“Seventh Son” Review: If J.K. Rowling Wrote D&D Campaigns
In a time of sorcery and magic, a powerful witch (Julianne Moore) manages to escape imprisonment. It falls to an aging knight (Jeff Bridges) to stop her plan to take over the world during the rising of the Blood Moon. In his quest, the knight is aided by his new apprentice (Ben Barnes). The two must battle their way through an onslaught of monsters in a race to stop the witch before she bathes the known world in darkness.
There is something rather magical in the idea of filmmakers taking pride in the production of a movie regardless of genre, budget, or artistic significance. Seventh Son is a silly, spectacle-fueled fantasy distraction, and it seems charmingly content to be so. It also just so happens to be a sharp, sturdily-constructed silly, spectacle-fueled fantasy distraction. It plays by its own established rules and when judged on its own merits, actually makes a strong showing in the genre.
Seventh Son has a quality to it that is reminiscent of the fantasy flicks of the 1980s. It is entirely likely that the bulk of the genetic material that Seventh Son shares with something like Krull has to do with so much of the fantasy genre being bred of the monomyth. The monomyth has been around for ages—yes, even longer than has Jeff Bridges—and films have been cribbing its structure of the hero’s journey–from an ordinary world into one of the supernatural–pretty much since the inception of the moving picture. Still, fantasy cinema of the 1980s understood that while spectacle is key to getting people into the theaters, colorful characters, and immersive world building are what give fantasy films their identity and make them memorable.
The world building here is imaginative but disciplined. We are introduced to a menagerie of creatures and mythic beings, but the apprenticeship of our young lead allows for a gradual, organic introduction to each race and class—apologies for the RPG lingo—and the audience, therefore, feels that they are experiencing the world of the film and not simply being lectured on it. Also, the digital artists and special effects makeup team for Seventh Son deserves the highest praise. Though spectacle is important, crowd the frame with too many computer-generated castoffs and it becomes very easy to lose the foothold on the solid ground of your narrative universe. The effects work on Seventh Son is at times so skillful that it becomes hard to discern whether certain monsters are man-made or the result of digital wizardry. In either case, these monsters enhance the film without upstaging the human characters or forcing the landscape to feel too fabricated.
And what characters we have in our headliners! Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore—reunited for the first time since The Big Lebowski without having lost an ounce of the chemistry from their previous collaboration—further facilitate the fantasy nostalgia as the chief hero and villain respectively. While admittedly his recently favored marble-mouthed speech does prove problematic in one or two punchline deliveries, Bridges’ drunken, cantankerous sorcerer possesses an effortless amiability and his character is actually given a touching complexity via the true nature of his feud with Moore’s witch queen. Moore in turn chews scenery like it was a giant spoonful of molasses and brings a sinister glam to the role that, again, should feel very familiar to fans of lovably over-the-top baddies from 80s fantasy. Moore is at times more glam than David Bowie in Labyrinth, which is no pedestrian accomplishment.
All is not well in this kingdom, however, and much of what slays Seventh Son’s chances of achieving total victory revolves around its titular young hero. Ben Barnes is, at his best, merely passable as the fish-out-of-water apprentice, and being paired with the outstanding Bridges magnifies his leading-man deficiencies. Barnes is capable but lacks any significant action and/or comedic chops to function as a suitable counterpart in this buddy wizard dynamic. What’s doubly frustrating about this is how close the filmmakers came to making the right casting call here.
Be forewarned, this paragraph will contain a spoiler from the prologue of the film. During Seventh’s Son’s opening, we witness the demise of John Gregory’s former apprentice Billy Bradley. Bradley is played by Game of Thrones star Kit Harington, whose brief screen time is marked by witty repartee with Bridges in the comedic moments and a clockwork partnership in a battle with the supernatural. One can’t help but wonder if the film would have been better served by swapping the actors so that Harington was playing the seventh son and Barnes was the feudal equivalent of a red-shirted ensign on a federation starship.
Seventh Son may be beholden to the fantasy films of the 80s, but in doing so manages to simultaneously be rather refreshing. Shows like Game of Thrones and, prior, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy have given fantasy a sweeping, grandiose, and deeply artistic quality. While that is wonderful to witness, and a major step forward for the legitimacy of the genre, that’s not what Seventh Son cares to be. Sure, there is an edge to some of the film’s fantastical elements, but, all in all, the light, exciting tone is maintained throughout with playful ease. If classic 80s fantasy isn’t your game, fear not, one could just as easily think of Seventh Son as a delightful D&D campaign authored by J.K. Rowling.
How It Stacks Up
Seventh Son vs. Krull
Once again, the spirit of 80s fantasy cinema is alive and well in Seventh Son, probably sharing the most in common with this 1983 cult classic. Similarly, both films have heroes played by somewhat dull actors: Ben Barnes here, Ken Marshall in Krull. In both movies, it is the other members of the quest party that sustain the film. However, when you get right down to it, Jeff Bridges and a magic staff versus Liam Neeson, Robbie Coltrane and one of filmdom’s coolest weapons: the glaive? It’s no contest.
Seventh Son vs. The Sorcerers Apprentice
This is a rather apt pairing given that Seventh Son’s title could have very well been The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Both films feature actors who, at the time of release, had entered into sillier stages of their respective careers, in terms of performance choices. But unlike Nicolas Cage, Bridges manages sincerity even in his wackiest turns as John Gregory. Also, while I tend to prefer urban fantasy to traditional fantasy, that is to say fantasy stories hosted in contemporary settings, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has neither the spirit nor restraint of spectacle displayed in Seventh Son.
Advantage: Seventh Son