The key to holding the attention of an audience that already knows the ending of a movie is to make the characters so compelling that there's a willingness to join them on their journey no matter what their fate. It's also vitally important to make the dramatic conclusion as big and bold as possible so that what's familiar comes across as more spectacular than remembered.
That's the conundrum director Paul W.S. Anderson faced with his "Pompeii." Anyone with a passing history of ancient civilizations knows that the city was leveled when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. It was up to the director to make the journey to the inevitable conclusion as compelling as possible.
Anderson fails with the first part of the moviemaking equation. His story of the love between Milo (Kit Harington), a slave turned gladiator, and the high-spirited Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of a wealthy merchant, has all the explosiveness of a high school volcano science project. Their actions mimic the kind of heat and intensity that should come with a great love story, but it ends up being just a weak representation.
The big reason their relationship never hits magma levels is that Anderson must deal with an assortment of storylines at a rapid pace. Along with the love story, there's the revenge factor Milo seeks for the annihilation of his family, the search for freedom by a veteran gladiator, a smarmy Senator, assorted crooks and political corruption.
The casting of Kiefer Sutherland to play the lecherous politician is one of the worst period castings since John Wayne played a Roman guard in "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Sutherland looks more like an American tourist than a member of the Roman high command.
The biggest distraction is the gladiator story that comes across as a pale imitation of the "Spartacus" TV series. The arena battles don't have the bloody choreography that made the "Spartacus" episodes almost lyrical to watch. Anderson's battles are more mechanical and predictable.
The director does a better job with the staging of the dramatic destruction of Pompeii. Once the volcano begins to spew its deadly fire and ash over the city, the film takes on a frantic energy. Anderson creates a mesmerizing look at the kind of hell that engulfed the city and its people. Even that look is hampered by another case of bad 3-D.
"Pompeii" is proof that not every film where the ending is known — such as in the case of "Titanic" — can find the blend of human story and explosive action that will make the audience believe for a few seconds that the outcome might be different. Anderson has created a film that ends with a big bang but gets there with a whimper.
"Pompeii," rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content. Stars Kit Harington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Browning, Jared Harris. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Running time: 102 minutes. Grade: C-
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.