by HELEN GEIB
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is adapted from the first book in a successful fantasy series for young adults by Rick Riordan. The premise: the Greek gods are real; are alive and well; and are up to their old tricks, including incessant a) fighting among themselves and b) seducing unwitting mortals. Oh, and tired of their native land’s endless warfare and poverty, at some point they immigrated to America en masse. Actually I just made up the reason. The movie doesn’t provide any explanation for why the Greek gods have taken up residence in, above, and beneath the US.
Or in Poseidon’s case, in American territorial waters off the mid-Atlantic coast, which is how he met titular hero Percy’s mom in Atlantic City (or someplace like that, my memory is hazy on this point). That makes Percy (Logan Lerman) half-mortal, half-human (technical term: demigod), although he doesn’t know anything about that when the film starts. It’s well known that the gods like to amuse themselves by sending their demigod offspring off on impossible quests. Percy’s first quest is derived largely from the exploits of his namesake (i.e., Perseus, immortalized by Hollywood in The Clash of the Titans), with elements of the Labors of Hercules and Orpheus’ visit to the Underworld.
This is an amusing conceit and the books may well be a fun read. As for the movie, aside from a few mildly clever plot points flowing from the premise, there is little to recommend it.
Percy and his cohorts are a dispiriting assemblage of teen movie stereotypes. The cool loner hero. The smart ass black sidekick. (Which came first: Is the young black man a player because he’s a satyr, or is the young black man a satyr because the filmmakers’ limited imagination can only envision him as a player?) The feisty, said to be really smart, pretty love interest. The woefully undeveloped antagonist combines two stereotypes, arrogant jock and techno-geek.
The depiction of the gods invites their wrath. Zeus (Sean Bean, wasted) is a blustering fool. Poseidon is a sensitive wannabe human. Hades (Steve Coogan, also wasted) is a preening cuckold. Athena appears just long enough to plaintively cry, “War is not the answer.” Yes, I quote.
Overall the gods have very little screen time; the “& the Olympians” is highly misleading. Given the film’s representation of them, this is just as well. A second reason why this is just as well: under Chris Columbus’ direction, Uma Thurman and Pierce Brosnan overact horribly- and sadly, not entertainingly- as, respectively, Medusa and Percy’s centaur teacher. Any more of that would have been hard to take. The likely behind the scenes reason why the gods have so little screen time: the old pros would act the teenage cuties off the screen if they had halfway decent material to work with.
The heroic trio is woefully ignorant about Greek mythology. In Percy’s case this can just barely be excused by his upbringing-in-ignorance, but the sidekick is a member of a mythological race deployed on a personal mission to protect Poseidon’s son and the love interest was raised in a boarding school slash training camp for demigods. A half-human educational system that doesn’t equip its students to recognize Charon when they see him leaves much to be desired.
The direction, art direction, and cinematography are unimaginative, derivative, and have no visual flair. The liberally deployed special effects are adequate to their limited purpose of giving the youngsters a reason to run around.
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The studio’s desperate desire to make Percy Jackson the next cinematic Harry Potter is too obvious to belabor. Read Tom’s review of the most recent Potter film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. At least in that one no-one actually attended Camp Half Blood.