Opening weekend tallies are hinting that audiences are avoiding Pompeii, perhaps because it is too real. One mission of a movie such as Pompeii is to transport the viewer to another place and time; to satisfy the audience’ curiosity of what it would have been like to live in the ancient Roman town of Pompeii, when Mount Vesuvius blew its lid in 79 A.D. Executives at Constantin Films, the German company that produced the movie in conjunction with Tristar, are understandably nervous, because opening weekend attendance has been lackluster. Having shelled out $100 million to create this part sandal/part disaster movie, they need it to be a blockbuster just to break even.
A hint as to the cause of low attendance may be found in one nation which was among the lowest in opening weekend sales, and which also happens to be the location of the story — Italy. The producers went to great lengths to make Pompeii as real as possible, which could be the cause why audiences are avoiding it, particularly audiences living in the shadow of the exact mountain in the movie.
Scientists have been warning Italians that Vesuvius could blow again at any time, and that disaster preparedness measures must be established immediately. Add to these warnings the fact that Mount Kelud in Indonesia exploded just two weeks ago, killing dozens of people and forcing the evacuation of over 100,000 from nearby towns and villages. Who needs a fantasy reenactment when the real thing could happen at any minute? People go to movies to escape reality, not for a reminder to keep the gas tank full and maintain a supply of five-gallon water jugs, non-perishable food items, gas masks and a hand-crank radio-flashlight.
During Mount Vesuvius’ most recent eruption, in 1944, 26 people died. The volcano sits atop 154 square miles of magma, and some experts believe it is overdue for a mammoth eruption in an area that is home to over half a million people.
Italy has imagined, but has not yet established, two levels of evacuation, a 200 square kilometer area around the mountain that would be the red zone, and another, wider area, which would be the yellow zone. However, the plan allows for evacuation of the area to take up to three full days, during which time a lot of terrible things could happen.
Another problem with the envisioned disaster plan for the Pompeii area is that it is based on the 1631 eruption of the volcano, which was not nearly as cataclysmic as the 79 A.D. event. An eye-witness, named Pliny the Younger, watched the eruption of 79 A.D. from across Naples Bay and wrote about it in a letter. Thus, cataclysmic volcanic eruptions of that magnitude are referred to as Plinian.
Italian authorities are confident that a Plinian eruption of Vesuvius will not happen suddenly, but will follow a series of events, providing time enough for evacuation. Francesco Emilio Borrelli, an official with Italy’s Green Party, suggests that confidence in such a plan, which has not even been enacted yet, will be cold comfort to residents in the eruption zone if it fails.
Perhaps Pompeii is simply a victim of bad timing. With no such warning system in place for movie producers, they had no way of knowing a real volcano would erupt, causing Plinian destruction only 12 days prior to the premier of their fantasy version. Maybe after Mount Kelud has been out of the headlines for a couple of weeks, audiences, disquieted because it is too real, will stop avoiding Pompeii.
By Melissa Roddy