Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (US - BD)
Gabe reviews failed Harry Potter cash-in #382, and is generally unimpressed...
Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) leads a somewhat difficult life thanks to acute problems with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, and an incredibly rude stepfather who treats his mother like garbage. One day, on a class field trip to view a Greek mythology exhibit Percy is attacked by a monster disguised as his English teacher, who demands he tell her the whereabouts of Zeus’ (Sean Bean) lightning. After being rescued by another teacher, Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosnan), Percy discovers that he is the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), and that he has been framed for the theft of Zeus’ lightning. If the lightning is not found and returned by midnight on the summer solstice, Zeus will declare war, and might bring about the end of the world. After escaping to ‘Half Blood Camp’, where he undergoes some training, Percy and his friends Annabeth Chase (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, and Grover Underwood (Brandon T. Jackson), a satyr sworn to protect him, set off to find the lightning, save Percy’s mother, and stop Armageddon.
I vividly remember the early teaser trailer for Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, which made the comic book geek in me assume I was watching an ad for Captain Marvel: The Movie right up until the moment the excruciatingly long title flashed onto the screen. Then came the director’s name. Not ‘Chris Columbus’, we’re talking the director’s public persona name – ‘The Director of Harry Potter and the Sorcerers (Philosopher’s) Stone’. These two items clued me in to what Percy Jackson really was – yet another in the never ending cavalcade of big studio attempts at capturing the lightning of the Harry Potter series (pun intended, of course). So many films fall into this category it’s practically a genre unto itself, and the one unifying element among them, outside of being based on popular children’s novels, is that none of them even approach Harry Potter’s box office. Most of these films are intended as a series, but don’t make it beyond the first release (exception: Chronicles of Narnia, which Disney still dropped after two films).
Percy Jackson follows the formula to a tee, and manages to be even more derivative than Star Wars or Harry Potter. George Lucas and J.K. Rowling lifted plenty of classic storytelling and fairy tale elements for their unoriginal little tales, but writer Nick Riordan doesn’t even take efforts to develop his own mythology, he takes it wholesale from an elementary school Greek mythology book, and the Cliff’s Notes version of Homer’s Odyssey. This doesn’t only make for weak, lazy writing, but it pretty much erases any possibility of dramatic tension or mystery, assuming you’re one of the many people that are generally aware of the ‘borrowed’ source material (ie: we know how to stop a Medusa, and how to recognize a Lotus Eater). The main character arc doesn’t exactly match Hercules, but fits into the modern adaptation mould a little too snugly. Percy isn’t as meek as Peter Parker, and he isn’t as wide-eyed as Harry Potter, but he’s certainly as bitchy as New Hope Luke Skywalker, and he more than fits the Jesus bill, since he’s literally the product of a God and human union. His basic personality screams Spider-Man and Star Wars, and the rest of his story screams Harry Potter, especially the fantasy world hidden in the periphery of our real world aspects, and ‘Camp Half Blood’, which is the summer camp equivalent to Hogwarts. Before seeing the film I’d given Riordan the benefit of the doubt, but this really is the most blatant appropriation of Rowling’s formula yet.
Like some of the Harry Potter films (specifically Goblet of Fire), and The Golden Compass, the overall storyline of the first Percy Jackson book has very obviously been slashed to ribbons in the name of a manageable runtime (I make this statement having never read any books from any of the series’). I’m thankful to not endure too much unneeded story, especially since Columbus’ slavish devotion to every single piece of Harry Potter made the first two films nearly unbearable, but Percy’s home life is a total blur, he requires no real battle training (not even a montage!), and he strikes out on his first mission with his new best friends less than halfway through the film. From here the film is a series of fractured set-pieces set to a very video game friendly version of The Hero’s Journey, where the protagonists are forced to collect things like Link from The Legend of Zelda. It all builds to the expected (and in this case weak) ‘boss battle’, and open ended promise of more adventures to come. There’s no time for real character development, and none of the emotional beats hit with any weight thanks to this streamlined, single minded approach.
Speaking in the broadest of terms I tend to think Columbus is a pretty dismal director, at least in comparison to his big budget Hollywood counterparts. He has no concept of action geography, his camera movement is occasionally flabbergasting, and he needs some long lessons in story editing. He has his strengths, however, specifically his eye for production design, and his work with actors, especially child actors. These two strengths, along with his arguable skill as a screenwriter (anyone who wrote Gremlins can’t be all bad), make his films perfectly watchable piles of fluff. Percy Jackson features a rougher edge than Columbus’ Harry Potter movies, and his grasp on action and special effects have actually improved, but his usual strengths are weakened. There’s very little sense of visual wonderment, even if the overall look is relatively attractive, and none of the actors really stand out. I suppose Uma Thurman is reasonably entertaining as a scenery chewing Medusa, and Rosario Dawson makes an effectively sexy Persephone, but the rest of the adult cast, many of whom are normally dependable sources of entertainment like Sean Bean, Ray Winstone, Kevin McKidd, and Steve Coogan, appear to only be involved for the easy paycheck. The kids are okay, but don’t overcome their dialogue, which is either made up of unfunny jokes (poor Brandon T. Jackson…), or droning exposition.
Percy Jackson isn’t a particularly good movie, but it has a big enough budget, and pretty enough production design to make this 1080p high definition transfer worth your eyeball time. Columbus takes the whole ‘darker than Harry Potter’ thing a little too literally, so the overall presentation is actually quite dark, and depends on contrast to express fine details much of the time. Occasionally the darkness is a bit overdone, and it’s certainly a problem for the included DVD version, but in HD the majority of the film is plenty discernable. The high definition video doesn’t do the wonky digital effects any favours, but the whole thing is clean and smooth enough to ensure they don’t stick out any more then they need too. The brief scenes atop Olympus are curiously grainier than the rest of the film, but on the whole things are very clean, with only the finest grain, and almost no noticeable artefacts or edge-enhancements. The Las Vegas scenes are the big visual highlight, with their neon colours, and tiny flashing lights set against deep, black backgrounds. Hades is another highlight for pretty much the same reason. Wide shots of spinning carnival rides, and the flaming establishing shots of Hell are swimming in fine details, perfect contrasts, and pure hues.
Like most Fox Blu-rays, and most Blu-rays in general these days, Percy Jackson comes fitted with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 main track. This track features every manner of booming thunder, cracking lightning, rushing water, and roaring, fire-breathing monsters, along with real world sound effects, and basic folley that aren’t much softer. Battle scenes feature swishing, clanging weapons in every channel, natural, subtle sound effects are set up in an effectively immersive manner, and in general every little footstep and wrench of leather is a explosive celebration of noise. The Hydra fighting scene is probably the most expressively impressive sequence in terms of sonic strength and diversity, especially the ‘cherry on the top’ rear channel crackle of flesh turning to stone. The climatic battle features quite a bit of noise as well, but it’s a little less pin-pointed and clean. Throughout the entire film the LFE is a consistent and punchy piece of the mix, from basic fist to face punches, to the guttural rumble of hellhounds and Percy’s magical waves. Dialogue is never lost in the tussle, and occasionally punches through all channels in the form of Hades’ booming monster voice. The musical score, which does everything it can to recall John Williams, is mixed noticeably softer on the track than expected, but still features a strong bass presence, which throws it a bit out of balance. The pop music flourishes, which mostly feature in the tonally off Las Vegas scene, are usually louder, and a central aural element to a given scene.
The special features begin with ten deleted/extended scenes, which expectedly exposition heavy, and less expectedly dance heavy (considering how much made the final cut). I wouldn’t want the movie any longer, since I didn’t really enjoy it, but it did need some character development, and general information. Curiously only one scene covers Percy’s real world home life, which means the filmmakers probably never intended on making it a coherent part of the story. ‘Secrets of the Gods’ is an interactive menu system with selectable images of the film’s Gods, demigods and creatures. Clicking on the images reveals a brief series of clips from the film, complete with narrative explanations of possibly unexplained back-story. ‘Discover Your Powers Quiz’ uses the same background elements, and is generally a waste of time.
‘The Book Comes to Life’ (4:20, HD) sees author Rick Riordan discussing his book, and covers the basic inception of the film. ‘Inside Camp Half-Blood’ (5:00, HD) fluffily covers the production behind the summer camp part of the story, including conception and construction. ‘On Set with Brandon T. Jackson’ (6:00, HD) is another fluff-fest following the supporting actor around the various New York sets. Obnoxious. ‘Meet the Demigods’ (3:50, HD) is more of a general EPK, though it does feature some spoilers. ‘Composing for the Gods’ (3:20, SD) is a brief conversation with composer Christophe Beck, who discusses his music. Things end with a trailer, and trailers for other Fox releases.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is yet another failed attempt to cash-in on the Harry Potter phenomenon, and generally not a good movie all around. It’s certainly watchable, but the characters aren’t intriguing, the plot is taken wholesale from Greek mythology sources, and the action scenes fall short of spectacular. In other words, it’s pretty much exactly what I’m assuming most folks were expecting from director Chris Columbus working from derivative material. The Blu-ray looks nearly perfect, and the DTS-HD Master Audio sound will give your system a decent workout, but the extras amount to little more than advertising material.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 29th June 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Spanish and Portuguese
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Secrets of the Gods, Discover Your Powers Quiz, The Book Comes to Life, Inside Camp Half-Blood, Meet the Demigods, On Set with Brandon T. Jackson, Composing for the Gods, Trailers, DVD Copy, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Logan Lerman, Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, Rosario Dawson, Kevin McKidd, Alexandra Daddario, Brandon T. Jackson, Uma Thurman,
Genre: Action, Adventure, Family and Fantasy
Length: 118 minutes
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