Movie Review: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightening Thief

Wes and I went and saw this movie at the second run theater last Sunday night on our weekly date night outing. I've not read the books, although I have a friend who enthusiastically endorses them, I think.

Initially I thought that it might be a fun film to take the kids to see, as a special treat. We are big fans of fantasy fiction stuff at our house and this seemed like it might fit the bill.

But not far into the movie I changed my mind. I won't be taking my kids (ages 16, 14, 11 and 10...yes, they might be old enough to "handle it") to see this film. I'll get to the "why" in a moment.

In summary, Percy Jackson is a high schooler who hates his step father and who finds out that his real father is Poseidon. Being a demi-god, he goes to demi-god camp/school (Hogwarts, anyone?) to learn how to fight, medieval style, and to generally do demi-god things. I suppose he is expected to become a hero although why these kids don't move their weaponry and heroics into the 21st century is a bit of a mystery.

Adventures ensue when Percy, his satyr protector/best friend and girl who is the daughter of Athena go on a quest to prove that Percy did not steal Zeus' lightening bolt (the ultimate god weapon) before the deadline imposed by Zeus to have it returned, lest war among the gods break out and the world gets destroyed in the crossfire.

They must visit Hades to try and convince him that Percy does not have the lightening bolt, but first the kids have to collect three pearls to enable them to leave Hades. A magical map reveals where these pearls are located, and a teenagers-driving-a-pickup-truck-cross-country-roadtrip ensues. I always wonder how these things are funded, because in real life roadtrips cost quite a bit of money. I guess they have demi-god credit cards or something. The movie does not make that clear.

First stop: An old garden center in upstate New York somewhere. with lots of stone statues that turns out to be Medusa's lair. Medusa alone is reason for me not to let my kids see this film, since I have a young one with snake hallucinations sometimes. I think that's when I was 100% clear that this film would not be making it's way into our Netflix line up.

Second stop: Parthenon in Nashville. I used to live there and jogged past central park daily when I was a teenager. There's a giant statue of Athena inside an accurate replica of the Parthenon. From a classical perspective, the building is a beauty. From a religious perspective...shudder. Of course, they battle creepy monster bad guy creatures that are in the form of security guards during the day.

Third stop: Las Vegas, Nevada. A Casino where the kids get distracted by eating lotus flower cookies, lose track of time, and gamble their lives away for about a week. When they wake up from their dream state, they have very little time to make it to Hades (which of course is located in Hollywood, California) to convince him of Percy's innocence so he can argue the case to Zeus.

Once in hell (and yes, it was creepy and hellish), Percy tries to convince his uncle that he does not have the lightening bolt, but in the process it is revealed that it is hidden in the handle of the shield a friend of his at demi-god camp gave him, and Hades tries to take it. Persephone steps in and helps the kids out, and also makes very obvious sexual overtures to the satyr fellow. Ick.

Long story short, just in the nick of time Percy walks into the council of the gods and gives the bolt back to Zeus, has a heart to heart with Poseidon (his dad) and all is right with the world.

Yay, rah.

Ok, that's the movie in a nutshell.

I'd call this Greek mythology based fantasy fiction. Perhaps it might get some kids interested in learning the classics.

But see, here's the thing we must not forget: There was a time in the the history of the world, when the Greek myths, were not "myths" but rather, living religions. With sacrifices, temple prostitutes, people reading the future in entrails of animals,demon possession, all sorts of things that are nasty and less than wonderful that the classical lines of architecture, beautiful statues and the exalted philosophies of Plato and Aristotle might make us forget.

And it was into this pagan environment that St. Paul brought the gospel of Jesus Christ when he went and preached about the Unknown God who made himself known (Acts 17).

Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, Hades...these were gods who were actually worshiped by real people. These are the beautiful-yet-dark faces of demon worship that was supplanted by the worship of God.

I think it's important for Christian students to read the ancient Greek myths and be familiar with who these characters were. But at the same time, we must remember that these characters are not in the same category as Marvel Comic superheroes or made-up worlds. Rather, we must know them for what they were/are.

Christ is Risen from the Dead
Trampling down death by death
and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.

I remember one time, a few years ago when we were reading about the ancient Greeks, one of my kids asked: What about the Greeks now? Do they still worship these gods? (They were younger then).

And I was able to answer them: "No. Now they are Orthodox Chrisitans. Saint Paul preached the gospel there and many believed...a nation and culture was converted over time." The kids all cheered.


Tabitha said…
Speaking as someone who hasn't seen the movie but has read the books: I think a lot of questions are answered by reading the original. For instance, a partial answer to why the demigods don't modernize their warfare is that monsters and demons are susceptible to "celestial bronze". However, they are immune to mortal weapons. Mortals are the opposite and the poor demigods can be destroyed by either.

Some of your descriptions feel very unfamiliar, so I assume that Hollywood has departed from the text. Of course, it could also be due in part to my faulty memory.

This is definitely Mythology Lite. You meet characters, get to know some of the worldview, but a lot is modernized in perspective and leaves out the more inappropriate aspects. For instance, the demigods seem to have come from consensual relationships which seem "normal" to our current culture. Still I was struck by the extent to which these single-parent, broken home setups negatively impacted the kids. It seems to be a major theme of the series: parents take responsability for and be involved with your children.

Another thing I was struck by is the extent to which the "gods" lack any of what I would consider to be divine attributes. Sure they are immortal, powerful etc., but they seem more like superheroes or a superior alien race than gods. They are not particularly wise, loving, just, self-sacrificing, whatever. They are worshipped because they are powerful not because of how much they love us.

OTOH I'm not sure I understand your objection to the series based on actual conflicting religious backgrounds. It sounds similar to the argument against Harry Potter. Afterall, witches and wizards have been a real manifestation of demonic influence and power in our world. The Bible speaks quite clearly about them in several places. There is also the portrayal of things such as astrology which are expressly forbidden by the Church. So if that is not reason enough to stay away from Potter, then why is it adequate reason to eschew Percy? Both series are based on the idea that there is another reality which is largely invisible to normal mortals in which forces of Good and Evil are at war. Admittedly, the lines are harder to distinguish, more complex, sometimes in Percy Jackson, more right motivations but wrong actions or vice versa.

As a parent, I am still not sure how I feel about all of this. However, as I was introduced to the series by my daughter, I have chosen to use it as a jumping off point for some very good conversations about faith, worldview, parenting, promiscuity, difficult choices, courage, etc. My daughter and oldest son and I have been reading a number of books simultaneously of late. They love that I am interested in their world and that they can talk to me about their stories. I love that they want to talk to me and that I can find so many easy ways to get them thinking (plus I am enjoying the reading).

I am still trying to figure out where I "draw the line", especially given that some of their books are dictated by teachers. When my parents tried to object to my teacher's choices, I was assigned Edith Hamilton's Mythology instead! I'm not sure that classical stories of divine rape are any better than the teenage promiscuity my parents were trying to protect me from. I don't think there are any easy, hard-and-fast answers for us or our kids. After all, I'm still trying to figure out what to let myself read and watch!

Good luck and remember not to judge a book by its movie! ;-)
Alana said…
Good points, Tabitha. Thanks for the review of the books. The visuals in the movie were rather overwhelming and in some cases creepy on a level that (IMO) the Harry Potter stuff was not.

A strong argument can be made that the magic in Harry Potter is quite different from actual "witchcraft" and not real, therefore an element of fantasy fiction.

I suppose the mythologized mythological elements in PJ could be construed in the same way.

Perhaps it just boils down to my knowledge that my oldest could NOT handle the Medusa images, and I constructed an argument about the whole movie based on my protective instincts. That's perfectly possible, seeing as how I'm very capable of "theologizing" everything.

Objectively Wes and I agreed that the movie was lackluster, overall. I might yet read the books, based on your assessment, since I trust you.
Marsha said…
I LOVED this movie, I took my 7 year old and she loved it! We got several books on both Greek and Roman mythology from the library and looked at how the movie emulated and/or converged from the myths. She knows that movies change things to be more exciting/interesting/modern and she likes talking about it.

We also love Harry Potter. I truly believe great narrative is always beneficial.

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