In the way it unimaginatively regurgitates familiar genre elements in service of preachy piousness, director Scott Charles Stewart’s cinema is the equivalent of Christian rock. For Priest, his follow-up to the rebel-angel saga Legion, Stewart again casts Paul Bettany as a one-dimensionally stoic warrior of God who must disobey divine duty and church doctrine—in the person of Christopher Plummer’s my-way-or-the-highway Monsignor—to prove his true faithfulness to the Almighty. That quest, set in a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity has won its age-old crusade against the planet’s vampire hordes and walled itself away in a Dark City-esque blacklit metropolis, involves Bettany’s superhuman Priest (his face tattooed with a cross) defying the law by venturing outside the city to investigate the supposed vampire-related death of his brother (Stephen Moyer) and abduction of his niece, Lucy (Lily Collins).
On his journey, he teams with Hicks (Cam Gigandet), a sheriff and Lucy’s boyfriend, as well as his former partner and celibate love interest, Priestess (Maggie Q), and soon discovers a new bloodsucker plot to conquer humanity once and for all that’s led by his fallen comrade-turned-fanged-villain Black Hat (Karl Urban), who struts around orchestrating vampiric violence like a classical-music conductor in a wide-brimmed hat and duster. As with Brad Dourif’s magical-elixir huckster, Black Hat’s outfit is merely one of many ways in which Stewart positions his material as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi western, with Priest functioning as a cross between a clichéd war vet—living in a society that no longer respects his battlefield accomplishments, and suffering from PTSD—and a more noble variation on The Searchers’s Ethan Edwards, consumed with rescuing his young niece from indigenous hordes.
Priest treats its oater conventions as it does its Christian-themed iconography (hey, crucifix-throwing stars!), which is to say, as superficial trappings to make the proceedings feel familiar and yet hybrid-stylized “cool.” That sought-after reaction, however, is stymied not only by the dullness of its mash-ups, but by pedestrian slow-motion shots, editorial flurries that conceal fights’ actual spatial dynamics and continuity, and CG creatures almost as lame as the invincibility of its heroes, who pinball about the frame without ever seeming to be in danger. The sole drama, then, stems from whether or not audiences will even be able to discern what’s happening on screen, since Stewart douses his set pieces in muddy darkness that’s made even more incomprehensible by reliably gimmicky 3D, which so drowns out illumination and visual detail that, rather than enhancing immersion, it has the unintentional—and not unpleasant—effect of further alienating one from the enervating action.