Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (PG) ★★½

Review Date: January 6th, 2011

Chris Columbus, director of the first two Harry Potter flicks, has gone Greek, trading wizards and witches for the gods and goddesses of Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, based on the popular series of adventure novels by Rick Riordan.

Aside from his Jonas-worthy looks, troubled teen Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman, turning in a solid audition for the Peter Parker gig) seemingly has little else going for him: At school, he's shunned by his peers and stymied by dyslexia; at home, he's tormented by a sullen, beer-swilling step-dad. The only solace from his dreary existence is found at the bottom of a swimming pool, where he sits motionless for several minutes at a time, staring blankly ahead.

What at first seems like textbook para-suicidal behavior is later revealed to be the happy byproduct of a rather stellar gene pool. Percy's long-lost babydaddy, we discover, is none other than Poseidon, the mighty Greek god of the sea (played, funnily enough, by Kevin McKidd of HBO's Rome) who descended from the heavens years ago and knocked up Percy's mom (the gods, it seems, harbor major mortal fetishes) only to abruptly flee seven months after his birth. Among the traits he inherited from his deadbeat dad is the ability to survive underwater without oxygen for interminable amounts of time. So you see, Percy isn't an ordinary high school loser after all; he's a freaking demigod, yo.

It's essentially the Harry Potter fantasy — the sudden discovery that one possesses talents far beyond those of typical mortals, allowing one to permanently escape a life of endless tedium and mediocrity — straight from the director, Columbus, who helped kickstart the blockbuster franchise.

But ye gods — few movies in recent memory stumble out of the gate as badly as The Lightning Thief. Clearly intended to serve as the first installment of a franchise, the film is nigh unwatchable for its first 30-odd minutes, as Columbus labors awkwardly to establish the many intricacies and rules of the universe in which Lerman's unlikely hero resides. Considering his resume, you'd think Columbus might have learned a thing or two about laying out a backstory without resorting to the kind of forced exposition and clunky foreshadowing found in this film.

When the bulk of the expository gruntwork is finished, The Lightning Thief does eventually hit a kind of narrative stride as Percy and his pals criss-cross the country, facing various Hellenic horrors, but it never engages on any level beyond the superficial. As in the Potter films, I suspect the real emotional territory will be mined in the follow-ups — if there are any. rated this film 2 1/2 stars.