I meant to watch this before giving my talk at the Birmingham and Midlands Classical Association branch sixth form conference earlier this year, but didn’t get around to it for various time-related reasons. They have, however, invited me back to speak again next year, and I’m intending to go with my other plan, which was to talk about this film in tandem with the new Clash of the Titans and The Immortals – but that, of course, that means watching this one first.
I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it, but I came away pleasantly surprised. The plot, based on the first of the best-selling series by Rick Riordan, has the eponymous hero discover that he is in fact the son of Poseidon, that he is suspected of stealing Zeus’ lightning bolt, that there is a whole parallel world for the children of gods, and that he had better find the lightning bolt or else there will be war between the gods. First, however, he must rescue his mortal mother from his uncle Hades… this leads to a road trip across America to collect pearls from various locations that will serve as the escape route from the underworld before a good old fashioned katabasis under the Hollywood sign. It is presumably not too much of a spoiler to observe that the world must survive in order for there to be sequels.
The actual plot skeleton is pretty workmanlike. Boy discovers hitherto unsuspected heroic identity, boy acquires plucky sidekicks, boy must rescue mother, boy must quest to enable said rescue, boy succeeds in quest and also in second quest to stop world exploding. Most of these blocks fit into the general young man searching for his identity trope and are unremarkable in themselves. No, where this film gets interesting is in the mythical fabric that’s attached onto the underlying draft horse of a plot. Hermes’ son ends up being completely obsessed with modern gadgetry (that’ll be the updated god of messengers, then), but also functions (indirectly) as the Psychopomp who shows the way into the underworld. The katabasis sequence is surprisingly traditional – not quite out of Dante, but with the exception of the location of the entrance under the Hollywood sign, completely mythically conventional. The centaur Chairon masquerades in the real world as a wheelbound teacher called Mr. Brunner; Percy’s satyr guardian covers his odd method of walking by adopting two crutches. In fact, the whole being-part-of-Greek-myth-as-disability thing extends to Percy himself, who has a form of dyslexia which turns out to be his eyes actually wanting to read everything in ancient Greek. Given one thing and another, it’s dealt with rather more sensitively than it could have been.
The stand out moments, though, are the vignettes where Greek myth gets expanded, updated and yet retains its original flavour. I honestly think this film (under Riordan’s influence) may be the best example of modern retellings of myth I’ve seen for some time (although I’m open to reading and watching things that may prove me wrong). Two examples will suffice. The first is the Lotus Hotel and Casino, one of the stopping points on the American road trip quest. I saw ‘lotus’ and went ‘right, this would be the Odyssey reference, then’ and indeed it was. The casino becomes a pleasure dome in which people become trapped, brainwashed by eating lotus flower cookies offered by the staff into forgetting the flow of time and enjoying themselves in the pleasures the casino and hotel have to offer. There was a particularly wonderful satyr pedicure scene. But the genius of it was taking the modern pleasure palace, in which so many people really do forget their lives, and using it as the place of mythic recreation.
The second example is Medusa, the monster encountered on the first road trip stop. Played, incidentally, by Uma Thurman in excellent haute couture. Now, Percy and his buddies meet Medusa in a garden ornament store, where the ornaments slowly stop looking like ornaments and more like people turned to stone. And, yes, that’s exactly what’s happened. Thurman pulls off a superb performance, managing to be extremely threatening and vicious, although the precise mechanism through which she became a monster remains rather unsatisfyingly opaque (bitchiness to Athena’s daughter and “I used to date your Daddy” to Percy is insufficient, in my opinion). The choice to choose a garden ornament store, which seems superficially extremely safe, as the site of such literally transformative danger really underscores the film’s idea that the seemingly normal can in fact cover the most unlikely and threatening of realities. I’m wondering how the crossover here between domesticated and wild space works with what I’ve said before about Clash of the Titans 1981 and 2010, and what’s different here, and what role the audience plays in that – but at this stage, I’m still delighted that there’s another innovative Medusa out there.
I don’t want to imply that the film is perfect, and I suspect that some of the problems also occur in the source material. There are issues with making the black character the half-man-half-goat satyr, particularly given the whole history of dehumanising the black male in American culture and creating hypersexual stereotypes (anyone else seeing issues with the satyr yet?). There are also major misogyny issues – we do get a fairly strong heroine in Annabeth, daughter of Athena, but the first serious females are the pinched supply teacher who ends up being a murderous harpy and Percy’s mother, who not only lives with a simply dreadful stepfather but is kidnapped by Hades and thus fits into the good old victim mode. (It turns out she only put up with the stepfather in order to protect Percy, but I’m not sure maternal martyrdom is much of an improvement.) There’s the highly oversexed Persephone, again playing into problematic racial patterns, who has the audacity to thump Hades with the lightning bolt and then scream “he’s CRUEL and ABUSIVE!” Oh, and the daughers of Aphrodite, who sunbathe in bikinis, and various women in the Lotus Casino who mainly don’t wear many clothes. So essentially we have a bit of a victim/sex object thing going here, which I am not at all happy about given the target audience’s age. Yes, Annabeth counters this a bit, and there are some female running-around-daughers-of-gods, but it’s not what you’d call a well-rounded set of characters.
But, as I say, for me the strength of this film is its innovation in reworking myth and making it the underlay of the carpet of modernity. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film in which you peel off a modern surface and find antiquity underneath quite so smoothly. It’s not perfect and it’s not consistently good at doing it all the way through, but when it works, it really works well.