Time-lapse photography, a bombastic soundtrack, and a swirling 3D camera partial to taking aerial shots of mountaintops and whooshing down into underground prisons are just some of the tools Seventh Son employs to grab audiences—and that’s just in the first one or two minutes. In one scene, smoke appears as if it might spill right into the movie theater, but director Sergei Bodrov mostly uses the 3D format as a way of heightening the effect of scary things rapidly flying across the screen. And if you’ve seen one witch transform herself into a dragon and swoop toward the camera, you’ve seen them all, so by the third or fourth time you may find yourself thinking how much more lifelike Peter Jackson’s Smaug felt, or how much scarier that flying-cloud-of-smoke effect was when it depicted Dementors in the Harry Potter films.
The unintended side effects of 3D, like its blurring of objects or its tendency to make people look almost doll-like when seen from above, also draw too much attention to themselves, making it that much harder to surrender to Seventh Son’s predictable pastiche of fantasy tropes. Those start with Gregory (Jeff Bridges), a grizzled old hunter of witches and other scary supernatural beings who’s preparing for a showdown with Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), the ice-queen witch who was once—spoiler alert!—his true love. Gregory recruits the blandly handsome Tom (Ben Barnes) as his apprentice and the two prepare for the final showdown, first with the requisite crash course for Tom in martial and magical arts and then with a series of battles with an exhaustingly inexhaustible supply of CGI-augmented villains.
As is often the case in films like this, Seventh Son is at its weakest when it tries to leaven its brink-of-disaster gravity with a little nerdy humor, playing Gregory’s fondness for booze for clunky laughs or breaking up the faux-medieval dialogue with a jarringly contemporary-sounding aside. But even when it’s playing it straight, the dialogue clinks and clanks, laden down with aphorisms, melodramatic threats (“I…will…haunt…you!”) and endless exposition. The first lines we hear from Tom are a speech he makes to his little sister about how out of place he has feels on the family farm. “I’m going to leave this place soon. I know it!” he tells her in a typically hamfisted bit of foreshadowing.
The characters have so little emotional heft that, when Gregory and Tom are perched Butch and Sundance-style at the edge of a cliff, what registers isn’t the fear of seeing them die in the fall, but the stomach-churning, amusement-park vertigo of looking down at the water from their point of view. Gregory’s other sidekick, a voiceless, half-man monster named Tusk, keeps disappearing, apparently killed in action, but he barely leaves a ripple of regret in his wake. Bridges, who seems to be enjoying himself, plays Gregory as a mixture of the Dude and Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, a grizzled old master who overplays the burnout thing a bit to keep people off guard. Moore’s Malkin is a worthy adversary, ferocious and icily seductive. But not even the spark those two generate in their scenes together can light a fire under this clumsily soldered collection of recycled parts.