthquakes accompanying the eruption did disturb the harbor, according to Pliny the Younger: The sea seemed to roll back upon itself, and to he driven from its banks by the convulsive motion of the earth; it is certain at least the shore was considerably enlarged, and several sea animals were left upon it. (Second letter to Cornelius Tacitus)This is pretty far from the boat-tossing waves we see in the movie.

Overall? As a volcanologist with an archaeology minor, I’d say the filmmakers struck a decent balance between spectacle and historical accuracy (aside from the tsunami). And the movie wasn’t bad in a purely aesthetic sense. But don’t expect to be entertained plot-wise, unless you can (as I did) concentrate on Kiefer Sutherland being a sinister moustache-twirling villain (until the volcano toasts him).