Hoping to latch on to the next big fantasy franchise, Walden Media — the faith-friendly company bringing us C.S. Lewis’ Christian Narnia allegory in its entirety — has adapted the first book in Susan Cooper’s beloved The Dark Is Rising series. Though stylishly produced, this clumsy parable will probably engender more boredom than sequels.
Recently relocated from the United States, 13-year-old Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig) lives in a quaint English village with his physics professor father (John Benjamin Hickey), exhausted homemaker mother (Wendy Crewson), three older brothers (Drew Tyler Bell and identical twins Edmund and Gary Entin) and kid sister Gwen (Emma Lockhart). The eldest Stanton son is currently serving in the U.S. Navy, but the unexpected return of yet another brother, college student Max (Everwood’s Gregory Smith), displaces Will from his own bedroom and into the attic. As Christmas — and, significantly, Will's 14th birthday — nears, Will begins experiencing strange phenomena. The family dogs growl at his approach; crows gather on the branches of nearby trees; and when Will is mistakenly collared at the local mall for shoplifting, claws burst from the security guards' chests and birds fly from their mouths. Though ignored by the rest of his family, an understandably confused Will has caught the attention of four of the village’s stranger residents: well-born spinster Miss Greythorne (Frances Conroy), who lives at stately Greythorne Manor; her faithful butler, Merriman Lyon (Ian McShane); and aging locals Dawson (James Cosmo) and Old George (Jim Piddock), who've been giving Will odd looks. Just when it seems time to call the pedophile squad, the odd quartet reveal their purpose and Will’s destiny: Though mortal on the outside, they are in fact the Old Ones who exist outside time, and Will, being the seventh son of a seventh son, is fated to save the world in an impending confrontation with the forces of the Dark, personified by a mounted villain known only as The Rider (Christopher Eccleston). A thousand years ago, the forces of Light barely won their battle against the Dark, and to ensure its future safety, the Light was divided up into six “signs,” five of which were made of earth’s most basic elements and hidden across time. The sixth sign was made of something far rarer and less tangible: the essence of a human soul freely given (Amen). Will argues that they’ve got the wrong guy — he only has five brothers, making him the sixth, not seventh, son — but the Old Ones are adamant. Will is the "sign seeker" they’ve been awaiting for a millennium, and he's the world’s only hope. Utilizing his new powers, which include super strength and the ability to step through time, Will must locate all six hidden signs and, with the power of Light once again restored, save us all from a reign of eternal darkness. That epic rematch, Miss Greythorne is quick to add, is due to take place five days hence, when the Dark’s rising power has reached its zenith.
Clunky Christian references notwithstanding, this dark adventure gets off to a promising start with a few scares, which may be a little too intense for smaller kids (the sweet old lady who bursts into a writhing mass of slimy snakes will have the wee ones running and screaming from grandma). Just as the strange occurrences hint at another world just behind this one, tensions around the Stanton dinner table (at one point Max accuses his father of not being “able" and nearly reduces Dad to tears) suggest a dysfunctional family dynamic that’s never properly explored. And what is revealed doesn’t make much sense: How are we to believe that for the past 12 years, none of Will’s older brothers ever let on that he once had a twin brother who disappeared mysteriously at age 2? The film looks surprisingly good, but topsy-turvy, off-balance camera angles can't mask the tedium that begins to set in once Will begins collecting the signs. With each one he gathers, you'll be increasingly gratified to know you're that much closer to the end. leave a comment --Ken Fox