Jeff Bridges, being very Dude-like, summarizes the motto of Seventh Son: "When you deal with dark, dark gets in you."
Seventh SonDirector: Sergey Bodrov
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes, Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Olivia Williams, Antje Traue, Djimon Hounsou, Julianne Moore
UK Release Date: 2015-03-27 (General release)
US Release Date: 2015-02-06 (General release)
"I can't do this," Tom (Ben Barnes) tells his new master, Gregory (Jeff Bridges). "I'm not like you." He's right; he's not like Gregory, self-identified as a longtime spook, which is to say, a long time battler of monsters and demons. At this moment in Seventh Son, the apprentice Tom is rethinking his hope to become such a hero, because, well, it entails some brutal action against the bad guys, including swordplay and fisticuffs and burning alive.
This exchange occasions the crisis in this scene: the camera looks up at Tom, standing with a torch over his adversary, Urag (played as a person by Jason Scott Lee, appearing in CGI as a great big bear), currently caged and chained. The logic here is vaguely noted: the demons must be burned to be dispatched permanently, but even within that framework, the new resonance of this image, courtesy of ISIS, is startling. That resonance could never have been anticipated by the filmmakers, but it profoundly reshapes Tom's reluctance to be "like" his mentor. "You live in a world now where legends and nightmares are real," Gregory instructs. But still, you have to wonder, how evil must you become to fight evil? How dire must the damage be to your own soul?
Seventh Son sort of asks these questions, albeit in roundabout ways, even as it has to get to the end you know is coming: that good (the spooks) will manage a brute force triumph over evil. En route to that end, Tom takes a couple of detours, learns not to judge appearances; Tusk [John DeSantis], is not the beast or "it" he appears to be, but instead Gregory's super-loyal servant. Tom finds out about his own secret heritage; he's not only the destined one, the seventh son of a seventh son, but also so genetically "different" that he's apparently literally the only one of his kind. Of course, he also meets a girl. These plot turns are hardly original, but they do pose ethical quandaries for the boy, who handles them with the awkwardness and lengthy deliberation you'd expect from someone based on a YA hero. (The film is loosely based on Joseph Delaney's The Spook’s Apprentice.)
Tom's moral wrangling has the gift and burden of being embodied by transformer-style creatures, human-looking witches and warriors who can shape-shift into bears, lizards, and dragons, powerful and frightening, even if they're not exactly fresh. One witch who does not transform (at least that we see) is that girl Tom meets, Alice (Alicia Vikander). Lovely and lithe in the ways that maidens in bodices tend to be, she's also the niece of the film's primary villain -- and Gregory's ex -- Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore). While the kids go through their paces, generic romantic banter as well as deeply emotional shares about lost parents or adults' unfair expectations, Mother Malkin is relentlessly furious, scheming and cruel. "I like boys," she hisses early on, menacing another of Gregory's apprentices, whose life lasts about more two seconds.
The past romance between Mother Malkin and Gregory is never quite explained. He laments, "When you deal with dark, dark gets in you," by way of cautioning Tom about his interest in Alice. It's not quite clear whose dark got into who, and at what time. Neither does the movie quite explain whether Tom and Alice have sex: at the moment when they kiss, a cut to a next scene, in place and time, shows them in fully-clothed, probably-post-coital cuddle (clearly, Tom's terrific), as they talk about their diverging destinies. He suggests, rather hopelessly, that they leave all this behind and go off to a place that's "safe". You know that's not going to happen, but for that instant, as they gaze into one another's eyes, your sense of whose dark is where might be confused, pleasantly or not, depending on your tolerance for incoherence.
The hectic nature of the narrative and visual here might remind you of Seventh Son's similarly sense-challenged rival at this week's box office, Jupiter Ascending. That said, Seventh Son has Jeff Bridges, whose performance offers its own puzzle. He's Dude-ish, again and as he apparently must be forever, which is to say he's strange and entrancing without need of CGI or even a standoff with Julianne Moore. His instructions to the boy are downright goofy, his pretense of fight scenes is awesomely unconvincing (read: you won't be wondering whether he does his own stunts), and his utterance of every line is daunting. The apprentice, the lizards, the witches, they're all ho-hum. Jeff Bridges glowering in close-up makes you think again, and again, about how experiences shape you, how it matters what you see and do, how you understand who you are.