Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters has one useful quality: It serves as a damning reminder that, in an age in which we’re desensitized to limitless visual fantasy, and see the impossible made possible on movie screens every week, no amount of adequate CG showmanship can stand in for the basic tenets of good filmmaking. This needless sequel to 2010’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, whose global haul is reportedly the only reason we must suffer chapter two, has a vast wealth of seamless special effects, including the saga’s new arrival, Tyson (Douglas Smith), an aptly eye-catching Cyclops whose solo peeper looks just like the real thing. But it also has the kind of assembly-line script that makes you want to stab your ears with a trident, lest you listen to one more line of asinine exposition. If you missed the lesser disaster that was the first film, fear not: Percy (Logan Lerman), will get you caught up in no time, saying in introductory voiceover that “The gods of Olympus are real...and sometimes they have children…and they’re called Half-Bloods…and I’m one of them,” before kneeling beside a lake and eagerly beckoning, “Dad? Poseidon?”
Director Thor Freudenthal, whose loaded name would befit Luke (Jake Abel), a nasty demi-god with daddy issues, does nothing but make end-to-end Hollywood hogwash of Marc Guggenheim’s screenplay, eschewing all nuance and intellectual challenge, and coaxing meager performances out of a cast of underwhelming young actors (including Alexandra Daddario and Brandon T. Jackson, who return as Percy’s pals Annabeth and Grover). This time around, in order to save their home and thwart Luke’s dirty deeds, the trio needs to hunt down the Golden Fleece, carrying out a rogue mission alongside that of Clarisse (Leven Rambin), a cartoonishly hard-nosed go-getter officially put on the case by bigwig Dionysus (Stanley Tucci, who really needs to get the hell out of these degrading paycheck projects). The trouble is, the Fleece is hidden amid the Sea of Monsters, a.k.a. the Bermuda Triangle, which is guarded, not by the ghost of Amelia Earhart, but by a massive, toothed, esophageal whirlpool monster—essentially an aquatic copy of The Return of the Jedi’s Great Pit of Carkoon.
It’s not even worth exploring Percy Jackson’s derivative tendencies, since source author Rick Riordan has ripped off too many established texts to count (Harry Potter is the most glaring example). Nor is there much use in dissecting this franchise’s view of tolerance, since said view is about as progressive as saying Obama’s election eradicated racism: Tyson goes from belittled outcast to a one-eyed beacon of pride, but there’s still the matter of Grover, a black satyr last seen eating cans. It’s slightly interesting that, in this world, otherness is relative, and even amid a bunch of half-human teens with freaky powers, a cyclops is still relegated to the loser’s table. But even if you’re able to entertain the minor intrigue that element holds, it too is dashed out by boneheaded lines, such as when Percy preaches to Annabeth, “I know this sounds insane, but part of my dyslexia lets me see map lines on the water.” Forget the fact that the uninitiated would know nothing of Percy’s dyslexia; why would Annabeth, daughter of a deity, find any insanity in the radar-like abilities of a boy who can control the sea? I’ll tell you what’s insane: the probability that folks will go easy on this dreck because it’s aimed at younger viewers, who are being distressingly trained to expect little from their art.