When it comes to a successful book series, it’s hard to blame an optioning movie studio for kickstarting production with a decidedly franchise-minded attitude. After all, successfully established franchises can rely on a built-in audience for many years to come. It just so happens that Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief is based upon the first novel in the highly popular (and similarly-named) five-book series by Rick Riordan. However, it’s pretty damn obvious (even from the promotional posters) that The Lightning Thief has taken more than mere inspiration from the Harry Potter franchise and also, conveniently, arrives just as Harry Potter enters its final lap. Admittedly, there are certain undeniable similarities at work, and it also doesn’t help matters that Chris Columbus—who helmed the first two Harry Potter pics—is directing yet another story of a trio of adolescent protagonists set on a path of unreal destiny. And while The Lightning Thief aims to distinguish itself by putting a modern spin on the soap opera of Greek mythology, it fails miserably. But, hey, the special effects are, like, way cool.
The good news? That upcoming Clash of the Titans remake couldn’t possibly be worse.
It turns out that the titular Percy Jackson (Zac Efron lookalike Logan Lerman), whose movie counterpart has been raised from 12- to 17-years-old, is the result of a fling between his mortal mother (Catherine Keener) and Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). Presumably, these two fell in lust because Poseidon was the only guy hanging on the Jersey shores who wasn’t a fucking guido. Sadly, Poseidon actually planned on sticking around until Zeus (Sean Bean) mandated that gods could no longer have contact with their “distracting” children. At the beginning of The Lightning Thief, we meet Percy only slightly before he learns of his own true identity. As a high school outsider, Percy carries all of the usual superhero (or, in this case, demigod) trappings: ADHD, dyslexia, and the most apathetic of chips on his indistinguishable shoulder. He’s sort of like Wesley from Wanted but not nearly as high-strung or even slightly as fascinating. So, Percy has been living a relatively normal Manhattanite life with no knowledge of his demigod status until, one day, a sibling rivalry flare-up between Poseidon and Zeus endangers Percy’s safety. It seems that somebody has stolen Zeus’ most kickass toy, his lightning bolt, and Zeus assumes that Poseidon directed his son to steal it. If the lighting bolt isn’t returned within 14 days, war shall break out between the Gods that, most certainly, will result in the end of the human race. Suddenly, everyone is out to get Percy, who takes refuge at Camp Half Blood, which is run by a centaur named Chiron (Pierce Brosnan).
Once inside the camp, Percy encounters a love interest, Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), who just happens to be the daughter of Athena (Melina Kanakaredesm), goddess of wisdom and battle strategy. Percy also soon discovers that his mother has been kidnapped by Hades (Steve Coogan), who looks like Keith Richards (with more tastefully applied eyeliner) and really wants that lightning bolt. Impulsively and with half-goat satyr “protector” Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) and Annabeth in tow, our young hero sets off on a quest to rescue his helpless mommy. The trio’s map (which looks remarkably like it came from a Harry Potter set) places the entrance to Hell right underneath Hollywood, but, unfortunately, it’s not quite that short of a trip. You see, Medusa hangs in New Jersey, and Vegas is home to the Lotus Eaters, who perpetually rock out in their own fictional casino whole handing out lotus candies and performing choreography to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” What an odyssey that turns out to be.
You may have already figured out that the trio merely engages in a series of hijinks, not a “quest” in the true sense of the word. Their journey holds no importance in itself and teaches no lessons, and this is ultimately, an abject failure in screenwriting. Percy, who has escaped from Camp Half Blood before receiving any sort of training, learns little to nothing from the journey, and if any wisdom were have to actually come his way, he wouldn’t know what to do with it. Quite simply, our hero isn’t psychologically ready to receive any profound lessons, so his character’s essence cannot change in any measurable sense. Even worse, all of Percy’s battle wins are largely incidental and due to either his father’s string-pulling ability or sheer luck. And, predictably, the film’s resolution contains no revelations beyond the most predictable outcomes. Our hero merely sets out to rescue his mommy, and that’s what he does. No more and no less.
As far as the cast is concerned, the only member of the trio that makes an impression is Grover, and Brandon T. Jackson shows promise for future endeavors. In direct opposition, the supporting adult players are rather heartbreaking. Keener has been reduced to a homely, weak-willed vessel; Brosnan prances about while unironically wearing a horse’s ass; and Medusa is played by Uma Thurman, complete with a head of CGI snakes. When she hisses “I used to date your daddy” to Percy, Thurman channels something that’s positively Sharon Stone-esque scorned… you know, after Stone pitches Basic Instinct 3 and is told, “For the hundredth time, no, we don’t want to see your vagina, lady.” Likewise, the film’s treatment of its subject matter assumes a certain maturity in regards to Greek Gods descending to Earth and mating with mortals, and a very sultry Persephone (Rosario Dawson) is said to regularly bed visitors to the underworld in retaliation against her husband, Hades. So, when our trio reaches the depths of hell, Persephone takes an immediate interest in Grover. “I’ve never had a satyr,” she purrs, which wouldn’t be so bloody awful if he weren’t a teenager.
All of those technicalities aside, The Lightning Thief runs a full two hours in length, but Percy’s road trip occurs fairly rapidly, so there’s not much chance to question the obligatory plot holes at work. With plentiful special effects and so many fireballs that the entire screen periodically turns bright yellow, this is a pretty mindless excursion. This is not to say that kids shouldn’t have their own “big ass explosions” popcorn movies. In fact, watching shit get blown up promotes a well-rounded moviegoing childhood. What damns The Lightning Thief beyond redemption is the fact that, as written and portrayed, Percy Jackson makes a really uninteresting and bland hero, which makes The Lightning Thief the mildest bell pepper compared to a chiltepin like Harry Potter.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.