Fantasy Bland, by Tyler Smith
It has become common knowledge that Sergey Bodrov’s Seventh Son has been sitting on the shelf for a while; two years, in fact. But, it feels like it’s been a lot longer than that. Everything about this film feels like a standard sword-and-sorcery film from the mid-80s. This would be perfectly fine- kind of exciting, actually- if it had either brought something new to the genre, or was as committed to the insanity that comes with the genre, as we saw in films like Conan the Barbarian or Legend or Fire and Ice.
A new twist or a committed throwback. Either of these would have been preferable to the film that Seventh Son is; a milquetoast retread of more interesting fantasy films. There is more than a hint of Star Wars, and quite a bit of imagery lifted from the Harry Potter series. However, it doesn’t build up its world the way those movies do. Instead, we feel like we’ve been here before, only in a more memorable way.
To the film’s credit, the technical aspects of the world it does work to create are solid. The production design b Dante Ferretti, whose credits include Sweeney Todd, Gangs of New York, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, is top notch. The castles and towns are actually there and feel perfectly lived in. With fantasy, there is always the temptation to gloss everything up to emphasize the other-worldliness of it all, but Ferretti makes this feel like a world where actual flawed humans reside. It’s the best part of the film.
One more thing that I’ll praise about the film is something that it doesn’t have. In many modern fantasy films, directors attempt to underline the epic nature of their story by having one huge CG army running towards another huge CG army. It is seldom as effective as it is meant to be and tends to make the ensuing battle feel cold and fake and lifeless. Seventh Son, thankfully, avoids this, choosing to keep the ranks low while still keeping the stakes high. It was actually kind of refreshing to see.
Every other element of the story and characters, however, is a mess. Despite being played by capable, dependable actors, the characters are as bland and uninteresting as any I’ve seen in a film like this. There are a few genres that can get away with characters that recede into the background, but fantasy is not one of them. These people must jump off the screen, grab us by the arm, and pull us into the action. They must seem bigger than life, if not in their action than at least in their goals. They inhabit a huge world, and must be shaped by it, rather than shrink away.
Unfortunately, the characters in Seventh Son just go through their motions, never seeming to feel one way or another about what’s happening. Jeff Bridges does what he can with the standard curmudgeonly mentor role, and does imbue him with some depth and vitality, but gets bogged down by a very strange cadence and accent that ultimately seems forced and unbelievable. Julianne Moore fares worse in her role as the chief heavy, a stock character with no flare or excitement in her. Like Bridges, Moore is a pro and manages get the character’s motivations across, but never delivers the dynamic, bravura performance that a fantasy villain requires. Instead, she underplays everything, and mostly gets swallowed up by the movie around her. A good villain should always be propelling the action forward; this one merely suggests it.
In the end, Seventh Son is a largely unmemorable movie. There are a couple of interesting action sequences and the actors do their best, but the film mostly just sits there on the screen, seeming to know how inconsequential it is, waiting to be over. And, when it is, we feel neither animosity nor enthusiasm. In fact, like the film, we don’t really feel anything at all.