Consisting of five main volumes and three supplemental books, Rick Riordan’s popular Percy Jackson series must have been an easy sell for any studio. It contains heroes, villains, monsters, wish fulfilment, and epic feats of magic and courage while also tackling popular Greek mythology. Topping this off, the whole package is reminiscent of Harry Potter. Yet, even with all this in place, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief comes across as slapdash, rushed, unsatisfying and lifeless. While boldly produced, this is a clunky epic which utterly squanders a terrific supporting cast, and is marred by frequently flat dialogue and glaring plot idiocies.
A high school student with dyslexia, ADD, and an abusive stepfather, the titular Percy Jackson (Lerman) doesn’t exactly have a firm grasp on his potential. Following an encounter with a hellish demon during a school field trip, Percy’s friend Grover (Jackson) and his teacher (Brosnan) reveal to the bewildered Percy that he is in fact the demigod son of Poseidon (McKidd). It’s also revealed that Zeus (played by the tragically wasted Sean Bean) has accused Percy of stealing his lightning bolt, and will urge the Gods of Olympus into war if the bolt is not returned. After a brief orientation at Camp Half Blood (where demigods and goddesses congregate to perfect their powers), Percy hits the road with Grover and the daughter of Athena, Annabeth (Daddario), bound for the underworld, hoping to solve the thunderbolt mystery and save the world in the process.
While Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief hits most of the story and action beats that will likely keep the pre-teen fans of the books happy, the film’s mechanical nature makes it considerably less enjoyable for those of us old enough to remember Bill Clinton as President. Plus, all the film offers is a standard, clichéd Hero’s Journey that we’ve already seen done before. The whole timeframe of the narrative is incomprehensible too, since the protagonists race across America in what seems like a matter of hours rather than days or weeks. Yet, this is not as glaring as the lack of explanation as to why Percy was accused by Zeus of being the thief, and why the all-knowing Zeus would make such an error in judgment. In addition, it would seem the filmmakers wanted to avoid the usual clichés of the kid-turned-hero fantasy genre without a clue about how to achieve it. Case in point: The film seems headed for a training montage once Percy enters Camp Half Blood, but this is replaced by one mere training exercise after which Percy is transformed into the camp’s greatest fighter. Even raw talent needs to be honed, and if it doesn’t then why does Percy have an instructor? What’s he instructing him in?
This Harry Potter clone (which, amusingly, is still more interesting and enjoyable than its popular predecessor) is also populated with characters that dutifully over-explain their every thought and emotion, and has, incredulously and without success, infused soundtrack choices as exclamation points to make weak jokes more giggle worthy. (The moment someone mentions the highway to hell, the tune Highway to Hell begins playing! When the characters head to Vegas, it’s time for Poker Face!) Chris Columbus (who, coincidentally, helmed the first two Harry Potter flicks) is clearly able to stage big set-pieces, but is usually let down by either the strictly regular visual effects which stream by with only momentary impact, or sheer stupidity. In terms of stupidity, there’s a needlessly long action piece involving a large creature inside a museum. After a long, unsuccessful skirmish, they finally pull out Medusa’s head to kill it. If Medusa’s head is such a powerful weapon — why not use it immediately? Why not use it more often?! Additionally, one of the most embarrassing sequences in the movie takes place in the Greek Underworld with Hades (Coogan). Rather than an interesting conflict, something unbelievably contrived happens. This type of stuff continues unabated until the predictable final showdown.
The performances aren’t exactly inspiring either. The film foregrounds the weak actors, while the actors with potential were relegated to speaking roles with ten minutes of screen-time each (tops). Logan Lerman (the Zac Efron lookalike) does a serviceable job as Percy Jackson, but he barely registers. Alexandra Daddario, while attractive, makes no impact as Annabeth, and Brandon T. Jackson is more annoying than amusing. On the other hand, Uma Thurman is a terrific Medusa, and Sean Bean and Pierce Brosnan (who, interestingly, also appeared alongside each other in the James Bond film GoldenEye) are strong, but all are wasted on mere cameo roles. The same goes for Steve Coogan and Rosario Dawson.
Let’s get this straight. If you’re seeking a big, loud blockbuster that moves along at a nice pace, you could do a lot better than Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, but you could still do far worse — it’s watchable, at the very least. Alas, without any emotional resonance, believable character relationships, sinister villains or mind-blowing visual effects, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is just a flat, overlong, forgettable trip into Dullsville with nothing new or exciting to offer. It’s recommendable that you watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy again, rather than wasting life on this film.