1 March 2014
“Is the volcano erupting yet?” (A quick Pompeii review)
Posted by Jessica Ball
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
I needed this review yesterday, Jessica. This morning is too late 🙂
I went into the theater expecting to see a poorly written script, mediocre acting, but a spectacular eruption rendered with the best of special effects. I was very disappointed in the results.
Like you, I was very impressed with the layout of the city. An early scene showed two characters walk up to a “fast food” cafe to eat — I’ve been to that place, and that is exactly how I’ve always pictured it in my head. One nitpick: the reason for the “stepping stones” in the streets was because the streets were wastewater channels. They would never have been dry, as depicted, but would have had several inches of unpleasant runoff.
The mountain was too close. As in Herculaneum, Vesuvius looms. But it looms over the city the way Rainier looms over Seattle: a constant reminder that the city exists, for the time being, with nature’s consent (to coin a phrase), but mostly a lovely piece of backdrop that contributes to the city’s unique skyline. Introducing a bit of atmospheric haze (“sfumato”) would have made the landscape scenes look less like a model set up in somebody’s basement.
But the bombs! and the Tsunami! It saddened me to picture how little of this lovely city would be left for archaeologists of the future in this movie’s universe. By the way, the Coliseum in Pompeii is beautifully preserved, with no signs of damage or collapse, unlike the Roman Coliseum.
I just watched it yesterday and completely agree with you. I dislike romantic love movies and this is just one of them, with some special effects mostly far from reality regarding Vesuvius’ 79th eruption…
As for me the arena was not disappearing in a ground crack made by the quake but simply collapsed. Arenas had huge cellars for the gladiators’ dwelling places, etc., so it might have collapsed into them losing the firm ground with inner walls and ceilings fallen due to the quake. Before that scene there are some moments when the ceilings below are producing small dust and so fallouts.
So I guess that might have happened here, and it seems to be realistic to me
Actually, the third most common way tsunamis can form is from explosive outward eruptions of volcanic islands. The 1883 Krakatau eruption and its tsunami is the canonical example. There are 146 such events listed in the NOAA tsunami database: http://1.usa.gov/NOBzU7 . Note in that listing that some tsunami deposits have been mapped in association with the AD 79 Vesuvius eruption, so a small tsunami may have been triggered by that eruption.
It’s too bad the film wasn’t more in line with the 2003 novel “Pompeii” by British author and previous journalist and BBC television reporter Robert Harris. It is an historical fiction with a blend of fictional characters with the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24 August 79 AD that overwhelmed Pompeii and its surrounding towns. Pompeii is especially notable for the author’s references to various aspects of volcanology and use of the Roman calendar. A film version of the book, directed by Roman Polanski with a budget of US$150M, was cancelled in 2007 due to the threat of the Screen Actors Guild strike.
It is fun to see how certain CG effects first appear, then turn up everywhere, even when they don’t really belong. The pyroclastic bomb tech was stolen from “2012”, another potboiler. My all-time favorite is Dante’s Peak – all modes of eruption rolled into a single volcano!
They should have ended with the tie in to the classic 40Ar/39Ar dating of Vesuvius study by Paul Renne, they then could have capitalized on the public’s insatiable desire for geochronology!
Renne, P.R., Sharp, W., Deino, A., Orsi, G., and Civetta, L., 1997, 40Ar/39Ar dating into the historical realm: Calibration against Pliny the Younger: Science, v. 277, no. 5330, p. 1279.
I saw the Pompeii – “To the Harbor” Clip before to see the movie itself and I agree with you and David Bressan that it´s a “bad geology movie night” and “a new disaster movie”… but I like trash movie either, so I´m curious to see it.
I laughed a lot with the movie´s mistakes, mainly with the lava bombs destroying Pompeii instead of pyroclastic density currents (PDC´s) as you mentioned too. I mean that Pliny the Younger’s, that have registered the eruption, would not like this movie.
I sat and watched this with my husband tonight. He quietly watched as I had a mst3k-esque commentary running from pretty much the opening credits. I lost interest and was listening to the movie while working on a project when suddenly he exclaimed, “Hey! They stole a line from Jurassic Park!”
That’s his favorite movie and he was very pleased to see that someone else had picked up on it and thought it was funny. We were both cracking up that they threw that line in here.
Side note, there’s also a line from the Dark Knight. It’s said by Atticus. See if you can find it if you watch again. All in all it was a pretty terrible movie, but we really enjoyed your review.