Had Seventh Son been released in the 1980s, it would have been deemed an adequate - perhaps even good - fantasy adventure. However, in the three decades since Conan the Barbarian and Dragonslayer defined the genre's best big screen attempts, there have been significant changes. Fantasy fans demand complexity - something they have gotten from Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and (on TV) Game of Thrones. By-the-numbers, generic plots no longer work and that, unfortunately, is what Seventh Son delivers. Impressive set design and visuals, excessive CGI, and a loud score from Marco Beltrami can't fully compensate for bland character development and a predictable narrative that rushes along on a linear trajectory.
Ben Barnes, who's no stranger to fantasy due to his role as Prince Caspian in a couple of the Narnia films, takes the lead. He's the "seventh son of a seventh son," which makes him destiny's child to fill the role of the "Spook's apprentice." Said Spook is Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges), the last of a warrior profession dedicated to the eradication of witches. When he takes Tom Ward (Barnes) away from his dear mother (Olivia Williams), the situation is dire: wicked witch Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore) has returned from a long span in captivity and is set upon fulfilling certain megalomaniacal desires. Her power will reach its apex with the arrival of the full blood moon and Master Gregory and Tom have that long to stop her. Complicating matters is the arrival into Tom's world of Alice (Alicia Vikander), the fated love of his life - who happens to be both a witch and Mother Malkin's niece.
Seventh Son feels a little like Clash of the Titans (without the mythological backstory or character names) in that it introduces a lot of big, ugly CGI monsters for Gregory and Tom to fight. There are dragons, giants, ghasts, and a variety of other things culled from the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. The plot is essentially a standard-order quest to eliminate the Big Bad Boss before she becomes unstoppable. Along the way, Tom evolves from being a pig keeper (a nod to The Book of Three?) into someone with Real Purpose. Call it the Luke Skywalker arc, although it was a lot more entertaining in 1977 when it happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Barnes' performance is suitably bland - he's handsome but there isn't much of a character for him to inhabit so he's forced to get by on good looks and limited charm. Alicia Vikander is equally photogenic but, like Barnes, the script doesn't demand much from her. Julianne Moore manages to go over-the-top without being completely ridiculous. She's about to win an Oscar but definitely not for roles like this. Then there's the strange case of Jeff Bridges who seems to be cannibalizing the "work" he did in R.I.P.D. That's not a good thing; it's as if he got lost on the way to an audition for a remake of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. His interpretation of Master Gregory is what one might expect for a Drunk Gandalf or Drunk Dumbledore. Very strange indeed.
Seventh Son, based on the novel The Spook's Apprentice by Joseph Delaney, probably achieves what director Sergei Bodrov intended. The problem is that Bodrov's ambition extends no further than providing audiences with snacks of visual awe. The cities of this medieval land are impressive, the monsters are menacing, and the magical displays are eye-catching, but it all feels rather hollow in the end. The movie didn't bore me but neither did it draw me in the way good fantasy should. The film's failings seem to be rooted in commonly held misperceptions about what a mainstream fantasy film should be like. The genre is at its best when it excites the imagination; it would be hard to qualify Seventh Son as either "exciting" or "imaginative."
© 2015 James Berardinelli