[7 February 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Somebody has to explain this. They have to move beyond the obvious answers like “they’re easily entertained” or “they have no taste” or “they’re too young to know any better” to rationalize the seemingly endless obsession. Sometime after J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter signaled the shocking reality that post-modern kids actually LIKE to read, the young adult genre went goopy and supernatural. Before, we had books like Ten Boy Summer and Little Sister. Now, lovelorn zombies battle aging Shad-monks for domination of a societal subculture where the lonely and misunderstood are accepted as kin without anything remotely horrifying or scary happening. Yes, macabre is the new Black and every moviemaker in Hollywood is (or, perhaps put another way) was hoping to cash in.
Once Harry and his wizard pals proved their profitability, the floodgates literally opened. Within months, we had dozens of dopey film franchise wannabes crashing into the seemingly endless shores of studio greenlights, each one more disappointed than the next. Yet somewhere between these Spiderwick’s and Snickets, these Golden Compasses and Mortal Instruments arrived Stephenie Meyers and her brooding neckbiters. As the Barbara Carlton of boos, the spinsters-in-training’s favorite romance novelists gave us a little pop cult craze entitled Twilight, turning every misunderstood girl’s grasp of her growing isolation and alienation into a story about bumping uglies with things that go typically only go “bump” in the night.
Five middling movies later and the desire to dip into that franchise’s frightening revenue stream has resulted in the far superior Hunger Games, and this return to various impaling Vlads, Vampire Academy. Supposedly very successful (and it probably is considering its My So-Called Life as a creepsoapopera conceits) and more in tune with teen ‘comedies’ than paranormal thrillers, Richelle Mead’s six book series feels like a perfect fit for the current film going crowd. After all, they rewarded Ms. Meyers with nearly $3.4 billion in box office receipts and are turning Katniss’s creator Suzanne Collins into an equally wealthy woman. It doesn’t matter that almost all of Twilight was talentless hackwork or that The Hunger Games borrow liberally from other dystopian texts. Money talks and all other critical BS walks.
So it makes sense that The Weinstein Company would want to brand the heck out of this, bringing on the Waters Brothers to handle the chores. After all, Mark is perhaps most famous for directing Mean Girls (which this movie emulates…a lot!) and Daniel did time back in the ‘80s as the writer of Heathers (as well as Batman Returns - yeah! - and Hudson Hawk and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane - oops!). With such a pedigree they would seem perfect to bring the story of a training school for Dhampirs (half-vampire, half-human bodyguards) to life. Their eventual job for these monster misfits? Protecting the royal ‘bloodline’ of Moroi, noble mortal Nosferatus who seemingly get along with regular everyday folk. They can even go out in the daytime, with some restrictions. Naturally, every pro needs a con, and in this case, they are the immortal Strigoi, vampires who really don’t like much except death, destruction, and blood buffets.
Into this mix comes our main character, Rosemarie “Rose” Hathaway (played by Zoey Deutsch). She is a Dhampir, learning her craft and exploring her psychic link to her BFF - and future queen of the Moroi - Vasilisa “Lissa” Dragomir (Lucy Fry). Charged with protecting her pal, she is just back to St. Vladimir’s Academy after two years on the run. Rose is convinced her friend is in trouble (she has one of those “powers” prophesized over in baroque books of myth) and that the Strigoi are behind the threat. After all, those villains are why they are back in school in the first place. So Rose tries to improve her talents under the tutelage of Russian Dhampir mentor, Dimitri Belikov (Danila Kozlovsky) while not making too obvious of cow eyes at him. Naturally, the elders of the school have to explain everything to them (and the audience) in reams of ridiculous exposition.
Hoping that humor will elevate it above the otherwise humdrum misery of its competition, Vampire Academy is not a movie for the uninvited or the uninitiated. If it were any more niche it would be made for one single career gal living in a loft apartment somewhere in BFE, Missouri. It drops us directly into the middle of this ripped off from Ancient Rome folklore and then keeps fiddling with the finer points knowing full well that only those versed in Ms. Mead’s mangled universe will ultimately understand just what in the Sam Lawson is going on. Sure, endless voiceover narration tries to keep us up to speed, but for the most part, it just adds fuel to our confusion. Since there is already a pile of paranormal givens about vampires and other creatures of the night, this movie has to make things appear new and novel. All they do is make them noxious and nonsensical.
The acting, for what it’s worth, is decent. Ms. Deutsch and her too old to be teenager peers are acceptable, if often horribly outclassed by their far more mature costars (Gabriel Byrne, Joely Richardson) and by the middle act, when questions of shadow-kissed status and ancient conspiracies come calling, we realize how out of our element we non-VA obsessives are. It’s like walking into a lecture and hearing the instructor speaking Klingon. Fans of Rose and Lissa will get it. Everyone else needs to thank their luckless stars that, barring some sudden case of mass insanity, this nonsense won’t be successful enough to spawn a sequel, let alone, a series. Of course, this doesn’t keep the bean counters from trying. They still have visions of Hogwarts and the Volturi in their heads.
Since it is now obvious that what Ms. Rowling wrought was nothing short of a filmic fluke (with exceptions - stop bellyaching), perhaps it’s time to call a moratorium on such mediocre monster mash-ups. It still doesn’t explain why we’ve gone from real people with semi-realistic problems to werewolves battling banshees for prom bragging rights, but then maybe nothing can. They say high school is Hell. Crap like Vampire Academy takes it literally, and the results reek of a Satanic struggle to be good instead of god-awful.