Legend has is that the seventh son of a seventh son is born with certain special powers, which, in Joseph Delaney’s “Wardstone Chronicles” fantasy-lit series, include the ability to see supernatural beings and, potentially, to kill witches. But given the unusually long gestation period for Universal’s film adaptation, “Seventh Son” — which opens in the U.S. on Feb. 6, nearly a year later than originally planned — one shouldn’t be all that surprised to discover some pretty significant birth defects, among them a tired plot, some very unspecial effects, and a pair of grotesquely uneven performances from Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore.
Considering that Universal was still licking its wounds from the pricey Keanu Reeves debacle “47 Ronin” (like this project, an extravagant vfx-driven tentpole from a Russian director ill suited for Hollywood) when “Seventh Son” was supposed to open last February, it makes sense that the distributor opted to delay the film (which opened today in France) and fix what it could, giving Imax 3D treatment to what already feels rickety on a standard-sized screen. It also makes sense to have put as much distance as possible between this film, directed by two-time Oscar nominee Sergei Bodrov (“Prisoner of the Mountains,” “Mongol”), and “Season of the Witch” — a comparably campy tale of medieval sorcery in which Nicolas Cage threw down the scenery-chewing gauntlet.
What emerges is distressingly typical from Universal of late: another example of how the studio once responsible for the town’s finest monster movies (“Dracula,” “The Wolf Man”) now churns out ugly, cumbersome monstrosities (“Dracula Untold,” “The Wolfman”). In what appears to be medieval British Columbia, Bridges plays Gregory, a witch-hunting “spook” who once belonged to an elite group of knights, all of whom have either died or yielded to the darkness. His apprentices don’t fare much better, as evidenced by an opening scene that doesn’t work out so great for “Game of Thrones” star Kit Harington; nor does it bode well for future apprentice Tom Ward (Ben Barnes).
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For decades, Gregory has grappled with a witch queen named Mother Malkin — sort of a poor man’s Maleficent, made potentially interesting by the casting of Moore, whose performance is then rendered too difficult to appreciate by a thick cloud of CGI noise as she constantly shape-shifts to and from dragon form. Mother Malkin derives power from the once-a-century Blood Moon, whose return is a mere week away — just enough time for Gregory to find and train a replacement assistant.
The movie opens with Marco Beltrami’s orchestra at full blare, swiftly yet clumsily setting up the scale of its widescreen world, which alternates between “Lord of the Rings”-like vistas and second-rate Sergio Leone-style compositions, where characters who appear to have been shot against greenscreens are restaged against more dramatic backdrops. We meet Gregory drunk in a saloon — a recycled version of the half-soused shootout that serves as Doc Holliday’s introduction in “Tombstone,” revealing a bit too much “True Grit” still stuck in his woolly, billy-goat beard. Bridges is on his own weird wavelength here, his L.A.-surfer-dude accent half buried beneath a pronounced underbite and a deep, indistinct growl.
It takes Bodrov and editors Jim Page and Paul Rubell nearly an hour to find the film’s rhythm. Fully 10 minutes pass before we meet Tom, toiling away on his pig farm, dreaming of bigger things. Older and far blander than we might expect, the lad has strange, almost epileptic visions of things to come, conveyed through odd, bleary montages that feel awkwardly inserted at first, before disappearing entirely at the point in the story where we’d expect them to become more important. Mostly, he sees witches, including a young one, Alice (fittingly beguiling Swedish actress Alicia Vikander), who will play a vital role in the film’s final showdown.
“Seventh Son’s” producers have played it safe by employing top-class pros for nearly all the key below-the-line positions, and yet the project crucially lacks an overarching vision. Maybe it had one that was elbowed out of the way by multiple writers (Charles Leavitt and Steven Knight, working from “Reign of Fire” co-writer Matt Greenberg’s screen story), test screenings or anxious execs. On the pictorial front, production designer Dante Ferretti and costume queen Jacqueline West seem to be cribbing ideas from Tarsem’s discard pile, while visual effects maestro John Dykstra takes Mother Malkin’s witch cronies (of which there are too many to keep track) through a series of too-quick transformations, seldom lingering long enough for us to get a good look at the creatures they become.
Ultimately, “Seventh Son” has the cluttered feel of an over-designed, under-conceived fantasy epic. As even the genre-spanning category’s most ardent admirers know, it’s a rare alchemy by which these would-be franchises actually work. For every “The Princess Bride,” there are countless misfires in which the ingredients seem to be there, but the chemistry never sparks (e.g. “Stardust,” “The Mortal Instruments,” “The Golden Compass”). Here, it’s downright uncomfortable to watch an actor as good as Bridges fumbling lame one-liners, while Barnes and Vikander struggle to generate the sort of heat required to accept them as star-crossed lovers from incompatible lines. Given the fine past work of its many parents, there was clearly potential here, but as delivered, “Seventh Son” amounts to nothing short of a creative miscarriage.