The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising is the latest entry in the Harry Potter clone-on-a-budget genre. You can pick movies like this out, usually by their awkward and unnecessary subtitles. It’s as if they think giving the movie a secondary title makes it twice as cool, or somehow makes up for the film’s meager budget and even more meager script. But it’s not all bad with The Seeker. Obvious attempt to cash in on the kids fantasy craze it may be, but of that bunch of opportunist, lower-tier movies it’s one of the best.
The film casts young Alexander Ludwig as Will Stanton: special boy. As it is in all these movies, Will has secret, special powers nobody knows about until, on his fourteenth birthday things get a little weird. Will is told by his neighbors, who he instantly accepts as ancient beings with mystical powers of light (which we never see any evidence of), that he is “The Seeker”. He and his neighbors represent the forces of Light, while lurking somewhere out there is The Rider (Christopher Ecclestein) who represents the forces of Dark. Pretty obvious symbolism here. You know where this is going.
The Rider wants to cover the Earth in darkness and it’s up to Will to stop him. As The Seeker he has five days to uncover the six signs he’ll need to stop The Rider. If he fails, the world will get really dark and cold and he’ll get really dead. Big fun, and the plot is every bit as vague as that. The script, simply stated, is awful. Things just sort of happen because they’re supposed to, and Will runs around collecting signs and spouting contrived, expositional dialogue that sounds like it was copied off the back of a soap box.
Somehow, in spite of that, there are times when the movie really works. In spite of whatever limited means he might have been working with, director David Cunningham gives his movie an inviting sense of warmth and energy. There’s a neat little gimmick with the signs, where Will has to step through time to retrieve them. When he’s walking through a medieval battlefield or watching a cock fight in an ancient pub the movie has life. Unfortunately these moments aren’t taken far enough. They’d have been better off focusing more on Will and his mentors stepping through time to battle their way to his talismans, but this is a modestly budgeted film, and there’s only so far they can take it.
In those places where The Seeker truly grabs your attention, it’s due mostly to the film’s awesome cast. Christopher Eccelstein is magnetic as the movie’s mysterious dark rider, and he threatens and charms his way through the film with unbelievable grace in the face of almost insurmountably bad writing. Even more exciting is the performance as Ian McShane, cast as the movie’s cliché mentor character/neighbor. Except there’s nothing cliché about McShane’s performance. Rather than riffing on the usual wizard persona these characters are saddled with, he comes off more as a man’s man, a Sean Connery type who strides through the film and gives you a sense of real power… even though aside from his performance there’s no evidence of it. The same is true of his group of “old ones”, played by great character actors like Frances Conroy. They come off like a new spin on the League of Extraordinary Gentleman, or what the League should have been had the screen version of it been any good.
The same can’t be said of young Alexander Ludwig, who seems as if he’s playing a game of “let’s pretend” rather than actually facing up to the strange fantasy dangers the movie presents. It doesn’t help that he’s asked to spout such awful dialogue. Will whines about his powers while spouting embarrassing lines about being unable to talk to girls and staring blankly at the screen. You just feel bad for him. Veteran actors like McShane and Eccelstein are able to overcome the script’s shortcomings, but poor Ludwig is just too young to have that kind of unstoppable gravitas.
Still, Ecclestein and McShane are so captivating it’s almost worth putting up with The Seeker’s inept script. They deliver moments of real magic and imagination in the film, and I’m not talking about hokey scenes where a character just stands there emitting light as a way of fighting the bad guy. The Seeker’s cast makes you want to believe in the movie, and that’s almost enough to make it good.