Saturday, February 13, 2010

Nothing New Under the Sun: PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is the biggest hunk of indigestible, derivative fantasy-adaptation nonsense to hit the big screen since Eragon. That film played like a teenager got tired of having to watch both The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and decided to just mush them together. If you know anything about the creation of that aberration, then you know that that’s pretty much how it happened. Percy Jackson, on the other hand, is a blatant Harry Potter rip-off based on a book by Rick Riordan that’s slightly better than the movie would have you think. Instead of a young boy with special powers discovering a world of wizards and Hogwarts in Europe, here we have a boy with special powers discovering a world of Greek gods and Camp Half-Blood in America. I guess it makes a certain kind of twisted Hollywood sense that Chris Columbus, director of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, got hired to direct this movie.

If nothing else, the existence of this movie confirms my suspicions that the first two Potter films succeed in spite of, not because of, their director. Take away the great source material, good scripts, excellent art direction, wonderful cinematography, and fun visual effects and there’s not a whole lot for a movie to stand on. Such is the case of Percy Jackson, although, to be fair, Harry Potter doesn’t have a montage set to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” You win some, you lose some.

Everything about this film seems priced at a lower level and pitched at the undiscerning. Sure, it doesn’t have great source material, but that’s no reason for Craig Titley’s script to contain dialogue that calls into question whether or not he’s actually heard human beings interact. With plenty of howlingly clunky lines, it often undermines the fairly impressive cast. In fact, it’s the cast that starts the movie on a good note. As the opening credits started, I had to smile seeing likable actor after likable actor listed. Once the movie proper started my smile slowly faded.

Logan Lerman is cast as Percy Jackson, a teenager who is unaware that his deadbeat dad is none other than Poseidon, god of the sea. Now, Lerman’s a promising young actor. He held his own on the screen with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe in James Mangold’s very enjoyable 3:10 to Yuma remake a few years ago. But here, he’s not given much to do other than pose heroically or act as an audience for characters who are delivering exposition. But, at 18, he’s the youngest teenager in the cast, so he looks the part, at least. His fellow teenagers are a different story. As his sidekicks, Brandon T. Jackson (25, memorably seen as one of the hilarious cast of Tropic Thunder) and Alexandra Daddario (23, in her first major role) are capable but out-of-place playing the Ron and Hermione roles, respectively. It doesn’t help that they have the same lame dialogue as everyone else.

The script also does no favors to the adult cast performing as various mythical creatures and mythological characters. Pierce Brosnan is a centaur and head of Camp Half-Blood and he never fails to look ridiculous wearing half a CGI horse. Catherine Keener, fresh off of playing Max’s mother in the transcendent Where the Wild Things Are, puts in her time in the thankless role of Percy’s mother, wearing for the entirety of her screen time a look of desperation that only sets in when an actor’s paycheck vastly outweighs their understanding of ridiculous material. It’s nice to see Uma Thurman as Medusa, but the inspiration stops there. It’s also nice to Joe Pantoliano in two brief scenes, as Percy’s stepfather. He might have the most thankless role of the film, even including Sean Bean’s Zeus whose lines could be counted on your fingers.

Explaining the characters and actors in that manner might have seemed a little dull and clunky, but it’s a perfect emulation of the way the movie works, shuffling a character on screen just long enough for them to impact the plot, but just quickly enough so that no one character can leave much of an impact on the audience. This is the kind of movie that can barely keep its own plot straight and is therefore constantly informing us about what’s going on. The movie’s so generous with the exposition that nearly every character gets to spout some. I’m a little surprised there isn’t someone talking over the end credits, still explaining while the audience is out the door.

The movie sparks to life on occasion, like in a briefly enjoyable Vegas escape, but those moments are all too brief. Most of the movie is consumed with a tedious video game style of plot development wherein the characters repeatedly move to a new location, find a trinket, and battle something. There’s terrible dialogue and endless exposition around every corner, or, even worse, overly obvious music cues. Hey, our three protagonists are on their way to the underworld to confront Hades or to find something or other. Start up “Highway to Hell.”

Funnily enough, once they do reach the underworld, the movie reaches its greatest portion of sustained inspiration. The effects and design are fairly striking, as are the performances from Steve Coogan and Rosario Dawson, as Hades and Persephone, who play their gods as glam-rock egoists while pronouncing every line with just the right amount of bemusement. This good will carries into a modestly likable airborne swordfight amidst the rooftops of New York that brings a much needed energy boost. But even this late save doesn’t stop the thoroughly mediocre nature of the movie. It’s clunky, episodic, and lame. It goes by fast enough with a nice enough cast, but pacing and casting can only carry a movie so far before the production needs to keep up its end of the bargain.

Percy Jackson isn’t exactly disappointing because it’s not very good. It’s mostly disappointing because it’s subpar in entirely uninteresting and unsurprising ways. The biggest surprise of the movie is that it’s actually not terrible, just frustratingly mediocre and fatally confused.

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