Anytime you pop into the theatres for a new release before April you know you’re chances of seeing something noteworthy are pretty slim. January and February are the months where movies go to die… which means that's when you find the science fiction and fantasy movies that could have worked… but didn’t. Seventh Son is sadly no exception.
Back in August when we did a staff book-to-movie adaptations list, I said in one of my blurbs that Hollywood isn’t good at Fantasy as a genre if it’s not comedy based and/or for adults. Yes, there is the notable exception of The Lord of the Rings, but when compared to the epic failures of other epic fantasy movies it’s simply meant that LotR is a movie every major media conglomerate wants to repeat while having not a single clue how to do it.
Before I get much farther into this review, I want to talk a little about how I see fantasy functioning as a film genre, and what I feel needs to be done right in order for that film to succeed. Your average Joe on the street will tell you that the film needs good actors (agreed), solid special effects (agreed), and maybe some cool fight scenes. I’d add to that that an epic fantasy needs a good costume and set designer, preferably people who specialize in period films as so much of epic fantasy is set in a pre-industrial era. Most importantly, the film has to have good screenwriting, and those screenwriters need to understand the genre on a level that goes far beyond the expected tropes. Seventh Son had a fighting chance in many of these areas, but sadly decent actors and an imaginative set designer can not save a tired, ill paced, and offensively trope-ish script from its own shortcomings.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I fully acknowledge that Leavitt and Knight are experienced and talented screenwriters. Previous credits for them include Blood Diamond and Eastern Promises, both of which are films that I enjoyed. Leavitt also did the book-to-film adaptation of K-PAX, which was odd but ultimately successful. I think it’s important to note here that neither screenwriter has ever dealt with epic fantasy. In fact, K-PAX is the only speculative fiction credit between either of them. That’s the only reasoning I can come up with for why two professionals with some impressive resumes came up with such utter garbage for Seventh Son.
I do mean utter garbage. The film opens with a man finishing the job of covering up a hole in a mountain with a set of medieval prison bars and a woman calling ‘Gregory!’ from within the hole. This turns out to be a powerful and malevolent witch, Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore). Next we get an absolutely terrible time lapse special effect to signify the passing of time, at the end of which Malkin escapes her prison. After that we find ourselves in a quintessential tavern, watching Jeff Bridges (the aforementioned Gregory) drink and try and avoid his duty as some sort of knight. What follows is an exorcism of Malkin from the body of a ten year old in the knave of a church. (Why are we suddenly in a horror film?) Gregory’s apprentice dies, Malkin escapes, and I’m still wondering where the protagonist is. The film is called Seventh Son, right? Where is he? Nearly ten minutes into the film, we finally meet Tom (Ben Barnes), who is, with full nods to tired tropes, the seventh son of a pig farmer (who is himself a seventh son) living in the back of beyond. However, because we’ve spent so much time establishing Gregory, Tom gets written off as the everyman-teenaged-farmer, and that’s what we get to start with for characterization of the main character. Why couldn’t the film start with Tom? Why waste all that time on Gregory? If you’ve ever heard an argument against writing modern epic fantasy with a prologue, this is a perfect example of what people complain about. You’ve delayed the start of the film with information that can be supplied more effectively later, and to do that you’ve sacrificed building up your main character. D’oh!
As we move through the film, the actors are repeatedly hindered by stilted, trite, and downright bad dialogue. Irredeemable dialogue. No actor, no matter how skilled and famous, was going to be able to save those lines or make them into anything approaching palatable. For the most part, the dialogue is stilted, awkward, or so simple that every audience member knows what’s about to be said before it’s said. The last can be played off as a joke by a wise actor or director, but all of these instances were played straight… and deadly. I honestly felt bad for the actors at several points in the movie. Perhaps the director should have caught some of these issues and made more effort to fix them, but Seventh Son may in fact be Sergei Bodrov’s first English speaking film. There’s a vast difference between American film making and Russian film making, and an even bigger difference between how the languages are structured and how topics are approached in conversation. So I can understand why some of these things weren’t fixed as they ought to have been… but that doesn’t excuse that they weren’t.
Perhaps most inexcusable is the screenwriter’s penchant for giving away the game constantly. Information flow is a difficult issue to tackle for anyone working in speculative fiction. You have to all at once build a world, build a magic system, build characters, and then tell a story using all of those things. Telling that story successfully means giving your audience just enough information to keep them interested, but not so much that they figure out where everything is going and lose interest. Over and over again Leavitt and Knight would put all of their proverbial cards on the table all at once, moving through what could have been a suspenseful revelation with such speed that we lost all drama, much of the character growth was gone, and I was left going “really? really? That’s how you think that works?” Even if we move into the question of ‘is this a reliable adaptation of the source material?’ we come up short. The Spook’s Apprentice (known in the U.S. as The Last Apprentice) is about a twelve-year-old boy. His journey to becoming a full blown Spook is a matter of years and several books, not a week while battling the hormones inherent to teenaged boys. Leavitt and Knight moved so far away from the source material that there’s almost no way they could have returned to the source material for help when things went south.
In the end, there are some decent performances from the actors here, the special effects were done quite nicely, I have to give kudos to the set designer, and the costuming was a passable job. But at the end, I don’t think there’s much of anything that can save such a steaming pile of shit of a script.