Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief Reviews
We find ourselves in a similar situation with Percy Jackson. At the time of its release, the Harry Potter series was winding down, with Deathly Hallows Part I in production and Part II not being far behind. Its release date was clearly timed to plug the gap between Potter films, giving teenage fantasy fans something to snack on in between meals. But despite any admiration for the story's intentions and its interesting nods to Greek mythology, the Lightning Thief is ultimately mediocre.
Try as we might, there's no getting around the comparison between Percy Jackson and Harry Potter. No matter how popular the source materials may be among teenage audiences, there is a strong argument that this film would not have been made without the financial success of the Potter franchise. Whatever you may think of them, both Harry Potter and Twilight demonstrated the commercial mileage in teenage/ young adult fantasy films; their consistent commercial success resulted in the likes of Percy Jackson and The Hunger Games being brought to our screens. Without their success, Jennifer Lawrence might still be a nobody.
This comparison becomes all the more inevitable by the involvement of Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter films (Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets) before transitioning into a production role on Prisoner of Azkaban. While the Potter series really took off after Alfonso Cuarón took over the reins, Columbus has since failed to replicate his earlier successes, turning in embarrasing failures like Rent and I Love You, Beth Cooper. One could almost view his involvement here as a form of regret, trying to atone for what he sees as a mistake (though almost no-one else shares his view).
There's no denying that Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief comes at you with the very best intentions. However good or bad its execution, it deserves some credit for attempting a noble task, namely trying to repackage the classic Greek Myths to inspire a new generation. From this point of view the film is attempting the very same thing that Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat attempted with Sherlock, or that Kenneth Branagh was doing when he made his great Shakespeare adaptations.
In each case, the creative forces behind the projects recognise the hardy nature of the tales they are telling: the Greek Myths are as indelible and influential a force on our culture as Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare or Count Dracula. But equally, the creative parties recognise that young people will not fall in love with these stories purely on the basis of their reputations: they have to be told these stories in a way which resonates with the world in which they find themselves. These stories are to be respected, but they have to earn that respect by being brought to life in a compelling and imaginative way.
Unfortunately, while their intentions may be similar, that is where the comparison ends as far as Percy Jackson is concerned. For all the times that Branagh has slipped up, and all the complaints I have lodged against Sherlock in recent times, Columbus has never come close to matching their talents or aspirations. He is at his most basic level a bean-counter, someone who directs with an eye on the box office rather than the storytelling, and who will purposefully compromise the finished product to avoid the wrath of fans. By attempting to cram in every last detail of the book, Chamber of Secrets ended up being overly long and frequently tedious.
There are a number of nice little touches throughout Percy Jackson which succeed in bringing elements of the Greek Myths to life. It makes perfect sense that the winged sandals of Perseus would now be winged sneakers: both reflect the agility of their central protagonist in a popular manner. It also makes sense for the Den of the Lotus Eaters to be a Las Vegas casino: both are symbols of the power of greed and the dangers of valuing material satisfation over higher virtues. These touches aren't that different from the changes made in Sherlock, retaining the nature of the source material in a way that fans will recongise.
These touches are also reflected in the film's casting. Uma Thurman is usually very wooden, but she's very well-cast as Medusa; if nothing else her lingering delivery comes across a lot better than her work as Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin. Sean Bean is the natural choice for Zeus, exuding charisma even though he doesn't have a great deal to do in the story. Steve Coogan also makes the most of Hades, though he's very much in the shadow of James Woods, who gave a memorable performance in Hercules.
The problem, however, with Percy Jackson is that these nice little touches are not always executed with enough panache. It's all very well having nods to mythology here and there, but if these nods are not combined with a compelling story, or integrated into it, then all they amount to is a pretty surface, like delicate patterns of milk on a cold cup of burnt coffee. Columbus simply isn't good enough to use these creative elements to lift the more generic aspects of the plot, resulting in a film which isn't memorable enough to stand on its own.
Much of the problem lies in the film's uninspiring CGI. Like any other kind of special effect, CGI is at its most effective when we're unable or unwilling to tell where the real world ends and the make-believe begins. If any one kind of effect is overused, it draws attention to itself and the suspension of disbelief is compromised. Percy Jackson suffers greatly from this, turning to CGI whenever the mood takes it and thereby coming across as rather cheap.
A lot of the effects in Percy Jackson are really poor. On several shots of Pierce Brosnan's centaur body, you can still see the rough brushstrokes where the CG artists finished the colouring process too quickly. Steve Coogan's transformations into Hades don't feel properly to scale, and in the museum battle the monster keeps changings size according to the demands of a given shot. There's nothing quite as horrendous here as in, say, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but errors like this really take us out of the drama.
As for the drama itself, it's rather tepid. Effects notwithstanding, the set-pieces in the film are pretty exciting and don't outstay their welcome. But the dramatic exchanges in-between are where the film retreats into generic convection and often gets bogged down. The script comes from Craig Titley, whose other credits include the first Scooby-Doo movie and episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. In other words, he's much better at effects-laden set-pieces than character drama, and this film is crying out for more of the latter.
Much like I Love You, Beth Cooper, the main characters in Percy Jackson feel less like actual teenagers and more like outdated Hollywood stereotypes. They're far less obnoxious than their Beth Cooper counterparts, but they're still thinly written with not enough room for development. The three main players make a decent fist of their roles, and it's refreshing to have a female character whose relationship with her male counterparts isn't defined solely in terms of a potential romance. But ultimately there's nothing about Percy, Grover or Annabeth that's as memorable or entertaining as Harry, Ron and Hermione.
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is a disappointing and derivative blockbuster, whose admirable intentions are undone by leaden direction and lazy screenwriting. For all the little moments which successfully bring the Greek Myths to life, the film doesn't have enough dramatic energy to sustain itself, and its poor effects work against the power of its set-pieces. It's not terrible by any means, but it won't dislodge Potter from its perch any time soon.
The film did get better as it went on but the acting is kinda average. Its a bit too silly in places with dumb lines, lame visual gags and apart from a great Hydra sequence the film is visually kinda average. The secret hidden camp where all the 'special' people train looks pathetic, like a Scout camp you would go to over the summer holidays, plus it only seemed about a 5min walk from a main road in the film? hardly well hidden. The best part as said was the Hydra attack, brilliant CGI with that sequence and really well played out, not really tense as you know no one will die (kids film!!) but its the best bit on offer, the rest ticks along steadily I guess.
I'll say it again, the problem here is all the time your watching you can't help but think you've seen this all before. There's nothing new or special, its all been done now...quite a few times, so why make another film about the same kinda stuff?. Its never gonna beat Potter and this just seems rather repetitive I'm afraid. Shame because had it come out ten years ago it would of done much better I'm sure and not come across so stale.
Hate to mention Harry flipping Potter so much but really...how can I not do? look at the title for pete's sake!. An awkward modern day setting for Greek mythology which works on some levels but fails on many others. The whole Medusa sequence with a dreadfully miscast Uma Thurman pretty much solidifies this if you ask me, the whole thing just doesn't feel right at all.
** 2 Star
The differences between Percy Jacson and Harry Potter, however, are as marked as the similarities.
Part of the fun is to see how other notable names in the casting list get to play up their gods and demon status. Uma Thurman stars as Medusa, spruced up by special effects snakes adorned on her head, which at certain points looked quite CG-ed for its own good. Or having Rosario Dawson star as Persephone in quite fed-up manner, and the lists goes on.
The plot races, Columbus mixing monsters, comic relief and emotional beats with a light touch. Seems Potter might finally have a worthy successor.
Anyway, what we have here is total escapist fare - one of those "park your brain at the door" entertainments that, if you're in the mood to simply be entertained and not have to think at all, period, works on a certain level. We're not re-inventing the wheel here, for in Greek mythology the invention of the wheel wasn't all that long ago.
We begin the film with that red headed doctor from Grey's Anatomy walking up out of the sea, two stories tall, with a trident tatoo (and I'm wondering, how does a god get a tatoo... quiet brain, just sit back and relax). I have to say, I look at the Grey's MD and instinctively DON'T LIKE HIM. Don't know what it is - perhaps some bearded red head betrayed my Scottish ancestors or something, but for whatever reason I dislike this guy on sight - which makes it kind of hard to really root for him or his spawn... but I digress.
Red beard then wanders through New York (after shrinking down to normal size and forgoing his armor for, in what I thought was a subtle touch, a navy pea coat). He finally arrives at the Empire State Building (which the credits will inform you, is part of the ESB Corp, all rights reserved, etc.) to meet with his brother Zeus (see, the ESB is the gateway to Olympus - damn, why didn't the guide tell me that when I went there!!!). I'm thinking to myself - hmmm, if Zeus wanted a meeting with his bro, why not rent a boat - but I guess if you're the head honcho, you make bro come to you.
Zeus points to the sky and asks red riding no hood what he sees. Suspecting that this is some kind of intelligence test amongst the gods, Poseidon answers "lots of storm clouds"..Hmm, storm clouds on the horizon - portents of bad things to come or some such drivel.
"Yes, storm clouds, but no lightning" booms Zeus, "and do you know why?"... here I'm thinking that Zeus would make an excellent 3rd grade teacher... but before Poseidon can answer, Zeus spills the big secret: somebody stole his lightning bolt!!!!!!!!!!!!
Now, I know what you're thinking, but really, I suppose he might have just misplaced it, after all, since he's immortal he must have accumulated lots of junk - probably has mini storage spaces all over the place - and perhaps he just can't remember where he stored his bolt. But NO!!!! Zeus is convinced that somebody stole the darned thing - and... if he doesn't get it back in two weeks (conveniently the date of the summer solstace), somebody is going to pay!!! (he might just release the Kraken... oops, wrong film).
Good ol Zuey goes on to imply that Poseidon or his agents (or demi gods sired by the big wet one) are responsible. Poseidon, I suspect, thinks that big bro has lost his marbles (as well as his lightning bolt), but cuts him some slack - after all, we're only 5 minutes into the film, and it wouldn't do for the two bros to get into a hissy fit before the main charactors are even introduced.
So there's the set-up. From here we meet Percy, who hint hint, likes to spend his time in the water. He has no idea that he's the son of a god (which, when you think of it, aren't we all???). The film does a pretty good job of giving Percy a regular guy persona. Yeah, the teen has real problems, including some form of dyslexia (which later gets explained that his brain is wired for reading Greek).
Percy's best friend is an African American cripple (who is just jive enough to get all the funny lines later in the film). There is a field trip to a Greek and Roman Mythology Museum (just in case anyone watching hasn't been introduced to the basics), where crippled teacher (hmm, a theme here) Pierce Brosnan (yes, James Bond is now a cripple, but wait, there's more, so hold onto your hats!!!!), tells the story of the Gods (using the polite vernacular)creating demi gods (or as the film has one of the students state "they got it on with us humans").
Ok, so far so good. From here it is revealed that Percy is in fact a demi-god (instead of Demi Moore) - and then we discover that James Bond is a Centaur and Percy's crippled buddy is a Satyr (half man, half goat if you're not up on such things) who is sworn to protect Percy.
They head out to Camp It's All Greek To Me (or something) where the demi-gods train to be all they can be (the few, the proud and we get to wear funny hats). Percy swoons over a daughter of Athena who easily bests him in battle (after all, Athena is, amongst other things, the goddess of military strategy; plus she's needed in the script to keep the interest of any testosterone teens who may be in the audience).
As the group is celebrating with roasted pigs on a spit and such (getting back to their roots perhaps), there is a surprise visit from Bro #3 - y'know, that underworld dude Hades. Wow, he really knows how to make an entrance! Of course Hades has heard that Percy has stolen the lightning bolt and figures that if he could get his (Literally)hot lil hands on it, then he'd be able to take vacations in a much more temperate clime. Percy once again tells yet another god that he DID NOT STEAL THE BOLT - why won't these gods ever listen??? Hades ups the ante by showing Percy that he is holding his mother hostage in Hell, so he'd better show up with the goods.
OK kiddies - pretty solid fare so far. Percy decides (against the advice of James Bond) to go to Hell (again literally) and bargain with Hades - his friends decide to come along - the girly girl perhaps to work on her sun tan??. But then they are faced with a dilemma - how the hell do you get to hell? (I mean, other than watching Clash of The Titans). They decide to ask one of the other kids at Camp I Come From A Broken Family - who was sired by Hermes (you know, the FTD mascot). Makes sense since Hermes is messenger to the gods, and as such has been to Hell many a time. Hermes Jr. says he's never seen his da (and gee, don't we all have abandonment issues - a nice touch acknowleged by the film), but has heard it through the grapevine (perhaps Baccus/Dionysis works as a lineman for the phone company in real life...) that it's easy to get to Hell (amen to that brother!) but much harder to escape (so true). He knows however that Persephone (and here you kind of have to know a bit of mythological lore) brings in paramours but they can only escape by stomping on some special blue pearls that act like the Star Trek transporter device. She has planted 3 such pearls in and around the US (and I'm wondering why she just doesn't give her lovers the pearls when they get there... ah shut up brain!). So the three heroes go off searching for the pearls, using a special map that Hermes Jr has given to them. Hermes Jr, in a loving gesture, also gives Percy a special shield. Oh boy, I'm sure that a 2,000 year old piece of armor will stop an uzzi... just saying.
From here the film morphs into a kind of road trip film, but that's ok, as the first stop, unbeknownst to the heroes is Medusa's lair. Here they meet up with The Bride, who goes all kung foo on them... wait, wrong movie. Uma is totally cool as Ms.Snakehair, and gets off one of the film's best lines, telling Percy "I used to date your father". Sad to say, it's all downhill from here. The quests get successively more rote and there's a totally implausable scene where the heroes, under a time constraint, decide to DRIVE from Nashville to Vegas. Huh??? I'm sure there were faster modes of transport than a beat up pick up truck.
There's the obligatory shock and awe scenes with the rubes gawking at the Vegas lights, and then a mildly funny dance sequence with Goat Boy, followed by a harrowing (or at least meant to be harrowing) escape from the casino of the damned in a Maserati (ooh, nice product placement, but I'm still pissed at the film for the earlier trashing of a chevy SuperSport). I'm also wondering if anyone else noticed that the emblem for Maserati is.... wait for it... a trident!
The scenes with Hades and Persephone could have used some more juice, and the final confrontation with the true Lightning Thief was pretty lame as well (and don't even get me started about the scenes in Olympus where all the various gods get 20 seconds face time for no discernable reason whatsoever. The final scenes, with the fade out, were superflous and totally bizarre, saved only by, who else, James Bond. Pretty ridiculous that after all Percy and Athena Jr had gone through they act like some juveniles playing puppy love. ARRRGh, makes my teeth hurt. A smootch would have been so much better than a badly choreographed sword fight.
The final analysis (if I've managed to keep you awake thus far) - the film has a nice feel, not taking itself too seriously, yet telling a decent story where you can, to a degree, have some investment in what happens to Percy and his crew. Comparing this to the overblown mess of Titans, you can readily tell the difference. Not great by any means, but entertaining enough, at least for the first 2/3.
Nate's Grade: C
Overall, the film is really fun and quite funny in places. It is loaded with special effects, but in a film of this nature you can't really avoid them, and it doesn't look that overdone. Uma Thurman's Medusa was probably my favourite bit. The only issue that I had was that they turned the Underworld into the equivelent of Hell which it is not. Still, it had Steve Coogan as Hades who made me laugh even though he probably wasn't meant to.
Somewhere along the way, this movie kinda gave me the impression of 'Greek Mythology meets National Treasure'. Okay, dont get me wrong, its not really like National Treasure, its more like Hollywood "branding" Greek Mythology. It was like... Americanizing the Greek Myths... But then again maybe its just me... Mmm. yeah, loads of commercial plugging of items in this one too. Still.. It was pretty good watch. Bought the kiddie in me back to the surface :P