Why is it so hard to make a satisfying medieval fantasy adventure? We look down on movies like Seventh Son, Season of the Witch, Outcast, and any number of other films for their descent into high camp, but sometimes, one wonders if it’s the genre. With its overt appeals to such childlike (or childish, depending on your point of view) things like dragons and witches and spells, maybe it’s just hard to take this stuff at face value anymore, unless it was written by J.R.R. Tolkien (and even then, sometimes it’s hard). Has it really been more than three decades since Ladyhawke and Dragonslayer? Was it just a more innocent time back then?
Even so, Seventh Son doesn’t appear to have had much of a chance. A strange movie that manages to be both ridiculous and bland, its chief point of interest is the spectacle of a great actor caught in career decline. As Gregory, a former knight and witch-hunter who wanders the countryside fighting and exorcising demons of all stripes, Jeff Bridges is pure growly silliness, giving a performance that is somehow both debased and yet above it all. Gregory enlists restless, Skywalker-y village kid Tom (Ben Barnes) as his apprentice. Not just anyone can be an apprentice, mind; it must be a seventh son of a seventh son. (Or, as Gregory puts it, a “sheventh shaun of a sheventh shaun.”) Being an apprentice isn’t easy, either. You have to muster up the courage to kill your prisoners; a wrong move or the slightest hesitation can get you incinerated, as happened to Gregory’s last apprentice. And what’s with these visions Tom’s been having? “You live in a world now where legends and nightmares are real,” Gregory tells him.
Anyway, despite the promise of wonders beyond our wildest dreams, thoroughly generic life lessons and much CGI-inflected action follow as Tom, Gregory, and their beastly, Hulk-like sidekick Tusk (John DeSantis) hunt Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), a queen witch who is about to destroy the world and who clearly has some sort of past with Gregory. Meanwhile, Tom falls for Alice (Alicia Vikander), a half-witch whose heart is good but who’s divided in her loyalties. Along the way, there are some nice creature effects — not realistic, mind you, but just imaginative enough to make us occasionally snap to attention. Director Sergei Bodrov has actually made some good films, the Oscar-nominated Prisoner of the Mountains being one; he keeps the action clean but lifeless.
There’s a hint of an idea here, with all the crossed allegiances going on; I haven’t read Joseph Delaney’s young-adult novel The Spook’s Apprentice, in which Tom is apparently an impressionable 12-year-old and not a strapping 20-something hunk of nothing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it does more with Gregory and Malkin’s background, or with Alice and Tom’s divided identities. At one point, Tom wonders what monsters have nightmares about. “Humans, probably,” comes the reply. The film keeps wanting to go in interesting directions, but it has neither the guts nor the imagination, nor the energy, to do so.
Seventh Son not only offers no new spin on its bland, by-the-numbers story, it also fails to deliver any generic pleasures; I’m not sure this movie could even keep a young child engaged. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the problems began. Bridges and Moore ham it up, but each in conflicting ways: She’s clearly enjoying the chance to play a sneering, shrieking villain, while he seems on a whole other plain of can’t-be-bothered goofiness. I have no idea where Bridges’s ridiculous accent comes from; my best guess is that he’s so embarrassed by this movie that he’s trying to convince us that’s really Sean Connery behind all that facial hair. Maybe he cared once. The Seventh Son has reportedly been in production and post- for five years, so maybe it has just been nitpicked and second-guessed and tested and retested and revised into oblivion. It sure feels like the demons have gotten to this movie. They’ve drained it of life, and then they’ve drained it some more.