PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

'Percy Jackson' is Slick, Superficial...and Subpar


Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Logan Lerman, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Catherine Keener, Brandon T Jackson, Steve Coogan, Kevin McKidd, Rosario Dawson, Uma Thurman
Rated: PG
Studio: Fox 2000 Pictures
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-02-12 (General release)
UK date: 2010-02-12 (General release)
Website
Trailer

Ah, Chris Columbus, you interminable franchise-mongerer. Having done nothing of real worth, commercially or in terms of entertainment, since the first two Harry Potter movies, it was too easy to guess you’d want to hop on the first screen adaptation of the Percy Jackson novel series. Columbus’ game instinct as a blockbuster film-maker can hardly be denied, given that he’s been behind two of the most successful kiddie franchises in recent memory: Harry Potter and the first two Home Alones. He also directed Mrs. Doubtfire, which for better or worse remains one of Robin Williams’ most recognizable roles in a long career.

But Columbus has never made a great film; in fact, it’s questionable whether he’s ever released an even cohesively good one, and if he has a directorial style it’s yet to emerge. Like Michael Bay, Columbus can undoubtedly work CGI to shape a fantasy; he is also far more subtle at slathering it on a film so it disguises the general lack of verve and/or story. But the effect of all this trickery is to leave nothing worth remembering. His films, this one included, have a clinical transience. Which brings us to another quibble: the Percy Jackson books, written by Rick Riordan, are supposedly 'popular.' I’d never heard of them before the screen. Was anyone really clamoring for a transition of a teenage hero (ickily) named Percy to the big screen? Potter was excusable to some extent, because just about everyone in the world had got around to reading them, but when you’re picking up another teen-targeted set of novels and putting them on screen, it can’t help but seem like clutching at straws.

Percy Jackson is a rummage through the fantasy lucky dip. The title character is a demi-god, meaning he is the son of a Greek god – Poseidon, in this case, the god of water – and a human mother. He must discover his gift and save the world from oncoming evil. It comes up with all sorts of disparate elements, tacked on from other films, and lots of coy, sometimes kind of clever toying around with Greek mythology. There are the stock mythical beasts, including centaurs and fauns. Early in the film, there is a big and over-earnest battle scene with lots of extras a la The Chronicles of Narnia, appearing like nothing so much as an unintentional imitation of the far superior medieval role-playing parody in Role Models. It plays like an adventure film crossed with a road-trip, crossed with an ad for America’s sights.

Something very grating about the film is that it has all been uniformly Americanized, as if trying to win over a huge domestic audience. For some reason in the past several hundred (thousand?) years, all these Greek gods and mythical beings immigrated to America. Mount Olympus is now accessed through the Empire State building. All the Greek gods speak perfect English, although their children are 'hardwired' to read Ancient Greek – this is a useful gift, as I wasn’t aware languages were hereditary. Instead of adding any authentic world cinema touches, everything takes place in the USA, including a replica of the Parthenon in Tennessee rather than the original, and a druggy scene in a Vegas nightclub. Nothing that happens, it is implied, has an impact on any other part of the world.

As a story, the film presents raises some interesting possibilities about theology, which it is not interested in engaging with. It stays away entirely from the implications of Greek gods still existing and ruling the world, crying out to be taken purely as escapist fare. And it would be pretty good escapist fare, too, for young audiences… if the tone weren’t so uncertain and kind of creepy. This is a movie in which the otherwise innocent formula of underdog triumphing, etc. manages to shoehorn a Las Vegas nightclub scene – echoes of The Hangover - into proceedings, where our band of protagonists gets drugged out on mind-altering drugs. It is also probably the only PG movie to use a decapitated head as a plot point.

It’s so camp and suspiciously naff that it’s hard to know what reaction you’re supposed to have to it, but it’s not without amusement. Several moments are so poorly handled, incoherent, or just plain off that they’re hilarious, but it’s difficult to know whether this is intentional or if it all is meant to be straight-faced. Suffice it to say that, in the 'real world,' these demi-god heroes hide behind disabilities. Percy Jackson has ADHD and dyslexia, while Pierce Brosnan parades in geriatric fashion around a museum in a wheelchair. We later see Pierce Brosnan trotting around on hooves, and it is revealed he is actually Chiron. No attempt is ever made to explain how his enormous hindquarters could possibly be hidden in a wheelchair. The teenage acting standard varies hugely, and Columbus is probably wise to turn the focus to the next mythical beast rather than have them try and carry the film.

The story is scripted by Craig Titley, whose other writing credits include Cheaper by the Dozen and Scooby-Doo. The story is wobbly, missing any clear explanations or motives for character actions. If this nearly gets swept up in the action, the enormously stilted dialogue doesn’t even come close. Percy demands of Hades, the god of the underworld, to know where his mother is, after Hades has just told him.

"I don’t feel like it [my new school] is helping, Mum," Percy confesses to his mother, dutifully ironing.

"Oh. Why do you feel that?" she responds dutifully.

In the opening scene of the movie, we are saddled with this all-time clunker, spoken somberly from one god to another (on top of the Empire State building, no less):

"Omnipotence has blinded you, brother."

Rosario Dawson and Steve Coogan appear to be having fun in their roles as Persephone and Hades, respectively. Kevin McKidd, as Poseidon, and Sean Bean, Zeus, are much stiffer. Catherine Keener is oddly damp and off as the mother – this seems like a reprisal of her much better work in Where the Wild Things Are. Finally, Uma Thurman gives either a great or a really hideous performance as Medusa; I still can’t work out which. She certainly stands out, more than most of the rest of this picture does, and it provides the ideal ham role for her more over-the-top tendencies.

Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief is never remotely realistic, despite its sleek look. The CGI must be paid its due, but it’s the interaction between actors that lets this down. It is nonetheless a fairly humorous and not unenjoyable fantasy romp; if a film makes you laugh, even unintentionally, it has to be counted as better than something that is over-earnest and boring. This is probably on the level of the first two Harry Potter films: dodgy acting and bombast, overlong and with loud, obvious musical cues. But anyone who has endured real fantasy duds - Eragon, even 10,000 B.C. - will know: it’s far from a total disaster.

4

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.