Monday, July 26, 2010

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Fox 2000 Films, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, one of those maddeningly lengthy and convoluted titles (like those of the three Pirates of the Caribbean movies) that seems to be designed to herald not just one movie, but the first or latest entry in a series as well. I’d seen this listed as a featured selection from the Columbia House DVD Club and decided to order it thinking it would be a sort of guilty pleasure — Charles had been similarly tempted to buy it at Vons — and indeed it was, a pretty obvious and somewhat arbitrary piece of action porn but at least a good piece of action porn, with an inventive script (written by Craig Titley from a novel — the first of a series — by Rick Riordan) effectively staged by director Chris Columbus (when his first major film. Home Alone, came out in 1991 I joked, “Ah! His first hit in 499 years!” — and indeed he’s made the obvious pun on his name himself by calling his company 1492 Productions).

The conceit of this film is that not only are the ancient Greek gods real, but their practice of descending to earth for the purpose of having sex with mortals and ultimately having children by them is still going on. These bi-specific offspring are called “demigods” and one of them is Our Hero, Percy Jackson (played by the rather twinkie-ish Logan Lerman), who’s living in a ratty New York apartment with a distant mother, Sally (Catherine Keener), that seems like something out of Rebel Without a Cause and an even more repulsive stepfather, Gabe Ugliano (Joe Pantoliano) who seems like something out of A Streetcar Named Desire, expecting his wife to fetch him his beer (when he starts chewing her out because she’s told him his beer is in the refrigerator, and he says, “I don’t think it’s going to magically levitate its way into my hand,” it’s his way of telling her to get it for him and she doesn’t dare snap back, “Get it yourself,” for fear of a beating) and later expecting her to service his poker buddies similarly.

The only time Percy really feels comfortable is in his high school’s swimming pool, where he feels one with the water; it turns out that this is because he’s the son of the sea god Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), who stepped out on earth long enough to have a torrid affair with Sally (at least Riordan and Titley described their relationship as lasting several months so we didn’t have to believe Percy was the result of one of those infallible pregnancies at a single contact!) before running back to Mount Olympus and having to deal with the edict from Zeus (Sean Bean) that gods are no longer to be allowed contact with their half-human offspring. Previously we’ve seen an establishing scene in which Poseidon — who’s shown in the rather murky opening shot as walking out of his normal habitat in the ocean and onto dry land for the confrontation — arguing with Zeus over who stole Zeus’s all-powerful lightning bolt, thereby denying the gods their most powerful weapon and threatening to start a war between the gods that will put the earth, including all human life, at considerable risk.

It turns out that Grover Underwood (Brandon T. Jackson), whom we’d seen first as an African-American fellow student on crutches, is himself a mythological creature: a satyr, a man with goat’s legs and an insatiable demand for sex. He’s delegated to give Percy the word that he’s really Perseus, Poseidon’s son and the only person who can recover Zeus’s lightning bolt in the requisite two weeks (the deadline has been set by the summer solstice) and return it to him to avoid the catastrophe that would befall earth if the gods used it as the battlefield for their own conflicts. It turns out that the three brother gods — Zeus, Poseidon and Hades (British comedian Steve Coogan, who played the Factory Records owner in 24 Hour Party People — who gained power in the first place by killing their father, the Titan Cronus, have never quite got along, and now that Zeus lost his lightning bolt he’s really upset and he’s convinced Percy has it. Grover takes Percy to a sort of boot camp for Greek heroes, where Percy meets the warrior Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of the goddess Athena.

Percy immediately falls in love with — or at least gets a big-time crush on — Annabeth even though, as both a trained warrior and the daughter of the goddess of wisdom, keeps getting into battles with him and whipping his ass. When Percy finally out-fights and out-smarts her, the people running the demigod boot camp — including his old antiquities professor, Brunner (Pierce Brosnan), who it turns out was actually a half-man, half-horse centaur and more or less takes charge of Percy’s training. What follows is a Russian box of a plot, as Hades kidnaps Percy’s mother and takes her to the Underworld, from which Percy, Grover and Annabeth must rescue her. To do that, they have to obtain three of Persephone’s pearls — actually rather cheap-looking props that resemble giant green marbles (not as in valuable statues made of rock — as in cheap glass spheres children play with) — which are needed for anyone who isn’t dead to be able to make it out of the Underworld again. To obtain the pearls, they have to visit magic locations on a map — and Riordan and/or Titley had a great deal of fun spotting these around the United States and keying the menace involved in each one to the locale.

The first is in a Midwestern curiosity shop whose proprietress advertises herself as “Auntie Em” (a nice and welcome acknowledgment of this story’s debt to The Wizard of Oz, also a combination coming-of-age story and quest narrative) but turns out to be Medusa (Uma Thurman, who before she unveils her head and reveals the snake is wearing a dark turban and sunglasses that give her a striking resemblance to Yoko Ono), the sight of whose head, with its snakes instead of hair, instantly turns the viewer into a stone statue (though after Medusa’s head is severed — the original Perseus killed her by bringing a mirror into combat and looking at her in the mirror, and this film’s Percy accomplishes the same thing with the reflective back of his cell phone — and it presumably has the same petrification effect, a hotel maid who sees it simply screams with fright and escapes, still in fleshly form).

The next is a full-scale reproduction of the Parthenon in Nashville, in which the pearl is embedded in the headdress of the giant statue of Athena and Percy has to use some winged sneakers — provided to him earlier by Luke (Jake Abel, whom I found considerably sexier than Logan Lerman!), son of the god Hermes — to get to it. He also has to fight a Hydra that springs up in the middle of the temple, and he chops all its heads off and thinks he’s killed it — and it’s only then that Annabeth tells him that that’s the wrong thing to do when fighting a Hydra because for every head you slice off it, it just grows two more. (Throughout the movie one gets the impression that if Percy had paid more attention to Prof. Brunner’s lectures on Greek mythology, he’d be a lot better off now.) Eventually Percy manages to kill the Hydra by gaining extra strength through making himself wet — since he’s the son of Poseidon, water has the same effect on him that earth had on Antaeus, the giant son of the earth goddess Gaia who was rejuvenated every time he was knocked down (and whom Hercules — odd that the Roman form of Herakles’ name is used here even though all the other characters’ names are in Greek form — defeated by holding him up with one hand and punching him out with the other so he’d be overpowered without ever touching the earth).

The next sequence is the most artfully done in terms of transposing the Greek myths into modern cultural terms: the third pearl is in Las Vegas, where it’s being used as a roulette ball at the Lotus Casino — the old story of the Lotus Eaters is transformed into a sort of parable of the timelessness and ennui of a trip to Vegas, with people being continuously drugged by being served lotus flower-shaped hors d’oeuvres and where one man playing a French Connection pinball machine has lost track of all time that has elapsed since that movie’s release. Eventually they pull themselves away and make it to the Underworld, through a portal located at the Hollywood sign, and it turns out Persephone (Rosario Dawson ) is being held there in a loveless marriage with Hades but has the hots for Grover and wants him to stay behind — hey, he’s a satyr, after all; he had to get laid sometime! — while Percy, his mom and Annabeth use the pearls to return to Mount Olympus. They also realize that Luke actually stole Zeus’s lightning bolt and hid it in Percy’s shield to frame him — the sexiest guy in the movie would turn out to be the villain! — and there’s a clever tag scene, interrupting the credits, in which Percy gets a marvelously twisted revenge against his evil stepfather. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is a delightful movie, not a world beater but a marvelous piece of light entertainment, maybe a little long for its own good at 115 minutes but still a lot of fun and artfully done in its parallels between ancient and modern myths.