Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2010

God of mediocrity

Columbus once again brings nothing to the table in 'Percy Jackson'

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
20th Century Fox
Director: Chris Columbus
Screenplay: Craig Titley, based on the novel by Rick Riordan
Starring: BLogan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Rosario Dawson, Uma Thurman, Kevin McKidd, Catherine Keener, Joe Pantoliano, Jake Abel and Steve Coogan
Rated PG / 1 hour, 58 minutes
(out of four)

Only a director like Chris Columbus could take a scene in which the doorway to hell is Hollywood - literally, right through the famous Hollywood sign - and fail to see the humor, or even the significance. For all he cares, it might as well have been a gas station or, I don't know, a normal mountain without one of the world's most famous landmarks on it.

Those are the kinds of nuances and details that Columbus can casually gloss over without a second thought, but which a good director might actually do something with. Otherwise, what's the point of having it in there in the first place? If he directs a movie, rest assured he will see only what exists at face value. And even that will manage to be rather humdrum.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief marks the second time he has adapted the first book in a popular fantasy series - and if the trajectory of the Harry Potter films is any indication, this franchise will be a lot better off once he departs.

But who's to say this series will even get that far? This film doesn't give any possible successors much of interest to work with - and even the film's best ideas (which I assume come largely from novelist Rick Riordan) get swallowed up by the banal functionality of Columbus and screenwriter Craig Titley.

Consider how they introduce basic details of the main character, Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman). He's your typical middle-class teenager who happens to be struggling with some developmental disorders. How do we know this? Because Percy himself announces it when he comes home from school one day: "This dyslexia is getting worse," he says. "Or maybe it's the ADHD."

Voila! EXPOSITION! It's as easy as that, folks.

Why not actually cozy up with the character and let us understand what his daily experience is like, instead of just being told in three seconds of throwaway dialogue? Instead of letting us empathize with the character, we're essentially being instructed to see him only as a collection of disconnected traits that the filmmakers hope will add up to something resembling a character. "Alright guys, let's tell the audience he has dyslexia, then tell them he has ADHD, and then let's have him stand up for his dear old mum's honor in a completely forced exchange with his lousy stepfather. Done! Now THAT's character development."

What the plot boils down to is, Percy is actually a demigod with special powers who is recruited to join fellow demigods in order to stop a pending war between Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) and Zeus (Sean Bean). Percy is accused of having stolen Zeus' all-powerful lightning bolt, and is out to prove his innocence. (After he learns how to use and control his powers, of course.) What proceeds is equal parts Harry Potter and National Treasure, as Percy and his two pals set off on a scavenger hunt.

The most distressing thing about the film is the utter lack of creativity within any of its plot inventions or even its set-up. Case in point: If I told you that Percy is joined at the hip with his best friend, what archetype would you expect that best friend to be?

If you answered, "a hilarious black guy who serves as the comic relief," you would be correct. Ya know, just once I'd like to see that dynamic reserved. I mean, come on, that sounds like a Morgan Freeman/Robin Williams vehicle waiting to happen. (And get this - I'm really on to something here - they could both be cops!)

The best sequence in Percy Jackson involves a rather mysterious Las Vegas casino harboring a sinister secret about itself. What exactly that secret is, I can't reveal, but the sequence is the most interesting one in the film and I enjoyed some of the details in the casino's production design.

Another of the film's saving graces is Steve Coogan, who plays Hades in exactly the way you'd hope Steve Coogan would play Hades. He temporarily lifts the film from the rather dreary doldrums of its structural monotony - one of those delightful performances that amounts to little more than a cameo, but makes you wish would have lasted a whole lot longer. The scenes in Hades make for one of the film's stronger passages, not only because of Coogan but also the casting, as Persephone, of the fantastic Rosario Dawson, and the prominence of her ample bosom.

But I digress. The film is so tone deaf that it doesn't even seem to have any idea what to do with the death (or apparent death) of a major character early in the film. As one acquaintance of mine pointed out, the character to whom this death should mean the most responds with what can almost be described as nonchalance.

There are moments to enjoy in The Lightning Thief, and many more moments that we wish we could enjoy more than we actually do. A good fantasy film like this is not only imaginative in its own right, but gets our own wheels turning. This one, however, is so dreadfully straightforward and uninspired, it leaves little to the imagination. Not even its own.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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