Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief first published by Sight & Sound, April 2010
Review: “Why am I even here?”
So asks Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), voicing the sense of alienation and bewilderment common to most teenagers, and thus neatly defining the target demographic of Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Yet despite Percy’s ADHD and dyslexia, his abandonment by his real father and hatred for his stepfather (Joe Pantoliano), and an approaching environmental catastrophe, the immediate source of Percy’s angst is not so much the problems of twenty-first century living as the fact that his mother Sally (Catherine Keener) has just been abducted by a Minotaur, while he himself stands accused of stealing Zeus’ lightning bolt. So while Percy is only the latest in a long line of cinematic adolescents who find empowerment in supernatural fantasy (indeed director Chris Columbus’ own filmography includes two Harry Potter movies), he is one of the first to meet the problems of the present with the mythologies of the ancient past – and while this is only the first of several 2010 films to focus on the classical world (with The Eagle of the Ninth and the Clash of the Titans remake coming soon), it is the only one to merge that world fully with our own.
After all, there are worse ways to chart the complexities and contradictions of the new millennium than with the polytheisms of old – and there is a definite postmodern thrill in the discovery that, e.g., Olympus is now located above the Empire State Building, that the Hydra hangs out in Nashville’s full-scale replica of the Parthenon, that the pleasure-dealing Lotus-Eaters now reside in a Las Vegas hotel-casino complex, or that the House of Hades is situated beneath Hollywood itself. Here, the shiny reflective surface of an iPod is used to defeat the Medusa, while Hermes’ winged shoes turn out to be flying Converse All-Star Trainers. Product placement aside, there is something truly surreal at work in this strange mismatching of ancient and modern.
Accordingly, the real conflict on display here is not between the ‘Big Three’ divine brothers Zeus (Sean Bean, Troy), Poseidon (Kevin McKidd, TV’s Rome) and Hades (Steve Coogan, Octavius from Night at the Museum), but rather a generational clash between old (fathers) and young (sons). Many of Percy’s problems go back to his ambivalent feelings towards his distant dad, while fellow ‘Half-Blood’ Luke (Jake Abel) has stolen Zeus’ master lightning bolt to bring down the pantheon’s ancien régime. “They’ve been in power for too long, it’s time for our generation to take over,” as Luke explains – yet by the end, the film has restored its odd balance between old order and new, much as it reconciles Percy and Poseidon. The titular protagonist may be cast in the mould of teen rebel, but he ends up, however half-heartedly, championing the cause of traditional patriarchy. Perhaps this conservative streak is inevitable in a film so devoted to (neo)classicism.
For all its appeal to young readers, Rick Riordan’s original 2005 novel (the first of five Percy Jackson adventures) featured rather bland characterisation, and in many ways screenwriter Chris Titley’s free adaptation feels smarter and slicker. In the translation from page to screen, some characters (Dionysus, Clarisse, the Oracle, the Fates, Echidna and the Chimera, Ares, Procrustes, Cronos) and associated incidents have disappeared entirely while others (the Hydra, Persephone) have been added – but the dialogue and relationships between Percy (now 17 years old rather than 12) and his similarly aged friends, so stilted in the book, are now much less so, even if this means that the satyr sidekick Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) has become an unfortunate hybrid of two overfamiliar African-American stereotypes: the wise-cracking, street smart comic foil, and the horny goat.
The special effects that drive the film’s set-pieces are spectacular enough for the all-CG characters, while showing their seams somewhat with the ropier actor-creature composites like Grover, the centaur Chiron (Pierce Brosnan) or the Medusa (a gamely campy Uma Thurman). Children will no doubt be delighted, but adults may find themselves nodding in agreement when Grover complains to Charon, “You’re burning money in a recession!” – or else just wondering, “why am I even here?”
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Synopsis: Present day, New York. Believing his master lightning bolt has been stolen by Poseidon’s son, Zeus threatens divine war if the bolt is not returned within 14 days.
Troubled, dyslexic 17-year-old Percy Jackson resents the father who abandoned his mother Sally years ago almost as much as he despises his malodorous pig of a stepfather Gabe. A substitute teacher turned Fury attacks Percy, who is saved only through the intervention of classics teacher Professor Brunner. Percy’s best friend Grover and Sally rush the confused teen to Camp Half-Blood, a safe zone and training area for young demigods, but at the entrance Sally is snatched away by a charging Minotaur. Percy learns that he is Poseidon’s son, Grover is a satyr, and Brunner is the centaur Chiron. When Hades demands Zeus’ lightning bolt in return for Sally, Percy sets off with Grover and Athene’s daughter Annabeth for the Underworld, on the way defeating the Medusa and the Hydra, escaping the Lair of the Lotus Eaters, and locating the three hidden pearls necessary to get back to the land of the living. In the Underworld, Hades tries to take the missing bolt that he has spotted hidden in Percy’s shield – a gift from Hermes’ disgruntled son Luke – but Persephone helps Percy, Annabeth and Sally escape with the bolt, promising that she will look after Grover in the meantime. They race back to New York, where Percy battles (and beats) the real lightning thief Luke, returns the bolt to Zeus just in time to prevent apocalypse, and at last meets his father Poseidon. Sally drops Percy back at Camp Half-Blood, to which Grover has also returned, and Percy resumes his training with Annabeth. In a coda, Gabe, now dumped, inadvertently looks at the Medusa’s head and is turned to stone.
strap: Chris Columbus’ tale of teen empowerment finds Greek mythology in the modern world