Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review: Vampire Academy (2014)

Vampire Academy (2014)

Rated PG-13 for violence, bloody images, sexual content and language

Score: 2 out of 5

Vampire Academy is a particularly disappointing sort of bad movie. Oh, it's bad, no doubt about it. It's pretty obvious that the producers of this movie (based on the first installment in the young-adult book series by Richelle Mead) saw only dollar signs in the wake of Harry Potter and Twilight, the two most obvious inspirations for this, and thus only cared about cashing in on the trend of teen-lit adaptations that kicked off with those two series and gained a new head of steam with The Hunger Games. But there is some actual wit, spark, and fun buried here. The actors are likable, even when their characters are annoying, and whether it was taken from the source material or the work of screenwriter Daniel Waters (the writer of Heathers) and his brother, director Mark Waters (the director of Mean Girls), this film is at least self-aware enough about its use of YA fantasy cliches that I was reasonably entertained watching it. It doesn't make up for a convoluted plot that's drowned in exposition and a bad case of "show, don't tell", expectations for a sequel that weigh down the story (and turned out to be wishful thinking), or the fact that it doesn't really do much to subvert those cliches, but as an admittedly shaky standalone film, I can see this becoming a minor cult classic a few years down the road, one that's just a hair better than "so bad it's good". This may be damning it with faint praise, but it's still a better movie than any of the Twilight films.

The film is set in a world where vampires live among us, hiding from human society. Vampire society is divided into three groups. First, we have the Moroi, the "good" vampires. They are mortal, born from other Moroi, and lack many of the powers of full-blown vampires, but in exchange, they get the ability to use magic, and they aren't that badly affected by the sunlight (they're highly sensitive to it, but they don't burn up) nor holy objects (in fact, the follow a religion that seems to be rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy). Moroi society has taboos against violence, which is where the Dhampirs come in. A Dhampir, the offspring of a Moroi and a human (or another Dhampir), can go out in daylight, doesn't need to drink blood, and otherwise lacks all the vampire weaknesses, but they do get heightened strength, senses, agility, and flexibility, making them highly capable in their job as the guardians to the Moroi. And the Moroi need protection... because lurking in the shadows are the Strigoi. Formed either by killing somebody when feeding (if Moroi) or drinking the blood of one (an option available to humans, Dhampirs, and Moroi alike), they are your classic horror movie vampires: immortal, superhuman, red eyes, burst into flames in sunlight, require a silver stake in the heart to kill, and pure evil. Our protagonists are Vasilisa "Lissa" Dragomir (Lucy Fry), a princess and the last surviving heir to one of the Moroi royal bloodlines, and Rosemarie "Rose" Hathaway (Zoey Deutch), her Dhampir guardian-in-training. The two of them have just been brought back to St. Vladimir's Academy, a posh boarding school in the Montana wilderness (far away from prying human eyes) where young Moroi learn magic and young Dhampirs learn defense, after having spent the last year on the run out of a perception that the school wasn't safe for Lissa. And it doesn't take long after they return before they start to rediscover why they left in the first place: not just the usual teenage vampire drama (boys, slut shaming, threatening messages written in blood), but also a conspiracy involving a missing teacher, a possible Strigoi threat, the headmistress Kirova (Olga Kurylenko), and the frail and sick Moroi elder Victor Dashkov (Gabriel Byrne).

Got all that? No? Too bad.

If that plot description was a slog to get through... well, I had to actually watch this thing. Trust me, I left out all manner of the finer details that this film spends a large stretch of time explaining in some really clunky world-building. I've said it before with regards to page-to-screen adaptations, and it's still true here: narrative that works in a written medium (so I've heard; the series has a passionate fandom) doesn't necessarily translate well to a visual medium, and there were countless times when I was thinking of ways that all the infodumps here could've been better integrated into the actual meat of the film. For example, one creative moment in the opening scene demonstrates that vampires do show up in mirrors not by telling us this, but by having them appear, plainly visible, in a car's rearview mirror. Throughout the film, we see Moroi vampires going out with umbrellas in the daytime, indicating that they're bothered by the sunlight but, unlike the Strigoi, don't burn up in it. Not only do we see them inside a chapel in the presence of Christian holy objects, that chapel is located inside the school, which is itself named for a saint (albeit a fictional one, implied to be Dracula given his name) and holds religious services in that chapel. This film was ready to show and not tell when it came to indicating details about the vampires' society, but instead, it constantly slows down to spell things out for the viewer. It doesn't even make the greatest use of its school setting to give an in-universe reason for having the characters explain these things; instead, we get our narrator Rose describing all these things to us.

The film's problems are compounded once it gets from the world-building to the actual plot. This was a movie that was clearly made in the hopes of turning it into the next great young-adult franchise, and as such, there exists a deeply-woven story thread that never pays off, serving merely to set up a sequel at the very end. Upon the reveal of the actual villains and their motivations, what had seemed like the film's main plotline, which concerned the disappearance of a teacher named Sonya Karp, turns out to be a mere red herring for what had been, until then, the far less interesting sidestory, with the ending adding some sequel-bait as well. A character who had been set up as having something to hide sees no explanation for their suspicious behavior. Again, having never read the book, it feels jarring in how suddenly it shifted gears from a conspiracy that was implied to involve the school's administration and most popular/bratty students to a much smaller-scale plot about a vampire who wants Lissa's healing powers (side note: Lissa has healing powers) in order to live forever (another side note: Moroi vampires are mortal, unlike the Strigoi), leaving the conspiracy as something that the sequels would elaborate on. Had this been a half-season arc on a Vampire Academy TV series (which honestly might have been a better format for this), I would have been more forgiving, but as a feature film, this suffers the same problem as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: as a standalone story, it is threadbare at best and incomplete at worst.

The enjoyment that I did get from this film came from its leads. Zoey Deutch is hilarious and sexy as Rose, who can be summed up as a curvier brunette version of Buffy Summers, albeit one who's protecting the vampires (the good ones, at least) instead of trying to slay them. Rose could've been grating in the hands of a lesser actress, and at least two moments in the film had me questioning her judgment and her image as a badass, wisecracking action heroine, but Deutch's performance was easily able to make up for it. She sold me as a teenage girl who was still learning how to be a protector for Lissa, starting off crafty but vastly overconfident and learning the tools of the trade from her instructor Dimitri, played by Danila Kozlovsky as a hunky, hardassed phys ed teacher with a softer side. Again, this guy could've come off as creepy if handled poorly (teacher/student relationships generally have a weird power dynamic), but Kozlovsky's performance instead makes him out to be somebody who genuinely cares about his students, and is doing what he does so that they can better learn how to protect themselves. The lust is almost entirely on the part of Rose. Lucy Fry's Lissa is the straight woman compared to Rose, but she too did a good job here. She gets a lot of great lines, as well as an arc that at least tries to comment on slut-shaming and bullying among teenagers (feeding on Dhampirs is taboo in Moroi society, comparable to premarital sex, yet Rose let Lissa feed on her while they were outside the school in order to survive; the rumors spread like wildfire). While the resolution of it at the end was heavy-handed and rang somewhat hollow, I appreciated the effort, as well as how her character grew in response. This is the sort of thing I hoped for when I learned that this film was written by the writer of Heathers, which remains a classic teen comedy; while Daniel Waters was out of his element when it came to a twisting urban fantasy plot, the film is far more engrossing when it's focused on character interactions and humor.

However, I can't say the same for his brother, director Mark Waters. While the visuals are lush, the action scenes are hit-or-miss, with a greater ratio of misses to hits. Only the opening scene really impressed me; beyond that, the quick editing greatly reduced the impact of the fights. I get that this is a PG-13 movie aimed at teenage girls, but that's no excuse given how other young-adult movies, most notably the Harry Potter films, have handled their action scenes. I also wish that the supporting cast beyond the core trio wasn't the mixed bag than it was. I liked Gabriel Byrne as Victor and Sarah Hyland as his nerdy daughter Natalie. Byrne did a really good job playing the kindly Daddy Warbucks type who turns out to have some less-pleasant secrets, as did Hyland as a "daddy's girl" who's an unknowing pain in the ass to everyone around her, though for a while, I wasn't sure if the latter's characterization was intentional or not. (Without spoiling anything, it very much was.) The popular girl Mia, however, was fairly flat and one-note, in large part due to her actress, who didn't do a great job selling me on her bitchiness and sounded like she was still doing a line reading. She came off like a poor man's Draco Malfoy, right down to her haircut. The male characters other than Dimitri and Victor were forgettable; the only one I can even remember by name was Christian, a brooding "bad boy" classmate and Lissa's love interest who was rendered an outcast when his parents turned themselves into Strigoi, the only thing he really accomplishes being to use his fire powers to bail out the heroes at one point in the third act. Olga Kurylenko's headmistress Kirova looked fierce, but her few appearances amounted to a glorified cameo, serving mainly as background material.

The Bottom Line:

This is a film that I can't bring myself to really hate. It's pleasantly funny and entertaining, it never takes itself too seriously, and I was never bored watching it... making me wish that much more that it was actually good. It's a cheesy guilty pleasure, but if you're not already a fan of the books or looking for something to watch on Bad Movie Night, this is little more than a rental.

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