Wednesday, January 27, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Seventh Son

I have to get this down quickly, before I forget it.

Seventh Son makes a good comparison piece with the one I wrote for Jupiter Ascending. In that review I wrote about how a flash of personality can make all the difference between goofily enjoyable and blandly forgettable, and I made the case that Jupiter Ascending's quirks and silliness raised it higher than other, similar high octane sci-fi/fantasy/action flicks, and here I have a film proving my point. Seventh Son was dumped into the no-mans-land of February, between the prestige films most companies release during the holiday season and the upcoming summer months full of their high profile blockbusters. January to March is typically when studios release the films they don't have much confidence in, knowing they'll likely be forgotten by year's end. That's not to say that everything released in those months is horrible, but it's not a sign of confidence. More often the theatres will be full of films like I, Frankenstein, The Nut Job, the aforementioned Jupiter Ascending, and that other Hercules movie. The one without The Rock.

Seventh Son is so blandly forgettable and personality-free (at least in the scenes without Jeff Bridges, but more on that in a moment) that the best things that can be said about it are still faults. The movie is briskly paced and full of enough incident to fill a trilogy, which means the experience goes by with enough energy to make things painless. You'll be entertained, sure, but the experience isn't going to leave a lasting impression. On the other hand, that same speed means that nothing has any dramatic weight, and it never feels like the film has any real stakes.

First we hear the the score for the film, which is so blatantly a ripoff of Howard Shore's music for Lord of the Rings that I'm surprised Marco Beltrami was never sued. And then the film begins with a cold open where a man is sealing a large iron cover on a hole in a lonely mountain while a woman's voice begs him to have mercy. The man rides off, and time passes. A lot of time. Long enough for the iron to rust and the entity trapped in the hole to escape. The title comes up, and then suddenly the film is in motion, having jumped at least 50 years forward in time. We meet Gregory (Jeff Bridges), the older version of the man in the beginning, and his apprentice William (Kit Harrington) as they are summoned to exorcise a demon from a small girl. Before they can celebrate their success at this task, it's revealed that the demon they exorcised was actually Mother Malkin, the witch Gregory trapped in the beginning of the film. She kills Gregory's apprentice (so long, Kit Harrington, we hardly knew ye), then flies off to her mountain fortress where she gathers her witch allies in order to... do something. Something involving the blood moon, which will give them power to, I dunno, probably take over the world or something. Gregory immediately shows up at the home of Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), who is as bland as those names suggest, although his mother is Olivia Williams which seems to have not rubbed off on him. He basically buys Tom, the seventh son of a seventh son, and they go off to find Malkin and stop the apocalypse. It may seem like I'm condensing a lot of events into a more streamlined chain of events, but this segment lasts maybe 10 minutes, and the film continues this pace throughout.

The intense speed at which this film moves mean that the characters become little more than exposition machines. With so much story to cover in so little time (the movie comes in at an hour and 42 minutes, which is brief for this type of convoluted fantasy epic) nobody has any time for an actual conversation that doesn't directly explain the rules of this world, or the machinations of the plot. This is the type of movie where we know that Tom and a half-witch named Alice (Alicia Vikander) are falling in love because they talk a lot about how they're falling in love.This film doesn't have time to show us, it needs to tell us so that it can just move on to the next scene. The downside to this is that none of it seems to matter. Tom's mother (a witch herself, who had helped defeat Malkin the first time around) dies heroically, and it's glossed over so quickly that it appears no one even notices. A late in the game confirmation that Malkin and Gregory had once been in love is supposed to be read as tragic, but instead barely registers.

Seventh Son was based on a series of Young Adult novels, and while the film was clearly intended to be a franchise starter, it seems like at least three books of plot have been condensed into one movie. If the material had been allowed to breath a little bit it could have improved greatly. If, for instance, we spent a bit of time with Gregory and his first apprentice before his untimely death, we could have had a sense of how this affected Gregory. To have spent ten years training this boy, living with him, fighting the forces of evil, we should have some sense of what that means. But then, possibly, stretching the story out a bit might just draw attention to how generic it really is.

The only consistently good part about this film is Jeff Bridges. The entire cast is qualified (or overqualified in some cases), and yet none of them are able to endow their lines with any sort of drama. Julianne Moore seems a bit lost in the film, unwilling or unable to truly camp up her role, but also not wholly convinced of her character's dramatic presence. Alicia Vikander isn't able to let any personality peek out from behind the mountains of exposition and flowery falling-in-love moments she's forced to deliver, and comes across as more affectless than when she played an actual robot in Ex Machina. Ben Barnes seems camera ready for this type of YA fare, and should have the requisite experience from previously appearing in two of the Narnia films and a tiny role in Stardust, but he's just not good enough to bring any spark to this cipher of a character. Heroes in fantasy stories, particularly in YA books, tend to be bland audience-surrogates, someone who is as broadly sketched as possible so that the readers can place themselves in that role in their imaginations. Unfortunately that aspect transferred to the screen as well.

Which leaves, of course, Jeff Bridges, who seems to be having an utter blast every time he's on screen. It's debatable how seriously he took all of this stuff, whether he thought the movie might actually be good, or whether he was just enjoying the chance to slay dragons and indulge his inner Gandalf, but he commits wholly to his oddball performance. With a jutted lower jaw and the mushy line delivery of a perpetual drunk, he's both off-putting a joy to spend time with. There are two things I will remember about this movie. One is a pretty awesome looking fight between two dragons near the end of the film. The other is Jeff Bridges, finishing a bombastic speech directed towards his new apprentice by turning around, stalking away, and muttering under his breath 'fucking witches.' Everything else is already fading from memory, less than a day later.

Final Rating: 2(out of 5)

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