There is precisely one redeeming moment in Kimble Rendall’s 7 Guardians of the Tomb, a sci-fi horror blockbuster touting itself as the largest Chinese-Australian co-production in history. The scene comes about two-thirds of the way in after a group of explorers find themselves trapped in an underground Han dynasty tomb for an emperor obsessed with achieving immortality. The group discovers a potion made by the emperor’s alchemist from the excretions of hyper-intelligent spiders imported from—where else?—Australia. Grabbing the bottle of life-giving elixir, American pharmaceutical tycoon Mason (Kelsey Grammer) pulls out a gun, traps the rest of the team in an locked chamber, and bangs on the walls, summoning the hordes of spiders to come and devour them. Shocked by one of the least surprising heel turns imaginable, one of the team members yells to Mason “You lied to us!” Mason turns back, snarls, and shouts, “Of course I did! I’m a BUSINESS MAAAAN!”
A little cheese can go a long way in such a stultifyingly dull and unoriginal movie. But unfortunately this awesomely over-the-top line delivery fails to salvage 7 Guardians of the Tomb from its own mediocrity. Imagine Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005) where the subterranean cannibals were replaced by the spiders from Stephen Hopkins’ Lost in Space (1998). Only imagine said spiders were still as poorly animated as their 90s counterparts and the lead human roles as poorly cast. You now have a good idea of what to expect from this genre mishmash.
The film centers on an international team of scientists led by Jia (Li Bingbing), the daughter of Mason’s deceased business partner, investigating the disappearance of her brother during a trip through the Western China desert. While trapped in a sandstorm, they discover the entrance to a lost tomb for a Chinese emperor infested with the aforementioned super-spiders. They decide to explore it, partly out of curiosity, partly to find Jia’s brother. The team consists of a motley of stereotypes so forgettable I couldn’t be bothered to look up their names. There’s the comedic relief fat guy who quips about Lord of the Rings and twitter in between bites of Twinkies. There’s the Don’t-Need-No-Man action heroine who is naturally the first to die. They even discover their own Newt in the form of a traumatized little girl they discover in a shack in the desert who watched her family get killed by the spiders. We know all these characters: we roll our eyes when the crack jokes and feel nothing when they’re knocked off one-by-one.
We’re here mostly for Grammer in one of his more unfortunate post-Fraiser roles and Bingbing, one of China’s biggest movie stars whom American audiences might remember from bit parts in recent entries in the Resident Evil and Transformers franchises. Despite her talents, she’s not given much to work with other than looking gloomy while remembering her lost brother and shocked when confronted by CGI monstrosities. Considering Bingbing’s considerable pedigree in effects-heavy Chinese blockbusters like Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), it’s inconceivable that she would be so wasted and misused, particularly in a film of such international importance. But the more one seriously considers the film, the more slapdash and poorly executed it becomes. Why would a film that heavily emphasizes prehistoric trade routes between China and Australian Aborigines not feature a single non-white Australian? Why would they waste so much money animating CGI creatures in shots that could have been easily done with real animals, particularly an early scene where Jia handles a CGI snake for a group of schoolchildren visiting a zoo? Why would the film call itself 7 Guardians of the Tomb when said tomb is conspicuously unguarded and there are not seven of anything anywhere in the film? And why would the film hammer on about the tomb being from 200 BCE when the featured emperor was so obviously modeled on Qin Shi Huang—the notoriously death-adverse emperor who ordered the creation of the Terracotta Army to guard his tomb—who was from the Qin dynasty? Admittedly that last one is a nitpick—the two dynasties were adjacent to each other—but for a film with such a massive budget it seems preposterous that they couldn’t give at least one intern twenty bucks to fact-check basic things about Chinese history.