What a nice insight it might have been to consider these dynamics in a more intelligent script written for the hero at the center of “Percy Jackson & the Olympians.” In “The Lightning Thief,” the first movie based around a popular series of young adult adventure books, many of these details barely register as audible, essentially because the plot uses the presence of the Greek Gods as an indistinct outline to influence teenagers who are more interested in the prestige and glamor of their connection than the responsibility that comes with it. The story’s main characters are all children of these immortal Greek figures and are gifted with the ability to tap into their powers, but none of it exactly culminates in profundity; instead, the movie is filled with scene after scene where the young adventurers exchange pubescent glances, get caught up in one-note adventures and pay visit to some of the notable creatures of Greek mythology with very brief results, as if the well-known identities are only allowed cameos in their own legend.
Already I can sense my inbox being flooded with young protesters rallying against that claim. “But David,” the nicer ones will say, “we don’t go to a movie like this expecting education.” There is truth in that proclamation, to some extent. But in referencing mythological figures for the sake of building a story, a film ought to indicate it at least knows what it is talking about. Watching “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” I was left with the clear impression that all those involved knew as much about their subjects as someone sitting in a high school English class who has just opened the book for the first time. To them, Zeus and Athena and Poseidon are not personalities at all; they are names attached to elements or attitudes, and that in turn provides them a narrow vision to which they choose to concoct their indistinct characterizations. If we consider that Percy himself is the son of Poseidon, for instance, doesn’t the aura of the identity deserve something more than just a couple scenes where he heals battle injuries with the water at a riverbed, or him moving his hands to manipulate a tidal wave of water? This is the kind of picture that skips past all notions of literary discovery and aims only to consider the cliff notes.
The premise is just as simplistic. In a relatively current time, Zeus (played in human form by Sean Bean) is driven to anger by the apparent disappearance of his greatest weapon: the lightning bolt which allows him to control weather patterns. He is convinced that its loss was orchestrated by one of Poseidon’s sons – why exactly he deduces that, though, is anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, the accusation sets up an obligatory early confrontation scene in which Poseidon insists no knowledge or participation in the theft of the Lightning Bolt, and Zeus gives him a deadline to have it returned before all-out war between the Gods commences using Earth as a battlefield. Alas, because none of them can actually have direct contact with those in the human world who are their children (effectively making them the most notorious deadbeat parents of all time), that creates the first of many early windows of doubt as to how anyone – especially a random kid like Percy – can effectively establish grounding long enough to accomplish such a rigorous and unexpected task.
Needless to say, the movie provides him with a plethora of cliché-ridden story devices to help him along the way, including the obligatory bad family life, the despondent but loving mother (played by Catherine Keener), the obligatory handicapped best friend who is actually an appointed guardian, and the all-knowing adult ensemble that carries secrets to be revealed only after Percy is ambushed by servants of the angered gods. After an information download is provided by a teacher-turned-satyr played by Pierce Brosnan, the young son of Poseidon is whisked away from the human world and given sanctuary at a wooded haven for half human/half god types, which include the wise but monotone Luke (Jake Abel), the son of Hermes, and the beautiful Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), the daughter of Athena. Their interactions are stoic and rather uninteresting, but that’s hardly the point; their sudden union in this moment of brewing conflict is simply an excuse to get them started on a very dangerous quest, in which Hades (the god of the underworld) holds Percy’s mother hostage in hopes of acquiring the lightning bolt for himself, even though he is not yet aware that Percy, in fact, never had it in the first place.
The ensuing material plays like a collection of isolated episodes that seem curiously inspired by those in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” but with only thinly realized narrative agendas linking them. The goal: Percy, Annabeth and Grover (Percy’s guardian) must find three pearls in order to discover the entrance to Hades’ lair, and that forces them to engage in a series of cross country road trips where they discover the pearls and then have brief and often violent confrontations with those guarding them. The most notable of these aggressors is Medusa, played here by Uma Thurman in a role that is obscured by very bad special effects (the snakes in her hair are so obvious that they wash out her own facial expressions) and dialogue that is tone-deaf in utter simplicity (“Percy, son of Poseidon – I used to date your daddy!”). What prompted her to take on such a thankless and momentary portrayal? The same reason, I fear, that inspired the likes of Brosnan, Keener and even Rosario Dawson to agree to supporting roles in this vehicle: the prestige of being associated with a big-budgeted fantasy movie series. If only the movie actually gave them something to do, alas, besides standing around while catering to the juvenile sensibilities of their youthful co-stars. Keener looks particularly bored as a mother who must simply sit back while her son gets entangled in conflicts he is only beginning to comprehend, and poor Rosario Dawson, so ordinarily charismatic and devious in her movie roles, makes for a very monotone Persephone. Is that entirely their fault considering how uninspired this screenplay is? They certainly must share the blame if they actually sat through a story conference and found it worthy of their time in the first place.
For that matter, what prompted director Chris Columbus to think this was worth his energy, either? Here is a man who, for better or worse, is credited with being the first filmmaker to tap into the sprawling energies of the “Harry Potter” universe (he directed the first two films), and has had a plethora of other notable family-oriented hits over the course of the last three decades. The virtue, I suppose, is that his endeavors are not soaked in the cynical tone of many of the movie’s recent counterparts, including “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” and “The Maze Runner.” No one walks away from the movie feeling overwrought with depression or anxiety, certainly, and at least at a level of disposable adventure the production values are as top-notch as you’d expect from the likes of Columbus’ ambitious technicians. But what they are ultimately doing here is sugar-coating the more obvious reality, which is that “The Lightning Thief” takes us nowhere very interesting, knows nothing about its key figures and desires to spend no time doing anything of substance for anyone with an attention span longer than five seconds. At a critical moment towards the final act, Annabelle observes, rather redundantly, that the “gods are angry.” But is she referring to the loss of the lightning bolt, or the fact that the movie around her knows and cares so little about them to begin with?
Written by DAVID KEYES
Adventure (US); 2010; Rated PG for action violence and peril, some scary images and suggestive material, and mild language; Running Time: 118 Minutes
Logan Lerman: Percy Jackson
Brandon T. Jackson: Grover
Alexandra Daddario: Annabeth
Jake Abel: Luke
Sean Bean: Zeus
Pierce Brosnan: Chiron
Rosario Dawson: Persephone
Produced by Karen Rosenfelt, Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan and Mark Radcliffe; Directed by Chris Columbus; Written by Craig Titley; based on the novel by Rick Riordan