Saturday, October 13, 2007

Movie Review: The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising

You won't feel guilty bringing the kids...unless you feel guilty showing them bad art.

The Seeker, directed by David L. Cunningham. Screenplay by John Hodge. Produced by Marc Platt. Starring Alexander Ludwig, Christopher Eccleston, and Ian McShane. Marc Platt Productions, 2007. Rated PG. USCCB Rating is A-I--general patronage.

Read other reviews here. Official movie website is here.

I read Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising Sequence in sixth grade. My memories of the novels are sketchy and probably inaccurate; I remember some Arthurian legend, some Vikings, a kid who's really an Old One, and a series of artifacts necessary to defeat the Dark, which is trying to take over the world. I also recall being annoyed by the underwater Wild Magic in the third book in the series, Greenwitch, because the first book, The Dark is Rising, indicates that water can neutralize magic. The fourth book, The Grey King, is a Newberry winner and easily the best in the series.

The world of The Dark Is Rising is one in which an eternal war exists between opposing forces of Light and Dark. They are the ultimate forces in the universe with the exception of the High Magic, which stands above them. I would draw a Christian allegory from this, but Cooper is explicit that the Christian God, and all gods, are subordinate to these cosmic powers. The protagonist of these books is eleven-year-old British kid Will Stanton, who learns he is an Old One, an immortal servant of the Light, who must travel time, find important objects, and deal with various figures out of legend in a race to beat back the Dark before it can rise and overwhelm the world. I have just told you more about the novels than this movie will.

In the movie, Will (Alexander Ludwig) is no longer eleven but fourteen and American, though the story fortunately still takes place in an English setting (I'm guessing all the teenage actors with English accents were unavailable). As Christmas break begins, Will is accosted by a collection of hard-bitten eccentrics led by Merriman Lyon (Ian McShane), who tells Will he is an Old One with superpowers including super-strength, pyrokinesis, and time-travel. As in the novels, his presence also disrupts electronic equipment, as indicated by a malfunctioning television, though no one ever explains this detail.

Will must seek six signs, which look like collectible cross-shaped talismans, and bring them together within five days to stop the Dark from rising. Opposed to him is a servant of the Dark called the Rider (Christopher Eccleston), who, as in the novels, is slightly effeminate, but unlike in the novels, really annoying. A flock of violent crows on loan from Alfred Hitchcock and some menacing interrogators on loan from The Matrix get cameos.

Distracting Will from his quest are family troubles, pubescent angst, a crush on a girl who must be twice his age at least, and indecipherable cinematography.

The film's shortcomings and mistakes are legion. The camera work is excessively creative, making many scenes difficult to follow. The movie opens with a montage of cell phones and iPods, which are hardly good images to introduce what is supposed to be an exploration of European folklore. The script is stilted, consisting mostly of a few characters saying over and over, "You are the Seeker" or "Give me the signs!" depending on whether they're heroes or villains. The time-travel scenes are unconvincing: Will runs into a Viking who speaks by grunting noncommittally and runs into some seventeenth-century Brits who speak in unaccented modern English. The Dark, supposedly a cosmic menace, has been reduced to a vague physics problem manifesting as a geek on a horse and a black dust cloud. Will does not so much quest for the signs as randomly stumble upon them; not once does he find a sign by solving a puzzle or doing serious hunting. Will makes little use of his superpowers, though he does blow up a windmill when the girl he likes doesn't like him back (I'd say this is overreacting, but I might have done the same thing when I was fourteen if I had superpowers).

Will's younger sister Gwen (Emma Lockhart) steals every scene she's in and makes me wish she were starring in this movie instead of Ludwig. Given the violence already done to the story, making the protagonist female wouldn't have hurt.

That's it. I'm done picking on the movie. It is just another generic fantasy, the sort of thing we have to deal with in the wake of the successful Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies. We can put this one in the trash along with the likes of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Eragon, and The Covenant, though we should mention along the way that it isn't as bad as Eragon or as exploitative as The Covenant. It is yet another wide-release film that looks as if it were meant to be a made-for-television Sci Fi Channel special.

So no more picking on the movie. Now I intend to pick on a few critics.

After justly criticizing the film, Frank Lovece points out that director David L. Cunningham "is the son of the founder of the evangelical Youth with a Mission group and the unaccredited University of the Nations," as if Cunningham's family history is any of Lovece's business. Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat go a step further in underhanded criticism, comparing the movie to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in an apparent attempt to give it a Christian link and then add, "Naturally, a female is one of the main temptations Will must overcome." Because you know how much Christians hate women and that nasty S-E-X!

I understand trashing the film, but that's no excuse for seeking out an ideology it doesn't have and then trashing the ideology. That's the job of amateurs like me, not professional reviewers.

However, the Brussats may have a point. Maybe we Christians are a bunch of prudes. If we skip over to John Mulderig's review at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, we will see that, though the film is rated A-I for general patronage, Mulderig has dutifully listed the movie's potential moral problems, including "passing references to puberty." Since when is that a moral problem?

This film is a coming-of-age, and that may be the one thing it gets right. Puberty--that is, adolescence--features in so many stories because it is by definition a dynamic time of transition. Many modern tales of adolescence are bad precisely because none of the characters actually adolesce--that is, become adults. Right now, though I'm about to call a halt to it, Snuffles is making me watch numerous episodes of the anime series Ranma 1/2, which begins as a promising if crass coming-of-age cum romantic comedy but swiftly gets stuck in one gear, coasting on its built-up momentum by recycling its own plots ad infinitum, preventing the central characters from maturing and marrying as they ought. Comings-of-age are supposed to end when the characters are mature, so such stories have built-in time limits. They cannot run for multiple seasons. In real life, adolescents who never successfully adolesce become single twenty-somethings who mooch off their parents and spend all their money on fancy electronics. In fiction, adolescents who never successfully adolesce become annoying.

Adolescence is not something that merely happens to a person, but is something, like death, that a person must do whether he likes it or not and that he can do either well or badly. At least part of a child's training must include the information and inspiration he needs to adolesce well. Though the script for The Seeker reeks, it at least gets the coming-of-age right: Will begins the movie as a boy and ends it as a man, and no one should complain about that. So for the love of all that is good in this world, passing references to puberty are not morally problematic!

Update: I rolled the dice and decided to comment on reviews (a risky endeavor) with the risk of reading too much into them. See the comments for a thoughtful rebuttal from one of the reviewers I mentioned.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for The Seeker: The Dark is Rising:

Myth Level: Medium-Low (it seems to have been intentionally stripped of its mythology)

Quality: Low (bad, generic, forgettable fantasy flick)

Ethics/Religion: High (positive though simplistic with no objectionable elements)

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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