It’s boondoggle wars at the multiplex this weekend, with not one but two much-delayed mega-budget fantasies scrapping it out for near-identical audiences. I’m not sure whether Warner Brothers opening Jupiter Ascending on the same day as Universal’s Seventh Son counts as spectacular self-sabotage or naked aggression—and, if so, on whose side. Seventh Son was once property of Warner Brothers; it went (or was foisted upon) Universal during WB’s split with Legendary Pictures, and now here it is, ready to fight for scraps. Jupiter at least has the Wachowski advantage for nerd auteurists; Seventh Son is directed by Sergei Bodrov, a Russian director mostly unknown in this country apart from his little-seen Genghis Khan movie Mongol [hahahaha “apart from” -Ed.]. He’s the latest director unproven in the U.S. studio system given big money on his first attempt in that arena; I’d say studios are forever hoping one of these guys becomes the next Wachowskis, but at this point studios are forever hoping the Wachowskis become the next Wachowskis, instead of the brilliant oddballs who made the phantasmagorical Speed Racer and the wildly ambitious Cloud Atlas.
I haven’t seen the newest Wachowski joint, but Seventh Son is neither wildly ambitious nor phantasmagorical. It does, however, feature an Oscar frontrunner in a scenery-chewing villain role, with Julianne Moore playing a powerful witch to match Jupiter Ascending‘s Eddie Redmayne (which, to be honest, is probably how I’ll refer to him from now on, even if he does win for The Theory of Everything). An Oscar invites both pet projects and big cash-ins, and it’s fascinating to watch what winners do with that cache—what weird projects they think will work as their big movie-star moment. Moore hasn’t won yet, of course, and was not in awards conversations for Still Alice whenever Seventh Son was shot (some three years ago, it sounds like). But she nonetheless could have looked to her old Big Lebowski co-star Jeff Bridges, wondering what one does when the award finally arrives. Bridges has answered that question with facial hair and masticating, chaw-soaked accents, usually as a mentor in the style of mid-aughts-style Liam Neeson, only with more screentime. Here he plays Master Gregory, a “spook,” a fighter of evil spirits who takes on an apprentice (always two there are, as Yoda and probably a bunch of studio executives said) in the form of Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), because this is the sort of movie where a young ward is surnamed Ward.
That is to say that Seventh Son maintains a peculiar hint of self-awareness; it seems like it is self-aware but content not actually do anything about it. It’s not what you’d call traditionally good, but it’s brisk and feature lots of colorful 3D special effects, with dashes of 80s fantasy cheese (and, as such, splashes of soft focus). The usual adapted-from-some-book mythology about spooks and witches and giant, CG-rubbery dragons doesn’t weigh the movie down, perhaps because it feels a little bit like legit mythology—which is to say a lot of the conflicts are caused by petty squabbling and fractured, outsized relationships. Gregory and Tom are on the trail of shapeshifting, blood-haired, silver-averse Mother Malkin (Moore), who has a history with Gregory that the movie doesn’t fully exploit, but at least cuts through the overproduction more effectively than the dialogue, much of which is shouted or screamed. In doing so, Tom grapples with whether you can ever trust a witch, particularly one as comely and wily as Alice (Alicia Vikander). Also, sometimes people change into dragons and sometimes Bridges fights a giant bear. Look, I’m not saying you should rush out and see Seventh Son. But if you do, and wind up enjoying it more than Still Alice or Crazy Heart, I won’t tell anyone. I may even give you a significant nod as we pass each other in the hall on the way to Jupiter Ascending.