With the successful film versions of the “Harry Potter” and “Narnia” books, it’s no surprise that similar works are getting the big screen treatment, and Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” sequence is the latest in the bunch. Inevitably, some films are bound to come across (rightly or wrongly) as cheap cash-ins on a popular wave, and David Cunnigham’s (“The Path to 9/11”) adaptation sadly falls into that category.
Based on the second book in the series, the titular Seeker of the title is Will Stanton, a young boy who discovers he is destined to find the Six Signs, magical talismans scattered across time that are needed to fight the Dark, epitomized by a fearsome horseman that appears to terrorize Will and his family. Like a lot of fantasy, especially children’s fantasy, “The Seeker” deals largely in archetypes, which is a difficult proposition in the best of hands. If done right, it can add layers of instant meaning always helpful when building a new mythology but if done badly it comes across as impossibly silly. Cunningham is not the best of hands.
He’s not helped much by screenwriter John Hodge (“Trainspotting”) who has taken great number of liberties with the source material, which doesn’t necessarily have to be bad, but it is here as many of the changes are either extremely poorly conceived or executed. The worst is elder brother Max (Gregory Smith), the kickboxing college dropout whose inner turmoil makes him easy pickings for The Rider’s manipulations, leading to an excruciating sequence where the brothers travel in time together, fighting over possession of one of the talismans. All of the action sequences, and the time travel ones in particular, tend to be atrociously staged, shot, and edited, filled with Dutch angles and quick cuts that seem to be trying to hide how cheap the film looks. It’s hard to tell if this is the director’s fault, or if he is just making the best with what he has to work with there are a few moments where the film does achieve a kind of epic grandeur, but only a few but for a film that is basically selling its look and world, “The Seeker” doesn’t have anywhere near the polish needed to pull it off.
A film with a solid story and characters can get away with less than appealing visuals, but “The Seeker” doesn’t have that going for it. It’s in the unfortunate position of being an effects and set piece filled adventure film that doesn’t have much to offer in the way of effects or set pieces. And in between, replacing any sort of character development or drama, is endlessly repeated exposition designed to make Will’s mission mind-numbingly clear and counting down the five days he has to do it in. The idea seems to be to use the time to build up tension to the next action sequence, but considering how lackluster the action sequences are, it’s not hard to guess how much tension the film actually manages to create.
Will himself has been upgraded to a young teenager on the cusp of adulthood, making the by now hardly new comparison between his growing awareness of his special abilities and the changes of puberty, with both being made all the worse by his attraction to classmate Maggie (Amelia Warner) and the stress of his situation, which he understandably can’t share with anyone. Ludwig plays him as a somewhat typical American boy of the television variety, smart and brave but awkward and unsure in social situations, an alienated everyman. He’s not bad, but tends towards blandness, though that’s as much because of the material as anything else.
The two shining lights are Eccleston as the evil Rider and Ian McShane as Merriman Lyon, Will’s begrudging mentor. Even with dialogue that doesn’t amount to more than bad exposition, they’re strong enough actors that they can instill the words with a certain amount of gravitas and reality. For fleeting moments, whenever they’re on screen speaking, the film actually becomes interesting. Cunningham also proves quite adept at the family material and in building mood, especially at the beginning, but it’s not anywhere near enough.
“The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising” isn’t an out and out bad film, there have certainly been worse films and recently, but it’s not particularly good either, suffering from ill-conceived and executed story decisions that rob it of tension or interest.