The opening image of Pompeii is an extreme close-up of a body covered in the ancient ash that exactly preserved its shape, against a black background, the sinewy camera movements letting us see every angle and the 3-D camera accentuating and exaggerating all the crags and shapes in glorious detail, using the best and brightest new technology to reach unprecedented new heights in the art of ogling dead bodies. Says it all, really.

The other thing that says it all: before the opening credits have finished running - and this is a movie without a pre-title sequence, mind - we've already been treated to two entirely different top-down shots of a pile of dead bodies all tangled up with each other.

Not that Pompeii is death porn, or anything else that might be outrageous enough to make infamous instead of merely a pleasantly crappy CGI epic. I'm more amused by the perpetual re-occurrence of the peculiar sin of dramatic works set in Ancient Roman times, which is that on the one hand, the storytellers seem downright puritanical in their zeal to condemn the Romans as unforgivable hedonists whose taste for tasteless, extravagant entertainment extended so far as to make the violent death of fellow humans ready fodder for a pleasant day at the theater. And then, of course, the work of drama we're watching (it's a trend that's older than cinema) goes out of its way to make all of the licentiousness of Rome look really exciting and lush, and frequently - certainly in the case of Pompeii - gets much of its entertainment value out of making a spectacle of people die. Hypocritical? Obviously, but not in a way that's particularly rankling. You can't go around expecting truly dumb art to have a unified, coherent ideological thrust, and there's not much whose obvious dumbness comes as pre-sold to us as a movie directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, the only filmmaker alive for whom his video game adaptations generally qualify as his aesthetic peaks.

But there's no reason to be snarky, when it comes right down to it. Anderson's films might be bad, including Pompeii, but they have a certain awareness of their own badness and refusal to live down to it, as it were. Compare it to fellow Class of '14 sword-and-sandal film The Legend of Hercules, if you want to see a genuinely awful movie with nothing to recommend it. Whatever failing he has a storyteller and chronicle of human emotions, Anderson at least knows from garish, indulgent CGI action; at the very minimum, he gives good 3-D spectacle, playing up everything that is splashy, kitschy and tacky in all the most glorious ways. We do not go the films like this for Gravity-style immersion; but there is much to be said for the direct, simple appeal of having somebody throw shit right the hell at your face, and there's not a lot of things that throw more shit with more gusto than an exploding volcano, after all.

Now, the caveat is that the actual eruption of Vesuvius and the subsequent destruction of the titular city that is pretty much the sole thing that anyone attending a film titled Pompeii is going to be interested in seeing, while pleasantly overbaked and noisy (in fact, I have to concede that the film has a pretty great if not necessarily surprising and imaginative soundscape), is buried at the tail end of a movie that is mind-blowingly dull, except for the director's zeal in staging scenes so that things are always very prominently in front of other things. The movie's nominal plot plays like a Telephone Game corruption of Gladiator: in the Roman-held portion of the distant Britannia, a venal general kills the living fuck out of a rebellious tribe of Celts; a young boy among them plays dead long enough to strike back, and is made a slave for his troubles. Years later, the boy, grown up to be a gladiator named Milo (Kit Harrington) but known only as the Celt, is the best pit fighter in Londinium, and it it in this capacity that he comes to the attention of Pompeiian gladiator promoter Graecus (Joe Pingue), away from the heart of the empire and hating it intensely. In no time at all, Milo is on his way to Pompeii, along the way catching the eye of young noblewoman Cassia (Emily Brown), daughter of civic leader Severus (Jared Harris). At this time, Severus is trying to make a deal with an important Roman senator, Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), who only has an interest in making leering, carnivorous faces at Cassia whenever she enters the room, and it just so happens that he was also the general responsible for killing Milo's family. In the span of just a day and a night, Milo meets, antagonises, and befriends master gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), meets Cassia a second time and falls deeply in love, and comes to the attention of Corvus, who will not even let a sea of ash and burning pumice stand between him and his desire to murder Milo in the most violent way possible and clear the way to rape Cassia.

All I can say is, thank God for Kiefer Sutherland. Which I'm pretty sure is a phrase I've never even thought of saying before. His unhinged, lip-smacking venality in the role of the melodramatic over-the-top bad guy is by an incredibly vast margin the best part of the human side of Pompeii, keeping the film situated securely in the tradition of gaudy theatrical extravagance where all the best Roman-era genre pictures tend to live. Certainly, the deck is stacked much in his favor, with Harrington (looking like a dollar store Eric Bana) and Browning (looking like somebody's out-of-control attempt to make a brunette Princess Zelda on deviantART) proving the most watery and unconvincing romantic leads since... well, I've already gone and reminded myself that The Legend of Hercules exists, so I have to cool it with the hyperbole. But they absolutely suck, and it's bitterly hard to deal with the movie in the long passages where we're expected to care more about them looking blankly at each other in what the keening score promises is lust than the surprisingly adequate staging of Pompetii, with its not-unconvincing costumes and surprisingly invisible CGI. To say nothing about the emphatic destruction of same, a sequence which Anderson and his team of writers insistently keep interrupting with dramatic interludes involving Corvus's surprisingly dogged pursuit of the lovers even as buildings are literally falling down on top of him. Not since Billy Zane ran through a sinking Titanic while brandishing a pistol has a disaster movie villain been so hellbent on being the one to kill his rival in the midst of an act of God.

All that being said, though, the film is mostly just silly and dim, with just enough awareness of where to hit us with a miniature earthquake to keep things from sagging too much. And while Anderson makes terrible films, he's much more adept than e.g. your Roland Emmerich at telegraphing his own awareness that the whole thing is kind of cheesy and idiotic, and keeping the tone light that way. Pompeii is not any good, please don't get me wrong, but it understands that it order to pay for not being any good, it has to scrounge up some good moments of kineticism and just enough visual pizzazz to catch your eye as you're looking for something on TV to put off doing real work on a Saturday afternoon. Meeting the most unbelievably minimal threshold to justify its own existence doesn't sound like much, and it isn't much, but when so many films in this mold can't even manage to do that...