Tuesday, 28 January 2014

BLOCKBUSTER: Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief (2010)

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Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief (USA, 2010)
Directed by Chris Columbus
Starring Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario, Jake Abel

Once a film franchise has established itself, other similar franchises often follow it, haging on the coattails of its success and trying to cash in by appealing to the same audience. The fantasy genre has been rife with this in recent years, with the huge success of The Lord of the Rings prompting new adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia as well as smaller works like Stardust and Eragon. Crucially, while the quality of these films varies, none of them quite come close to the series that blazed the trail.

 
We find ourselves in a similar situation with Percy Jackson. At the time of its release, the Harry Potter series was winding down, with Deathly Hallows Part I in production and Part II not being far behind. Its release date was clearly timed to plug the gap between Potter films, giving teenage fantasy fans something to snack on in between meals. But despite any admiration for the story's intentions and its interesting nods to Greek mythology, the Lightning Thief is ultimately mediocre.
 
Try as we might, there's no getting around the comparison between Percy Jackson and Harry Potter. No matter how popular the source materials may be among teenage audiences, there is a strong argument that this film would not have been made without the financial success of the Potter franchise. Whatever you may think of them, both Harry Potter and Twilight demonstrated the commercial mileage in teenage/ young adult fantasy films; their consistent commercial success resulted in the likes of Percy Jackson and The Hunger Games being brought to our screens. Without their success, Jennifer Lawrence might still be a nobody.
 
This comparison becomes all the more inevitable by the involvement of Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter films (Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets) before transitioning into a production role on Prisoner of Azkaban. While the Potter series really took off after Alfonso Cuarón took over the reins, Columbus has since failed to replicate his earlier successes, turning in embarrasing failures like Rent and I Love You, Beth Cooper. One could almost view his involvement here as a form of regret, trying to atone for what he sees as a mistake (though almost no-one else shares his view).
 
There's no denying that Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief comes at you with the very best intentions. However good or bad its execution, it deserves some credit for attempting a noble task, namely trying to repackage the classic Greek Myths to inspire a new generation. From this point of view the film is attempting the very same thing that Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat attempted with Sherlock, or that Kenneth Branagh was doing when he made his great Shakespeare adaptations.
 
In each case, the creative forces behind the projects recognise the hardy nature of the tales they are telling: the Greek Myths are as indelible and influential a force on our culture as Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare or Count Dracula. But equally, the creative parties recognise that young people will not fall in love with these stories purely on the basis of their reputations: they have to be told these stories in a way which resonates with the world in which they find themselves. These stories are to be respected, but they have to earn that respect by being brought to life in a compelling and imaginative way.
 
Unfortunately, while their intentions may be similar, that is where the comparison ends as far as Percy Jackson is concerned. For all the times that Branagh has slipped up, and all the complaints I have lodged against Sherlock in recent times, Columbus has never come close to matching their talents or aspirations. He is at his most basic level a bean-counter, someone who directs with an eye on the box office rather than the storytelling, and who will purposefully compromise the finished product to avoid the wrath of fans. By attempting to cram in every last detail of the book, Chamber of Secrets ended up being overly long and frequently tedious.
 
There are a number of nice little touches throughout Percy Jackson which succeed in bringing elements of the Greek Myths to life. It makes perfect sense that the winged sandals of Perseus would now be winged sneakers: both reflect the agility of their central protagonist in a popular manner. It also makes sense for the Den of the Lotus Eaters to be a Las Vegas casino: both are symbols of the power of greed and the dangers of valuing material satisfation over higher virtues. These touches aren't that different from the changes made in Sherlock, retaining the nature of the source material in a way that fans will recongise.
 
These touches are also reflected in the film's casting. Uma Thurman is usually very wooden, but she's very well-cast as Medusa; if nothing else her lingering delivery comes across a lot better than her work as Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin. Sean Bean is the natural choice for Zeus, exuding charisma even though he doesn't have a great deal to do in the story. Steve Coogan also makes the most of Hades, though he's very much in the shadow of James Woods, who gave a memorable performance in Hercules.
 
The problem, however, with Percy Jackson is that these nice little touches are not always executed with enough panache. It's all very well having nods to mythology here and there, but if these nods are not combined with a compelling story, or integrated into it, then all they amount to is a pretty surface, like delicate patterns of milk on a cold cup of burnt coffee. Columbus simply isn't good enough to use these creative elements to lift the more generic aspects of the plot, resulting in a film which isn't memorable enough to stand on its own.
 
Much of the problem lies in the film's uninspiring CGI. Like any other kind of special effect, CGI is at its most effective when we're unable or unwilling to tell where the real world ends and the make-believe begins. If any one kind of effect is overused, it draws attention to itself and the suspension of disbelief is compromised. Percy Jackson suffers greatly from this, turning to CGI whenever the mood takes it and thereby coming across as rather cheap.
 
A lot of the effects in Percy Jackson are really poor. On several shots of Pierce Brosnan's centaur body, you can still see the rough brushstrokes where the CG artists finished the colouring process too quickly. Steve Coogan's transformations into Hades don't feel properly to scale, and in the museum battle the monster keeps changings size according to the demands of a given shot. There's nothing quite as horrendous here as in, say, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but errors like this really take us out of the drama.
 
As for the drama itself, it's rather tepid. Effects notwithstanding, the set-pieces in the film are pretty exciting and don't outstay their welcome. But the dramatic exchanges in-between are where the film retreats into generic convection and often gets bogged down. The script comes from Craig Titley, whose other credits include the first Scooby-Doo movie and episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. In other words, he's much better at effects-laden set-pieces than character drama, and this film is crying out for more of the latter.
 
Much like I Love You, Beth Cooper, the main characters in Percy Jackson feel less like actual teenagers and more like outdated Hollywood stereotypes. They're far less obnoxious than their Beth Cooper counterparts, but they're still thinly written with not enough room for development. The three main players make a decent fist of their roles, and it's refreshing to have a female character whose relationship with her male counterparts isn't defined solely in terms of a potential romance. But ultimately there's nothing about Percy, Grover or Annabeth that's as memorable or entertaining as Harry, Ron and Hermione.
 
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is a disappointing and derivative blockbuster, whose admirable intentions are undone by leaden direction and lazy screenwriting. For all the little moments which successfully bring the Greek Myths to life, the film doesn't have enough dramatic energy to sustain itself, and its poor effects work against the power of its set-pieces. It's not terrible by any means, but it won't dislodge Potter from its perch any time soon.

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NEXT REVIEW: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (2014)

2 comments:

I agree, that the movies were terrible. However, I simply cannot believe that you immediately stereotype Percy, Annabeth, and Grover as "outdated Hollywood stereotypes". They didn't want to be demigods. They didn't want to be forced to be heroes. And to compare Percy Jackson to Harry Potter? I can't even think about that.

Sorry not to have seen your comment earlier, Unknown. I never said they were terrible - the first one is mediocre, and I thought the second one was decent.

They are outdated Hollywood stereotypes - the reluctant hero, the incompetent sidekick and the love interest. And the Potter comparison is more than pertinent: the same director as the first two Potter films, same target audience, same concept of a hidden magical world running parallel to ours - I could go on.

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