The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising Review
No matter the recent turn in the genre's fortunes, the release of any fantasy film remains a rare and unexpected treat. However, it's rarer still that Christmas and the fantastic come together as one. The Box Of Delights is simply a joy for his festive setting, its wolves, demons and magicians and for its escape from Abner's dungeons to Tatchester Cathedral in time for midnight mass. Granted, a Christmas Conan may not be quite the thing - those Frank Frazetta-inspired costumes of leather loin-cloths and steel bikinis are not best-suited to wintry snowfalls - but The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising does the right thing by retreating into a quaint little English hamlet in time for Christmas, of having snow blanket the ground and of it being the setting for a battle between ancient forces of good and evil, the Seeker and the Rider.
Very much aimed at children, The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising is the story of thirteen-year-old Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig), who, as the film opens, is leaving school for the holidays. On the bus home, he catches the eye of the beautiful Maggie (Amelia Warner) but his three elder brothers and younger sister are too much of a distraction. When he arrives home, everything seems different though. Two workmen in the village know his name. Miss Greythorne (Frances Conroy), who owns the manor, and her assistant Merriman Lyon (Ian McShane) invite Will and his family to her home for a Christmas party. And Will, teased too often by his brothers, pushes back and surprises everyone with his strength.
But it is a Christmas full of surprises. As the clouds gather and the snow falls, Will's father tells him about his twin brother Tom who disappeared when he was only a child. Then, on the night of the party, a strange figure dressed in black and on horseback chases Will. Miss Greythorne, Merriman and the two handymen, Dawson and George (James Cosmo and Jim Piddock), rescue Will but tell him that he is The Seeker, the seventh son of a seventh son and that he has but days to recover the six signs to aid him in his use of the forces of light against The Rider (Christopher Eccleston). But the skies are becoming ever darker and Huntercombe village has never looked more bleak.
It's somewhat tempting to confuse the matter of Will turning fourteen and his becoming the Seeker with his just hitting puberty. When your reviewer was fourteen, the only thing he went a-seeking was the lingerie pages in his mother's catalogues, not six signs with which to fight back against the darkness. Fourteen, though, is a suitable age at which to discover Will Stanton as no matter that this is as adaptation of a fantasy by Susan Cooper, The Seeker does read like a rather unimaginative entry in the strictly-for-children Choose Your Own Adventure series of books. Granted, it avoids any 'Svalbard the grunt' cliches that are commonplace in the genre but there are no shades to this tale, more back-of-an-envelope plotting that is painfully literal in its pitting the forces of light against those of darkness. Where the Rider calls on snow clouds and a flock of rooks to do his bidding, Will Stanton emerges from the gloom with a glowing white light around him. The two sides of the Jedi/Sith coin are positively Joycean when compared to The Seeker.
Then again, with the film being produced for children, it's somewhat churlish to complain about how simple it is. A bigger problem comes with director David L Cunningham's restlessness. Even more fidgety than a Michael Bay, whose constant fiddling with the image does at least have a home in his military-industrial fantasies, Cunningham's film demands a more languorous setting, particularly in its snow falling on Huntercombe. Unfortunately, Cunningham footles about with his CG rooks, his CG snowfalls and his CG storm clouds and rather ruins any sense of horror that might have come about had he just left things alone for a minute. The one genuine moment of horror comes when he does just that and permits an old dear to approach Will Stanton slowly before, in the silence, a snake creeps out from behind her and attacks Will and his guardians.
This viewer is more than willing to let all manner of nonsense by so long as it comes wrapped in a cloak of fantasy. Indeed, it's not quite a failing but more of a weakness and plenty of criticism has come my way over the years, both here and elsewhere, for my steadfast refusal to find much to complain about those films that bumble along in the troughs of the genre. So when even I struggle to find much good to say about The Seeker, you should know that there isn't a great deal in it to like. It's not even fair to children to say that they'll enjoy it more than adults as no matter how simple a story it is, they'll find themselves confused by the leaping about in The Seeker with director Cunningham far too fond of the tricks in his visual effects cupboard to simply get on with making his story work. There are moments to like and the cast, particularly James Cosmo, Jim Piddock and Christopher Eccleston, work hard at making The Seeker work but, on the whole, it doesn't. It starts so very well in the last few days before Christmas but its fantasy setting flags under the weight of the special effects, so unlike the very much better Box Of Delights.
So often does Cunningham rush to his computers for comfort that he's left The Seeker looking something of a blur. At first, the film doesn't look at all bad, with there even being something of The Box Of Delights about it all, albeit with American schoolkids instead of the well-mannered Kay Harker. Come the film's arrival at Huntercombe village and the crisp setting lends itself to a suitably detailed picture but then Cunningham loses faith in his audience's attention and soon blankets The Seeker beneath a thick layer of CG.
Eventually, that early sharpness to the picture gives way to fog, storm clouds and a flock of rooks fluttering into a snowfall. There's simply far too much of this by the film's end and the picture suffers accordingly. By the time signs start appearing in the sky, the DVD looks soft and the early sharpness gives way to a mist that obscures the best of the set and costume design. However, saying that, there's probably only so much the producers of this DVD could have done with the film as many of the problems lie with the film rather than the DVD adding very much to them.
The DD5.1 audio track is fine but amidst all the visual noise in the picture, it's hard to pick out anything of note. There are moments when the rear channels are used to add presence to the picture but it's more bluster than clear-cut, even to some of the dialogue being lost behind the noise. The shame of this is that, like the picture, the first half of The Seeker is fine with a stillness and quiet in the soundtrack that suggests that what follows will be a good deal better. However, that early tone is lost amidst the heavy use of sound effects later in the film.
The Making Of The Seeker (42m34s): This is a very typical look behind the scenes of The Seeker, interviewing the cast about their characters, various members of the crew, including the production and costume designers, and a more detailed look at specific scenes. It is, though, a well-produced features, not so much in its structure, which is a bit, "We'll show this...and then that!" but more in its use of split-screen to compare what's happening behind-the-scenes to what was included in the film. There is, though, too much on the special effects late on in the feature, which is surprising given that...
The Visual Effects Of The Seeker (15m47s): ...the film has a special effects feature all of its own. There is some repetition with the main making-of, particularly as regards the dressing of the village, the make-up and visual effects but there is much more explanation of each in this feature. Unfortunately, as with many films that are driven by their effects, this would have us believe that they are used solely in support. With The Seeker, don't believe a word of it. The film becomes so lost behind effects that it may lose younger viewers, who'll struggle to understand what's happening, but this feature plays them down, which isn't a fair reflection of The Seeker.
Extended/Deleted Scenes (21m13s): With an optional (and subtitled) commentary by director David L Cunningham, these would have been better had they been included in the film as they offer more to scenes that seem short in the final cut of The Seeker. These include the pub scene between Will and Max, more of the Viking attack on the Saxon village and of a character, The Walker, who follows Will around Huntercombe village.
All of the features on this disc are subtitled.