Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Director: Chris Columbus
Starring: Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Pierce Brosnan, Catherine Keener, Rosario Dawson
Review: 3 stars (of five)

Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief is a fast-moving ball of high-spirited nonsense. Where Harry Potter novels are 600 pages and cover an entire year, the Jackson books are slimmer and take place in a week or so. Similarly, the movie is less drawn-out and less thought-out than the cinematic Potters, which makes for more fun and less angst.

Directed by Potter veteran Chris Columbus, the film chugs briskly along through a fairly contrived plot in which just enough is revealed to send our young hero on the next step of a scattered, literally death-defying quest while stringing along the narrative. If you accept that it’s a carnival ride through Greek mythology, with occasionally clever turns on old motifs (most notably a sequence in Las Vegas), you’ll have fun. My screening was unusually packed with boisterous high schoolers, and they seemed to eat this thing up, so if you give points for serving the target audience, the film is even more successful.

The casting is solid, with such adult heavyweights as Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman, Catherine Keener, Joe Pantoliano, Rosario Dawson and Sean Bean. The kids are mostly solid. As Percy, the overly pretty Logan Lerman is really lively and engaging, and his sidekick Brandon T. Jackson is a movie highlight. As virgin-warrior and vague love interest Annabelle, Alexandra Daddario is pretty stiff, but it’s her first movie ever, according to IMDB, so give her a freakin’ break. Or not.

The lightning-fast story: The greek gods are still around, and they’re still slutty. They have abandoned a lot of demigod children in our world, and Percy finds out that not only is he one, but he’s somehow been caught in the middle of a crisis that could destroy the world. And off we go on a wild and wacky crusade.

The story falls apart in the end, when a surprising bad guy totally wins, and our heroes are screwed, and there is no way the film isn’t just over now, except that for no reason the bad guy decides to hang around until getting defeated rather than take his toys and go home, which, again, would’ve ensured his total victory. But the strung-together plot needed the bad guy to stick around and tussle, so that’s what he did. Weak writing, as is the fact that, most of the time, Percy’s demigod powers are arguably on a par with Spider-Man’s amazing abilities—until the story needs Percy to pull a Superman-class move, which he does, by sheer instinct, and then forgets he’s that powerful the next time he gets into a scrape. These are the sorts of things that are referred to as “comic book logic,” and not in a flattering way. (Don’t miss the extra scene halfway though the end credits. In it, Percy commits cold-blooded murder against someone whose only crime is being a big jerk. What fun!)

The movie has a weird fear of sex, kinda like the equally teen-anxiety-directed Twilight books. Here, the boys are noticing the hot babes and pretty girls (Percy’s sidekick is a freakin’ satyr, after all), but sexuality is always abstracted. Percy makes eyes at Girl Sidekick the minute he sees her, but the film won’t even give us a chaste kiss as a happily-ever-after, and the one time our satyr really has a chance to get it on—with a magically delicious Rosario Dawson as the film’s only truly sexual character—the usual lothario looks terrified. Maybe the weirdness only seems weird if you’re not a teenager …

There is something deeply disturbing about the film, besides that spiteful homicide, but it’s not something I’ve sorted out yet. You know how Harry Potter takes fairly abused and miserable boy and transports him to a magic world in which he’s special? This story does that, too, only it seems to do so with such deliberate care that it feels … unhealthy. Percy’s birth father abandoned him, but there’s a reason for it, and it includes his daddy saying, “I’m never around because of my job, but even though there’s no sign I ever think of you, I always am,” which is pathetic. Percy has a crappy and mildly abusive stepfather that his mother just puts up with, disgustingly, but there’s a reason for that. Percy is both dyslexic and has ADHD, but that’s because he’s semi-godly. Can’t treat that with Ritalin.

Over and over, the story seems to rewrite ugly bits with fantasy in a way that doesn’t feel escapist, like the Potter films, but sad, as though the fantasies help to keep a victim from leaving his shitty world. Many religions tell the poor and oppressed to accept their lot in this world on the promise of reward in the next, which seems like a disincentive to object to the crappy treatment you’re getting right now. There are moments when it feels like this movie might have the same type of message woven in, but that’s probably just me, thinking too much, which is the last thing anyone’s supposed to do here.