If my local theater is anything to go by, Back to the Future II had a higher per screen box office take this weekend than Vin Diesel’s latest stab at a new fantasy franchise. The Last Witch Hunter reads like a nerd marketing dream: Vin Diesel LARPing with a real flaming sword, Frodo Baggins and Ygritte from Game of Thrones as his sidekicks, Michael Caine as Vin Diesel’s very own Michael Caine, pretty CGI and witches. It’s Halloween. Who doesn’t like a good, creepy witch movie at Halloween? It’s a no-brainer, right?
And that, of course, is the problem with The Last Witch Hunter.
It wasn’t that I was expecting The Last Witch Hunter to be a good movie, but I did at least hope it would be fun.
I love Vin Diesel. I really do. He’s got legit geek cred, especially when it comes to D&D. I’ve written more about his Riddick series than any sane person should and they remain some of my favorites. (Favorites—never my picks for the best movies.) The Chronicles of Riddick was all colorful, baroque production values, swagger, and goofy, earnest charm. It’s as if The Last Witch Hunter is striving to be that, only… scarier? Darker?
I’m not quite sure what this movie was going for. Because of its PG-13 rating, gore and sex are largely off the table. The magic system was way too flimsy to appeal to a hardcore fantasy fan and, beyond an opening scene that might freak out someone with a flying phobia, the scariest thing I saw during The Last Witch Hunter was the tall man sitting in front of me with his bare feet draped over the seat in front of him. Think about that the next time you want to relax in a movie theater seat.
At least the universe of Riddick was just that—another universe, with a basic internal logic. Sure, it wasn’t super original or very well-plotted, but it’s more than what we get in The Last Witch Hunter. I couldn’t tell you much about the world of The Last Witch Hunter that makes much sense, let alone why you should care about it.
What is a witch, anyway?
Going by The Last Witch Hunter, here’s what I learned:
- Witches are another race that sprouted from the earth and like elemental magic. Okay so far…
- Witches once hated humans, possibly because indoor plumbing hadn’t been invented yet. This is actually something I’m paraphrasing from the Witch Queen herself.
- Witches can’t organize themselves into a larger, deadlier coven until the plot says they can.
- Bad witches go to a place that is literally called Witch Prison.
- Witches love jewelry. Like, a lot.
The story of Kaulder is about as bare bones as it can get, and it’s a shame nothing was done to flesh it out into something more unique beyond missing his dead wife and daughter. (We know this because he enters a memory of his family and it is the exact same hand-dragging through-a-wheat-field shot you’ve seen before in Gladiator.) Kaulder doesn’t carry the weight of eight centuries’ of existence on his broad shoulders, nor does he have any particular quirks or insights from living for so long. Kaulder is just kind of resigned to his fate and getting his job done, not unlike Vin Diesel in this movie.
Vin Diesel looks like he’s been having more fun on the press junket for The Last Witch Hunter, stopping by Geek & Sundry’s Critical Role for a game of D&D.
Rose Leslie’s feisty young witch Chloe is one of the few bright spots in the movie. I think a movie where her and her magic were in the lead would be more fun.
Instead we get some forced romantic tension between her character and Kaulder. Kaulder needs “someone special” to keep him interested in the world, so of course that’s Chloe’s real job. I recommend trying not to think that Leslie is twenty years Diesel’s junior and instead think of it as Kaulder is just naturally going to have a wide age spread from everyone because he’s 800 years old. It kept my eyes from rolling out of my head.
Also not completely torturous was Elijah Wood’s 37th Dolan. (Dolans are the men who are basically fancy butlers for Kaulder.) He’s also quick with a joke, whether he intends it or not. He definitely got the biggest laugh out of me when his answer to a giant, really dumb and random plot-twist revealing question was the most matter-of-fact “Yup.” ever committed to screen. It kept me giggling all weekend, in fact.
It’s like Elijah Wood was in on the joke. I only wish he shared more of it with us.
Maybe Vin Diesel knows something we don’t know, too. In fact, maybe Kaulder is more focused on the future because it’s revealed close to the film’s last act that there are even Bigger Bads waiting behind the resurrected Witch Queen. While I’d love to see Vin Diesel kicking Cthulhu’s tentacled ass, Kaulder is way too boring to wield another flaming sword.
The Last Witch Hunter is not the cheese-tastic, one-liner spouting fantasy movie I came for. If even Vin Diesel can’t cast a spell over audiences with his mere presence, the quest for a new fantasy franchise is far from over.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com, covering book reviews, gaming and TV, including Game of Thrones. She’s also discussed entertainment for Boing Boing and Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. Follow her on Twitter.