Will (Ludwig) is informed by a pair of eccentric aristocrats (McShane and Conroy) that he is the descendant of an ancient warrior order, and must defeat a great evil. Cue much po-faced gobbledegook, but little excitement.
It would take MASSIVE powers of restraint not to be suspicious of the motive behind this tardy adaptation of Susan Cooper’s teen-lit novel, as it looks very much like a quest for box-office gold riding on the wide hem of Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.
Following Potter, Narnia, and even smaller-scale successes like Bridge To Terabithia, making fantastical children’s entertainment seems a recipe to print money in Tinseltown; it appears hard to write a fantasy novel without immediately having it optioned for the screen. On the other hand, Cooper’s inventive, imaginative books, first published in the 1960s, have been crying out for a sympathetic film version for decades. On the evidence here, they will be crying for a good while longer.
It’s not just that the story - a callow youth discovers he is the last in the line of an ancient order charged with saving the world from the forces of darkness - is achingly familiar, but more that in the hands of writer John Hodge and director David L. Cunningham it is bland, unengaging and tiresomely predictable. Considering that the books, according to their dedicated fans and any number of critics, are possessed of a depth of feeling and an understanding of the adolescent soul that leaves the Hogwarts crew standing, this is unforgiveable.
Where does the blame lie? Cunningham’s CV might boast little more than a Kiefer Sutherland POW drama, but Hodge’s feel for adaptation has clearly gone downhill since Trainspotting - even since The Beach, for that matter. Because where Cooper’s books interlace echoes of Arthurian legend and the folktales of their Chilterns setting to create a strong sense of place and purpose, The Dark Is Rising builds its threadbare mysticism on scenes and characters lifted wholesale from both the Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings film franchises.
As with Potter, LOTR and Star Wars (and even the Arthurian legends themselves), the plot rests on the mythology of the boy warrior. As embodied by Alexander Ludwig - who plays Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son, heir to the legacy of the Old Ones and mankind’s frontline defence against The Darkness - it’s an iconic figure reduced to the status of a spoddy schoolkid you wouldn’t trust to defend your garden against an infestation of crab grass, let alone evil mall security guards or malicious grannies. The books’ Will, a serious boy with a healthy respect for the terrifying world in which he finds himself, is replaced by the sort of kid who says “Awesome!” a lot, and wields magic like a water pistol.
Eccleston’s back in bad guy mode, sneering and glowering his way through the action, while McShane takes another whimsical break from his more usual (these days) Deadwood hardasses. But even with the slick production and flashy effects, it’s just not enough. No-one can deny that the bar for this stripe of pubescent, Manichaean fantasy has been set precipitously high in the last half-decade, but even with the leg-up Cooper’s source material provides, Rising barely gets off the ground.
Off-the-shelf teen fantasy not likely to satisfy the post-Potter/LOTR crowd but guaranteed to enrage fans of the source novel. The newly added quasi-religious overtones dont help either.