(Many of you may never remember the not-very-good 80s film mentioned above, starring Carl Weathers and Sharon Stone; and if so, no worries…)
Avid readers of this blog will know that I occasionally review or mention films that, in some sense, have a connection to the larger projects and subjects of interest to this particular effort, including theological readings of some Greek, Roman, or Egyptian connected films like Clash of the Titans or Agora; those who have read my reviews of the films mentioned will recall that I wasn’t too much of a fan of either of them. Now, at last, I’ve seen a film that was released earlier this year that I actually really liked: Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Despite the rather cumbersome title (alluding to the fact that this was the first installment in a series based on the successful YA novels of Rick Riordan), and some rather conventional elements, I think this film actually worked quite nicely for a number of reasons. Let me explain.
First off, let’s admit that the premise is somewhat simple and formulaic, and clearly based on the template of recent mega-successes like the Harry Potter series: an awkward young boy soon learns that he is much more than he was ever lead to believe he was, and has adventures in the aftermath of this discovery. Replace “wizard from a long line of wizards” in Harry Potter with “demigod son of Poseidon,” and you’ve got our protagonist, Percy Jackson. The adventures that follow do correspond rather closely to the Joseph Campbell hero’s journey “monomyth,” but then again, most Hollywood films these days do. Some might also accuse this film (and I am only speaking about the film, not the books, which I have not read) of “Dungeons & Dragons”-ing Greek mythology (as if Dungeons & Dragons itself has not taken a great deal from Greek mythology!) and turning it into a “magical items and monsters” romp through a few plot-points for a dubious objective. Yeah, maybe. No one is claiming this as high literature or theologically advanced drama; it is an adventurous romp, and rather self-consciously so.
But, I think that’s this film’s strong point: it was fun, and never lost its sense of fun, whether in dealing with characters and concepts from Greek mythology, or in critiquing certain aspects of the modern world. One has to laugh at the fact, for example, that the entrance to Hades in the U.S. is underneath the “H” in the Hollywood sign–surely, many actors, directors, and screenwriters would agree with that, not to mention many right-wing religious nuts who speak of “moral degradation” and the like.
The re-envisioning of several episodes from Greek myth into the hero’s initiatory tale of this film–specifically, Perseus’ slaying of Medusa, Herakles’ slaying of the Hydra, and Odysseus’ stop in the land of the lotus-eaters (which might have been Egypt…and given the Ekklesía Antínoou’s focus and the importance of the red Nile lotus for our cultus to Antinous, of course this was rather fascinating!)–into adventures taking place in various spots in the U.S. was most entertaining. “Auntie Em’s Statuary Garden” was, of course, presided over by Medusa (played brilliantly by Uma Thurman), and with the assistance of an iPhone’s shiny casing, she was defeated. The still-potent head of Medusa was again employed in their next adventure, when they had to face a Hydra in the Parthenon in Nashville (though they made the statue of Athena within it different, alas), and after cutting its heads off didn’t do anything and they grew back, they instead turned it to stone. (The aftermath of that incident would have been most intriguing to witness!) Finally, they spend time in the Lotus Casino in Las Vegas, and end up losing five days of time when they thought it was mere hours due to the intoxicating effects of the small pink lotus hors d’oeuvres they are constantly being served. (Interestingly, this makes it even more Antinoan, in a sense, because it was the blue lotuses of Egypt that were the likely hallucinogens…but anyway!) It is then off to Hades, to deal with Charon, Persephone, and Hades himself (but some general “hellhounds” rather than Cerberus, alas) in getting Percy’s mother back. This, of course, relates very much to the myth of Dionysos and his release of his mother Semele from Hades–but, unlike in the myth, Percy’s mother just resumes her life, whereas Semele became a goddess. A very hard line is drawn between gods and supernatural beings on the one hand, and humans on the other in this film, which is a bit of a pity.
The three main protagonists are Percy himself (whose name is meant to echo that of Perseus, even though he’s not much like him, and not related to Zeus, but does kill Medusa as one of his first heroic acts), Annabeth, a daughter of Athena (on which more in a moment), and Grover, who is a satyr and meant to be a protector for Percy throughout his life. There are elements of Hades perhaps being the primary enemy in the film, which is such a common idea in modern Greek-inspired tales, and yet they do not go whole hog with that notion the way that Clash of the Titans did–Hades is upset with his lot in comparison to his two other brothers, and would like more leverage than he has, but Zeus and Poseidon are not necessarily warm and friendly toward one another either. The lot of Persephone in all of this is interesting, as she is portrayed as this quasi-courtly love-tale woman under the oppression of a jaloux, taking lovers from amongst morals as she saw fit (which, of course, there is precedent for with Adonis, amongst others). But the real villain of the film turns out to be Luke, a son of Hermes, who evinces little love for the gods, and wants to remove the gods from the picture in order to make an age of new heroes and a world reshaped in their image. (I don’t know if it is intentional, but the Christian idea of the “world shaped in one’s image” and the character being named after one of the Greek Evangelists of the Gospels might be suggestive.) It was also good to see Chiron (played by Pierce Brosnan) in a film, fulfilling essentially the same role he always fulfilled in myth in terms of educating younger heroes. Also, the idea that both the centaur and the satyr, in the confines of the mundane world, appear to have disabilities is something of a nice touch (not to mention Percy’s dyslexia and ADHD being that his mind is hard-wired for Greek and his senses are hard-wired for combat readiness), and might suggest looking at people who appear to be physically disadvantaged as being far more than they appear, which of course I can’t but applaud.
And, there was also something that is as true for us as it is for the characters in the film, and in this new mythology. At the end, Poseidon says to Percy that though he cannot be with him, nor communicate with him directly, he will be with him in his thoughts and in his dreams. The same is true of any and all deities that people still have relationships with today.
I had two primary problems with the overall effort, which need not be too difficult to get around. The first is the “ancient vs. modern” trope that gets played out in the film. As soon as Percy passes into an area where the many demigods (wow, the gods must be getting busy at every opportunity!) roam freely, it is suddenly a place of outdoor pavilions, bonfires, swords, shields, and ancient-looking armor. It is only Luke (appropriately, I think, as a son of Hermes) who has any interest in or facility for technology, despite certain things ending up being useful later in the film (e.g. the iPhone’s reflective surface), and such things like a magical elevator to Olympus located at the top of the Empire State Building. To be a truly modern incarnation of ancient mythology, more of an attempt to integrate the two, instead of putting them as automatically opposed, might have been more interesting. Both Zeus and Poseidon, when they met briefly in the mundane world at the beginning, wore modern clothes; Hades in his own realm looked like a typical rock star with leather pants and the like…and it worked! So, that would have been nice.
My second critique is on particular aspects of theology in the film as they compare to ancient Greek notions. And no, I’m not upset about Athena having a daughter–indeed, though Athena was given the epithet Parthenos (“Virgin”) and the like, she was also given the epithet Meter (“Mother”) on many occasions, and was one of the only other Greek goddesses to get the epithet at all. (Plus, there is also the idea that “virgin” didn’t mean “sexually inexperienced,” but instead “independent of male domination,” which is certainly true of other great Greek virgin goddesses like Artemis…indeed, to have a daughter of Artemis would have been right out, probably, so having the main female character be Athena’s daughter is entirely excusable.) Poseidon is portrayed as god of all water, and much of what Percy ends up doing in terms of discovering his own godly powers depends on his control of water in all its forms. Indeed, his most heroic actions in the film tend to be because he uses water in this manner. This is a little bit problematic, because Poseidon was generally not associated with all water, but instead with specifically sea-water, whereas different river gods or the occasional nymph was associated with fresh water. All of the water Percy uses to flood out enemies, or to enact his ability to heal himself or others, is fresh water. The fact that there is a difference between the two, not only biologically and chemically but mythologically, would have been nice to acknowledge; but, then most of the heroic incidents in the film would have had to be cut, because there are no salt-water fountains in public places, etc.
There were many entertaining portrayals by the actors in the film (though why all of the gods had British accents still escapes me…including when one of them is a prominent and well-cast attractive Graeco-American actress…?!?), and the special effects and overall production was quite good; the use of modern popular music was also rather clever. It also certainly helped that all of the main characters were attractive to watch for the entirety of the film. (And, Logan Lerman might be a further possible option to consider for Antinous–he’s the perfect age right now, at 18, and may not look very youthful for much longer; but, given that 30+ year olds still portray high schoolers in film and television these days, perhaps not.) But, on the whole, very enjoyable and entertaining!
I saw another film recently that re-envisioned a particular mythology: Legion, which dealt with Christian angelology and apocalypticism via a “zombie apocalypse” sort of situation involving angelic possession rather than demonic. It was more or less a gore-fest, and had to do with a soteriological exploration of angelic obedience…which essentially came down to the omnipotent and omniscient God being a jerk and just testing people and causing widespread death and destruction just to see what angels were the most loyal to him of those left, with a bunch of messianism that is never explained or resolved thrown in for good measure. What?!? The Prophecy with Christopher Walken, and even its various sequels, in comparison to this look like graduate theological dissertations. I was not very impressed with it.
And, I suppose that just demonstrates something. It is very possible to rewrite, reinterpret, tweak, adjust, and adapt Greek myth, because the original corpus of it was widely varied and thrived on localization and regular updating with the social and political realities of its own day in mind. Great theological possibilities are always available when re-envisioning Greek myth. With Christian myth (particularly quasi- and extra-biblical myth like the “war in heaven”), vague prophecy and strange situations involving angelic difficulties all just end up suggesting that God is a putz, quite unjust and inhumane, and not a deity one would wish to deal with, even if he were omnipotent and omniscient. The gods in Percy Jackson are not omnipotent, omniscient, nor necessarily eager for human attention–and this is entirely in line with ancient thinking on the matter, as available through extant mythology.