The Dark is Rising (2007)

My hatred of this film begins with this poster, but does not end there.
My hatred of this film begins with this poster, but does not end there. Apart from the US title change, fully half of the people in this image aren’t main cast but are put on the poster to up the sexy, and one was removed entirely from the final cut (I can only assume this is an early poster.) Alexander Ludwig’s ‘I’m running’ pose is also terrible, and a shameful attempt to make the film look more dynamic.

“Seek the Signs”

Directed by David L Cunningham
Starring Alexander Ludwig, Christopher Eccleston, Ian McShane and Frances Conroy

Will Stanton (Ludwig), the second youngest of a large family of bickering American emigres, discovers on his fourteenth birthday that he is the last of the Old Ones, a secret race of warriors in the service of the Light. With the Rider (Eccleston), embodiment of the Dark, growing in power, Will has just five days to find the six Signs of the Light which will restore its power and prevent the destruction of the world.

Guided by the other Old Ones – Merriman Lyon (McShane), Miss Greythorne (Conroy), Dawson (James Cosmo) and George (Jim Piddock) – Will travels through time to retrieve the Signs, while struggling with the fact that his family are a bunch of jerks and that one of his older brothers is dating the girl he fancies, and that she turns out to be a thousand year old witch in the service of the Dark.

What’s wrong with it?

God; where to begin.

Despite sharing its name and characters with Susan Cooper’s excellent The Dark is Rising (except in America, where the movie is called The Seeker, as you can see in the poster) this is really just a poor Harry Potter knock-off.

Will is aged from 11 to 14, supposedly because it is a more transitional age and to differentiate him from Harry Potter, but really in order to milk a cheap vein of drama from his angst over being unable to talk to girls.

The resulting subplot with Will angsting after his brother’s girlfriend becomes downright squicky given the ten year age gap (I guess she’s supposed to be physically a couple of years older, but doesn’t look like any high school student I ever saw.)

Despite the claim that they wanted to make Will less like Potter, almost every other change from the source material moves the story more into line with Rowling’s narrative. Will’s loving family become dysfunctional and borderline abusive and he is forced to move into an attic room when his brother unexpectedly returns from college. By making the family American while retaining the English setting, Will becomes an outsider, rather than a part of the community. The novel’s close associations with Arthurian myth and Thames Valley folklore are also traded for generic monsters.

Okay, fair play: Changing Will’s father from a jeweler to a physicist who worked up a rigorous scientific treatise on the quantum mechanical origins of good and evil doesn’t make it more like Harry Potter. It makes it more like His Dark Materials.

According to a vision of the coming destruction, the forces of the Dark are led by the Rider, but consist mostly of Voldemort and his Death Eaters, whizzing about in their smoke clouds.

The film piles on action scenes to make Will seem like a more dynamic character, but instead has him effectively stumbling from one confusing fight scene to the next.

The opening scene makes it clear that the filmmakers had little or no idea what an English secondary school is like.

Will is apparently able to travel swiftly and independently from a quaint, rural village to a vast shopping centre of the kind that only exist in England on the edges of major cities, which has uniformed security officers with an office in the goddamn service tunnels.

Almost everyone in this film acts like a complete jerk most of the time.

Half of the ‘American’ actors are actually Canadian, and thus contextually sounds like they’re doing howdy doody accents when in fact they aren’t.

There are dramatic inconsistencies in tone, most notably a Viking raid scene in which Will and Gwen are caught up in a slaughter and pursue a Viking who is carrying a) one of the Signs and b) a woman he clearly intends no good to. Will is soundly trounced, having burned out most of his power in a fit of pubescent strop, but then trades his fancy digital watch for the sign. All the while a jolly festival score is playing, and when they leave, the woman is still in imminent peril of rape. COMEDY!

Merriman is the worst teacher in the history of magical training. He complains that Will is a boy and he is used to warriors. Unsurprisingly, the film never makes the connection between Merriman Lyon and Merlyn, the wizard who basically invented the whole ‘training a boy to be a warrior’ bit.

The Old Ones are underwhelming, both in their effectiveness and their mysticalness. When it comes to a fight, they just slug it out with weapons.

The rooks who are the foot (wing?) soldiers of the Dark are switched out for ravens, because apparently rooks aren’t scary (or possibly trainable) enough.

Tom Stanton is changed from the oldest son, dead of lung disease, to Will’s older twin, kidnapped in infancy by the Dark and held in a magical snowglobe before being rescued by Will and returned home to a family who presumably have a lot of questions, as will the police, to which I presume his answers will mostly be ‘Master said I would get to build things, and not be beaten as much.’ HAPPY ENDING!

The deleted scenes make it clear that there was a radical last minute change of direction, abandoning all the filmed material with the character of the Walker in exchange for a climax in which Will realises that the power was inside him all along. This is never good. The original narrative doesn’t look much better, but did at least seem to be ducking the ‘the power was in you all along’ cliche.

What’s right with it?

The Old Ones and the Rider are played well beyond the desert of the material.

Christophe ‘Frozen’ Beck turns in a score that is fucking wasted on this shit.

How bad is it really?

Oh, it’s bad, and not just a bad adaptation. It’s Seventh Son levels of suck in both departments, and for much the same reason, vis the use of an existing property without regard to the themes and meaning of the original text, and throwing in the Death Eater smoke trail effects for good measure. The film basically throws out all that is unique in the source material in the name of making a sub-par Harry Potter knockoff with added relationship wangst (well, added in regard to the first HP; the later ones had plenty of their own, and it’s pretty damning that The Dark is Rising‘s relationship wangst is worse than all of Potter’s, even the Cho Chang red herring.)

Best bit (if such there is)?

Oh, fuck off.

What’s up with…?

  • The Signs? If it was so important that the Light’s power be safeguarded in six random bits of tat, why did Thomas Stanton the elder have to work in secret? Especially since he was working at the height of the Light’s power?
  • The Stantons? What a bunch of dicks.
  • Tom? Random kidnapped brother. What the fuck?
  • Just… every muddleheaded, nonsensical decision taken in the course of adapting a children’s classic into this mixed up mess of a movie? Seriously; why would you chose to adapt a book you have so fundamentally little understanding of?
  • Lovejoy? I have nothing against Ian McShane, but of all the Ian Mcs, he’s the last one I would have looked at for Merriman. Perhaps Kellan and Diarmuid passed.

Ratings

Production values – A predominance of practical effects sadly serves only to make what trickery there is more glaring, and overall effects are overused and overshowy. 11
Dialogue and performances – Some excellent actors struggle with dire material, with Eccleston in particular wrestling with a lot of expository declamation. 13
Plot and execution – Last minute changes, tonal uncertainty and a basic lack of understanding cripple the mythic arc of the story, and the resultant random time-hopping makes for an especially disjointed narrative. 18
Randomness – The film’s essential failure to get the point of the book leaves it wallowing in the half-abandoned trappings of the original story and the poorly-integrated mishmash of its own additions. 16
Waste of potential – Fuckers. 20

Overall 78%

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