[4 October 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Redundancy quickly kills even the most fitting flight of fantasy. Without imagination, or at least some level of innovation, a tale formed by magic/myth feels stale and unoriginal. True, when you boil it down to the basics, what you’re dealing with is the standard good vs. evil paradigm, and one man’s Ewoks are another’s furry footed hobbits. But the key to a successful movie of this type it to avoid the formulaic and cliché to present something new – or something that, at first glance, appears unanticipated and novel. Such is the case with The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. Based on a series of books by Susan Cooper, this tale of the ages old struggle between The Light and The Dark should feel rote and preordained. But thanks to some interesting performances, a basically believable script, and a fine sense of scope, this kid friendly ersatz take on the Arthurian legend actually works – at least, for a while.
We are introduced to young Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig) as he shuffles out of his UK school. An American by birth, he has recently arrived in England with his extended family - which includes a somber dad, a well meaning mother, five fabulously conceited older brothers, and a beholden little sister. About to turn 14, Will feels disconnected from his kin, lost in a world of private thoughts and personal questions. On Christmas Eve, he is invited to Miss Greythorne’s spectacular manor, where he is approached by her valet, Merriman Lyon (a wonderful Ian McShane). It is then that he learns of his lineage. As the seventh son of a seventh son, Will is the new Seeker, a special envoy of The Light, a bastion for all that is good in the world. With the help of the Old Ones (including Lyon and Greythorne) he will discover the signs that keep The Dark at bay. And good thing to, for evil’s envoy, in the form of the redolent Rider (a creepy Christopher Eccleston) is back after 1000 years to take over the world.
Though it frequently feels like its missing most of its formative folklore, and trails off into fits of formless meandering about two thirds of the way through, The Seeker is actually a rather good ripping yarn. Helmed by untested talent David L. Cunningham, whose resume reads like the opposite career arc for anyone attempting an F/X heavy narrative, and skimming only the barest of bones from Cooper’s complex books, the results are intriguing, if not wholly functional. While entertaining, the movie misses many chances at being downright superb. Part of the problem lies in the hero’s hormonal rages. By changing Will’s age from 11 (as in the books) to 14, and making him a slightly snotty American (vs. a Potter-esque Brit), he may become more identifiable to the intended demographic, but his occasional fits of forced puppy love can be joyless to behold. He’s a kid clearly controlled by the onset of puberty.
In addition, the main catalyst for our story – the fated role of Seeker and his traveling through time to retrieve the so-called signs – is given relatively short shrift, especially for a proposed epic. In some cases, Will hops into the past, performs a perfunctory duty, and toddles off. More time to play sibling rivalries with his far too cloying family, or make cow eyes with plot point Maggie Barnes, one imagines. Indeed, at several instances throughout The Seeker, the viewer recalls the E! Entertainment Executive from Knocked Up with his perennially perky advice to “tighten up”. This is a movie overloaded with filler, sequences that do nothing except establish mood and underline the mystic. While the tired trick used to realize the movement across the continuum reeks of a lack of imagination (the camera swirls around the participants and – WHOOSH! – we’re watching Vikings pillage), the rest of the movie tries its damnedest to amaze.
And we buy it. Mostly the result of the excellent performances and Cunningham’s ability to maintain pace and production value, The Seeker survives its occasional hindrances. Ian McShane, former Deadwood denizen, is wonderful as the mandatory mentor character. His stuffy gruffness helps moderate Will Stanton’s spoiled surliness. Similarly striking is Frances Conroy as the bespeckled Ms. Greythrone and James Cosmo as a big burly bear of an Old One named Dawson. They make a formidable group in aid of their young protégé. As our lead, Alexander Ludwig, is good but not great. He tends to literally act his age, appearing immature and inflexible more than brave and triumphant. His reactions of awe and wonder are well done, and his action adventure mantle is realistic if rather untested. In essence, Ludwig simply has to show up and appear able and the movie can work with it. He manages that conceit rather well.
But for some reason, the movie just can’t maintain all of its formidable forward momentum. Part of the problem is Christopher Eccleston’s lack of villainy. He looks the part, and summons CGI smoke and fowl with the best of them, but he’s never really a formidable challenge or threat. He seems easily outsmarted and never fated to win. Without a danger, he’s only harmless fodder, all talk and no real peril. The set piece scenes where nature is manipulated into portents of terror (killer icicles, fatal floods) work much better. They give us a real sense of danger, and deliver on the film’s fantasy promise with great enthusiasm. It’s just too bad that Cunningham couldn’t cut to the chase more often. The origin-oriented nature of the situation being explained frequently undermines this film’s concept of fun. And when dealing with elements both outrageous and unrealistic, amusement is a necessary nuance.
Still, The Seeker gives much more than it drains away, packing enough visual intrigue and interpersonal suspense to sustain even the most fidgety film fan. Granted, those obsessed with Copper’s books will be baffled by the numerous changes, exclusions, and additions, and as potential foundations for franchises go, this one misses many opportunities to guarantee a sequel. Still, one finds themselves lost in the world created by Cunningham, a place of warm fires, comforting countrysides, and upper crust British attitudes. So what if all the pieces aren’t properly in place. Who cares if our sorcerer in training is more Harry Smith than Potter. Does it really matter if the storyline stumbles while never really building up a decent level of showmanship? The answer is inherent in the ends. The Seeker should slowly submerge and sink under its many mundane facets. Instead, thanks to a little movie magic all its own, if finds a way to win us over.