The weird thing about The Sorcerer's Apprentice is, it takes more trouble to give a pseudo-scientific explanation for its goings-on than most science-fiction films nowadays. And the Apprentice's science-geek chops are foregrounded. It's a fantasy that loves science. Spoilers ahead.
For the most part, The Sorcerer's Apprentice plays out like the spawn of Percy Jackson and Harry Potter — who's been dropped on its head a lot. But a couple of things make it stand out from the pack, cheesy visual effects and nonsensical plot and all: The fact that the movie is so unequivocally pro-science, and the fact that Nic Cage is actually sort of engaging as a caring mentor and father figure.
And really, there is no more fantasy or science fiction in Hollywood. There's only the movie where random shit happens, and we gotta deal with it. Sometimes it's ancient shit, sometimes it's futuristic shit. Sometimes it's space shit. Sometimes it's giant monster shit. Whatever type of shit it is, it's usually computer-generated and unreal, in the purest sense. It's from a dimension of unreality, of fakeness and incongruity. Anyway, the random shit that happens usually stands in, in some inchoate way, for our insecurities — and a lot of those insecurities are, at bottom, about the social transformation that comes out of technological change. So if you really break it down, then yeah — the "random shit happens" movie is always about our relationship to technology, even if it's ostensibly about the supernatural.
But The Sorcerer's Apprentice isn't content with throwing a flatulence of CG at our heads, it's all about giving us (pseudo) scientific explanations. The pedagogy that goes along with that whole "apprenticeship" thing involves a lot of science-babble, worthy of an episode of Stargate Atlantis. According to Nic Cage's ancient wizard, the thing we call "magic" is actually a kind of bioelectric energy that sorcerers learn to control and project outside their body. (It doesn't quite come across as "midichlorians," thankfully.) And the whole "you only use 10 percent of your brain" chestnut is trotted out, along with a host of rules and principles that the Apprentice is supposed to be keeping track of.
If you're inclined to cheap shots, you could say that the army of scriptwriters who churned out this film were using way less than 10 percent of their brains. But you have to admire their commitment to rational explanations. I mean, at least if you're going to have a movie where the whole focus is a guy teaching another guy, it helps that there are rules and rationalizations, however nonsensical. It helps me get through it, anyway.
And then there's the fact that Jay Baruchel, who is simultaneously annoying as fuck and somewhat endearing, is a science geek who plays with Tesla coils. He's an NYU student who has some kind of massive science project that involves using Tesla coils in an abandoned subway turnaround under Washington Square Park, that just screams "set piece" the first time you see the space. (And indeed, the abandoned subway turnaround plays home to several big set pieces, including a pastiche of the famous "dancing mops" scene from Fantasia that inspired this film in the first place.)
Baruchel's science geek cred is at least partly an excuse to make him the standard-issue Lovable Nerd, the man-boy who's whining and cringing his way through so many movies and TV shows lately. But it turns out to be somewhat important to the film, and if you can sit through an endless scene where Baruchel uses his Tesla coils to play crappy pop music to his ambiguous girlfriend, you do actually get some payoff.
Without giving too much away, Baruchel uses his knowledge of science, as much as the magic that Cage has taught him, to defeat the film's villains. Part of the reason our young hero wins is because his adversaries are still stuck in the Middle Ages to some extent, and they don't understand how much wallop a Tesla coil packs. When Baruchel says his "badass" line at the end about bringing his friend Science into the fight, you have to applaud a little.
And then there's the other reason why The Sorcerer's Apprentice rises — just a few inches, mind you — above its origins as a cheap ripoff of Harry and Percy: Nic Cage. The Ghost Rider and Knowing star is once again bringing his C-game to a movie, but this time around it's got a certain warmth and twinkle to it. I think this is the first time I've seen Cage play a mentor who cares about his mentee, instead of being a loner or a rebel or just a weirdo. And a lot of the film's creative energy goes into showing that Cage is a good mentor, he cares about Dave, he is kind of a taskmaster but also has a twinkling spark of self-mockery — like when Dave says the shoes a sorcerer is supposed to wear are "old man shoes," and Cage keeps bringing it up in a truculent but accepting way. You wind up thinking — maybe Nic Cage growing old is a good thing and he'll be better as a father figure than he was as a leading man. And then you remember Knowing, and shudder a little.
Apart from those two things — science, and Nic Cage being likable — the film is pretty much what you'd expect. There's a canned romance. There are crazy CG artifacts, including bits of the city coming to life and attacking. There's lazy ethnic stereotyping — of course when you go to Chinatown, there's going to be a dragon dance. That's what they do every day in Chinatown! There's a stock villain, although Alfred Molina gets to have some fun with it. None of it's particularly bad, and you'll only use about 3 percent of your brain watching it.
But the memorable thing about The Sorcerer's Apprentice is that it finds time to celebrate the true power of the people who made all of the CG-animated metal birds and Wall Street bulls possible in the first place — the geeks.
Images from the Sorcerer's Apprentice premiere via Getty Images.