Not every swords-and-sorcery fantasy film needs to be The Lord of the Rings, and to the credit of Sergei Bodrov‘s Seventh Son, it doesn’t try to be. When the movie is boiled down to charming elements of special potions, witches, dragons, and other staples of the genre, the film is surprisingly solid. There’s not even the slightest attempt to do anything new or disrupt the status quo, but there’s comfort in watching seasoned pros like Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore chew the scenery. But while all the fantasy trappings may make for a cozy room, it all becomes tedious with a limp story and a stunningly dull protagonist.
Master Gregory (Bridges) is the last member of a society of knights—a.k.a. “spooks”—devoted to vanquishing darkness in the world. Decades ago, he attempted to seal the powerful witch Mother Malkin (Moore) in a prison for all eternity, but now she’s broken free and plans to take over the world when the blood moon is full. To assist him in his quest to stop Malkin, Gregory enlists Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), who is the “seventh son of a seventh son,” which means he’s supposed to possess great strength. But as Gregory and Tom move towards stopping Malkin, Tom becomes enamored of the young witch Alice (Alicia Vikander), who is torn over her love for Tom and her loyalty towards her mother Bony Lizzie (Antje Traue) and aunt Malkin.
Bodrov takes a refreshing approach to the material by diving into the genre and not shying away from old-fashioned sets and costumes that look like they were taken off the backlot of another production. Malkin may want to cover the lands in darkness, but this isn’t an epic journey. It’s two guys who have a week to stop the bad guy, and their journey allows Tom to see a bunch of magic and monsters along the way. Gregory has a magic staff, the bad guys can turn into giant monsters, and the setting is in the style of medieval Europe even though everyone speaks with an American accent including Barnes and his fellow Brit co-stars Kit Harington and Olivia Williams.
The film is at its best when it’s going big. The landscapes are gorgeous, and Bridges and Moore take their acting up to match the bombast of the setting. They’re not lampooning fantasy movies, but they’re also playing into the grandiosity of a mage/knight and a woman whose dress has spikes on the spine. Out of context, it’s Bridges doing a silly voice and Moore overacting like crazy, but it fits perfectly when matched with the tone Bodrov is going for. If the main characters were only Gregory and Malkin, it would be a total delight, not only for the performances, but also because a studio decided to rest their action-fantasy movie on two middle-aged actors.
But the demands of not only studio filmmaking but also clichéd fantasy stories demand a young hero even if he rarely does anything heroic. Tom functions as a handsome audience surrogate and one-half of a love story that has absolutely no chemistry. I’m not sure why the script would want us to root for a guy who hardly does anything useful, and everything that’s special about him comes from the dumb luck of his birth. I can’t tell you anything about Tom Ward’s personality because it doesn’t exist.
Without a strong lead character, everything else begins to melt away. The setting feels a bit more phony and staged. Bodrov wants to throw us head first into a fantasy film, and our bland protagonist is intent on reminding us that rather than embracing the genre, Seventh Son is just going through the motions, and then we see nothing but missed opportunities. It’s not a story about fear of empowered women or even people defined by their profession.
For better and worse, Seventh Son is Fantasy Movie: The Movie! It has all the signposts of the genre, and does them very well. But when it comes to telling the actual story, we’re left with only a pretty picture. Seventh Son becomes nothing more than a game of Dungeons & Dragons, although perhaps that’s an unfair comparison. People usually put a lot of work into their D&D characters rather than say “My bland, genetically-empowered apprentice gets +10 to luck.”