Perhaps I’m placing too much topical significance on one barely-noticed movie, but the new fantasy film “Seventh Son” is an example of everything that’s wrong with bloated, out-of-control Hollywood. It’s not offensively horrible or anything – if you like swordfights, medieval fantasy, and dragons, as I do, you’ll come away from it feeling modestly entertained. It feels like the sort of script that would have been banged out on the cheap in the early-80s rush to cash in on “Conan the Barbarian.” But it wasn’t banged out on the cheap as a “B” picture. It had a $100 million budget, Jeff Bridges, and Julianne Moore – a “Big Lebowski” reunion! The poor little movie was crushed beneath the weight of its own budget.
The film is ostensibly based on a series of books, and while they might be fine fantasy work, the film inspired by them offers a master class in how not to do world-building. Nothing about the premise or setting is coherent enough to engage the sympathy of the audience. Fantasy worlds don’t have to scale Tolkien’s heights of complexity, or sail across backstory waters as deep as his imagined history, but they do have to make a modicum of sense. Many of those cheesy post-“Conan” sword and sorcery flicks of the Eighties made up for sparse budgets with a dash of creativity, spread across at least as much world-building architecture as a halfway-decent high-school dungeon master would build. “Seventh Son” thinks it didn’t need to be clever or coherent because it had a hundred million bucks to blow on special effects, plus Bridges performing the latest installment of a cinematic road show in which he reprises his Rooster Cogburn character in every conceivable setting.
Nothing that happens in “Seventh Son” makes much sense, even with the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy a fantasy tale. There are evil witches running around, and for reasons never made entirely clear, an order of knights comprised of men who are the seventh sons of seventh sons is the only force that can oppose them. (There’s a brief comment about Seventh Sons being abnormally strong and fast, but if that was the case, you’d think the land would be full of them, and every ambitious family would be trying to have seven sons as quickly as it could.)
The order has fallen on hard times, leaving one crotchety old drunken veteran plus one apprentice. No reason is given for having only one apprentice, even though this vitally important order is on the verge of dying out, and you’d think one pair of knights would have a lot of trouble covering all of the supernatural menaces in their vaguely defined kingdom. How vaguely-defined is it? The walled city where much of the action takes place is named “The Walled City.”
As it turns out, the witches aren’t all evil, but the movie doesn’t do anything with the idea that the Seventh Sons might have unfairly killed people with supernatural powers who didn’t mean any harm. It’s not really clear why some of them do mean harm. It’s not even clear precisely what they plan to do when the once-in-a-century “blood moon” rises and amplifies their powers, which seem quite impressive even before amplification, to the point where they really shouldn’t have too much trouble taking over the land any time they feel like it. For no particular reason, the evil witches abruptly decide to fly over to the Walled City and trash it; nothing slows them down until a good witch decides to stand up to them.
This also isn’t one of those situations where only the chosen few can perceive the supernatural to fight it, as with the TV series “Grimm.” There are monsters all over the place. The woods are swarming with spooky ghosts. How are the regular folks even holding on, with all these terrible powers swirling around them?
An interesting fantasy world and plot could be constructed from these materials, but instead we get a bit of moaning about how Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore’s head evil witch used to be an item, until she did something that reminded him about his job killing evil witches, but he loved her enough not to kill her, instead flinging her down a hole to rot for years. (Witches don’t eat, huh?) Then she gets out, and because he’s apparently trapped in some sort of contract that requires him to play nothing but medieval guys for the rest of his career, Kit Harrington from “Game of Thrones” falls prey to her vengeance, so Jeff Bridges needs a new understudy… and so help me Joseph Campbell, the same lazy “Chosen One” plot we’ve seen in a hundred other fantasy and sci-fi films cranks up. Wouldn’t it have been interesting enough to follow the escapades of an apprentice witch-fighting mystical knight who wasn’t the Chosen One foretold of prophecy?
There’s a ton of great work done by the special effects, set design, and costume teams here, although most of it isn’t filmed as well as it could have been. A good deal of the budget is up on the screen. The 3-D conversion is even pretty good. Never mind his long-ago fling with Moore’s head witch, the real love affair in the film is between Jeff Bridges and his booze, and it produces a few good jokes. It’s just baffling that no one thought a sturdy script with a real story to tell was necessary to make it work.
Like the skeleton knight inexplicably hanging out in Bridges’ storeroom, “Seventh Son” is an empty suit of highly polished armor, made by an industry that should have learned from the success of carefully-honed scripts built from well-written source material. The fantasy genre is enormously prolific, and it’s produced plenty of good tales. Everyone in the potential audience for this movie could probably name three favorite books they’d love to see brought to the screen, with half the budget that was blown here. Such thoughts might hinder their ability to enjoy the bit of lively swordplay, appealing costume design, capable special effects, and hammy acting on offer.
Take the gigantic budgets away from Hollywood, and their fantasies might have to get clever again… but evidently the economics of modern cinema forbid such a strategy.