Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Twilight Goes To Hogwarts For The Unimpressive Vampire Academy

The Good: One or two lines, Special effects/fight sequences are fine
The Bad: Lousy characters, Dull plot, Excessive exposition, Nothing at all superlative in the acting.
The Basics: Vampire Academy is hardly an original or interesting concept that makes for a predictably disappointing film.

As much of the geek world prepares for Divergence to hit theaters tomorrow night (you can put Shailene Woodley in every major film based on teen lit this year, but you can’t guarantee an audience will turn out other than the already loyal fans), I decided it was about time to take in the last cinematic failure in the genre: Vampire Academy. Ever since Beautiful Creatures (reviewed here!) underperformed at the box office, films based on teen fantasy literature have proven to be utterly unreliable. The fad, it seems, is over. Vampire Academy lucked out in that it was greenlit when films based on teen fantasy literature were reliable cash cows. Vampire Academy was lucky because the story is so without spark, originality, cleverness or intrigue that it was pretty much destined to be the box office flop it was; outside those who were already fans, there is no obvious appeal to Vampire Academy.

It is worth noting up front that I have not read the book (or any in the series) upon which Vampire Academy is based. Also at the top, I think it’s worth noting that there is something in especially bad taste about Vampire Academy making a snarky reference to The Twilight Saga (reviewed here!) early on; for all its faults, The Twilight Saga made a commercially-viable genre that led to the success of the books in the Vampire Academy series. In other words, Vampire Academy owes a debt to Twilight, so mocking it outright early in the movie seems churlish. To its credit, Vampire Academy is a bit darker than Twilight; to its detriment, Vampire Academy is much more girlish (in the worst implications of such): an absurd amount of dialogue is about boys, melodramatic relationship analysis, and fashion/beauty. While it is understandable that the first film in a series has to establish the universe of the franchise, Vampire Academy has a painful amount of exposition . . . presented in gruesomely obvious ways.

Two years after a car accident and a year after leaving The Academy, Lissa and Rose are on the run from vampires who want Lissa to return to St. Vladimir’s Academy. Caught by Dimitri Belikov, Rose (the half-vampire Dhampir) and Lissa (the princess of the peaceful vampires, the Moroi) return to St. Vladimir’s Academy to find it under attack by the ruthless Strigoi vampires. Rose, the guardian of the royal Lissa, is alarmed that one of her favorite administrator, Ms. Karp, is no longer at the Academy. While her peers wonder how Lissa fed while on the run for the year, Rose continues to see through the eyes of the Princess. Rose is able to rush to Lissa’s side when Lissa discovers a dead animal hanging outside her dorm.

When a message in blood is placed on the wall of her dorm room, Lissa decides to fight and use magic. Rose commits to practicing her combat after the Queen embarrasses Lissa publicly and her time with Dimirti begins to pay off. Lissa begins to use her magic to compel others to do her bidding pretty constantly, which leads to nightmares that Rose shares. It also unlocks in Rose memories of Ms. Karp warning Rose to get Lissa out of St. Vladimir’s. Lissa continues to compel her enemies on the Board at the Academy even as she tries to use her magic to save people and creatures near death (not quite resurrection). Rose works to figure out who is behind the conspiracy to keep Lissa from the throne by working with Christian (Lissa’s ex) and Dimitri to put together the pieces before Lissa goes over to the dark side irreversibly.

Vampire Academy is just bad, plain and simple. Perhaps it is the fact that I’ve been rewatching Veronica Mars (reviewed here!) constantly to prepare for the film version, but Rose comes across as particularly whiny, insubstantial and not at all clever or smart. Moreover, for all the bitching people have about Twilight, those films did not have the obligatory teen girl shopping scene (which Vampire Academy has). The trip to the mall in Vampire Academy, along with all the boy talk and big dance scene dramatically undermine the darkness that precedes and follows the brighter-lit scenes.

Vampire Academy is devoid of spark and character. Zoey Deutch as Rose Hathaway delivers fast, snippy lines that are reminiscent of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (reviewed here!), save that they play without real wit or double entendre. Rose is the mistress of the single entendre and Lissa is vacuous and dull. Vampire Academy’s cast is fleshed out with an array of entirely unmemorable nonentity secondary characters. Mia Rinaldi is a particularly uninteresting, whiny antagonist who has more in common with a Plastic than Victoria (from Twilight). Mia is both monolithic and dull (despite the fact that she would not, supposedly, kill a cat).

If the villains – Mia and Kirova – are bland and hardly menacing, Rose is just ridiculous. While the film’s obligatory (near) sex scene (which results in a PG-13 amount of clothing removal alone) is the result of a love spell, Rose is not particularly strong even when not the victim of magic. As well, Lissa is not at all smart. Tortured by the one person she cannot use her magic compulsion on – because he is blind and compulsion requires line-of-sight to perform – Lissa is compelled to use her magic to heal the film’s true villain. When the scene came up, my thought instantly was, “Why doesn’t Lissa heal the blind guy so she can then compel him to stop torturing him?” It seems like curing blindness would be nothing compared to the person she is expected to heal.

Beyond the minutiae, the big picture of Vampire Academy is that the premise is dull and unoriginal. The story is essentially a struggle for the throne of a secret society/culture and the stakes are hardly big enough to draw in viewers who did not come to the work already indoctrinated. Do we care which whiny girl might become Queen when Tatiana’s term is done? Not really, no. Do we understand how the apparently psychotic Strigoi have survived in the real (brightly lit) world for thousands of years? That’s not made as clear as Lissa’s unlimited spending ability.

On the acting front, Vampire Academy is adequate, but unremarkable. Established performers like Gabriel Byrne and Olga Kurylenko overshadow leads Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, and Danila Kozlovsky (Dimitri). Kozlovsky and Deutch have no real on-screen chemistry and all of young men at St. Vladimir’s are entirely white bread. Deutch manages the fight scenes well, but the rest of the time, her acting seems to mostly be opening her eyes wide in shock or making moon eyes at Koszlovsky. Lucy Fry plays Lyssa like the archetypal teen girl from any vacuous romantic comedy as opposed to a character that has any depth, growth or supernatural intensity.

Ultimately, Vampire Academy is a giggly, goofy film that is utterly unworthy watching; for any audience. While there might be more books in the series, this is a film franchise not worth continuing; there is no incentive to return to the insultingly underwhelming world populated by characters who embody the worst stereotypes of young women and mix it with ridiculous fantasy elements.

For other films based on teen lit, please check out my reviews of:
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Harry Potter Saga
The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bone


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing.

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Great review. I especially liked your comments on Twilight and the supposed girl power the movie contains, both things I also had problems with as I was watching it.

    I'm not a fan of the Twilight series, but you are right that VA owes it a debt of gratitude. Many of the Amazon reviewers claim they started reading VA because they were looking for something else like Twilight. So the popularity of the books AND the fact that VA got a movie are thanks to Twilight. In general, I think it's in poor taste for them to make fun of another YA series, no matter which series it is (it's like gossiping about one of your coworkers to the boss because you're hoping it will keep him from getting the promotion you want), but it's in especially poor taste for VA to do it because they dressed up one of their major characters (Christian) to look like Edward Cullen! So Twilight sucks and you hate it, but you're still hoping for crossover popularity...?

    As for the girls in the story, I was also bothered by their shallowness. VA fans talk about how awesome Rose is because she's a strong fighter and not a weakling like other YA protagonists...but that doesn't make her or any of the other females in the movie psychologically complex or interesting, which is what we really want from a main character, and what women often lack in movies.

    However, it's usually the "love interest" in a male-centered movie who is relegated to playing a female character type, and not an actual character. This was a female-driven story, and yet the girls in this movie were character types, plain and simple (Rose = strong and confident rebel girl, Lissa = shy rich girl, Natalie = nerdy social outcast, Mia = bitchy popular girl). We have seen them before in a lot of other movies.

    To be fair, people who have read the books claim the characters are a lot more thoughtful than they appear here, which wouldn't surprise me. (Apparently Lissa is a cutter in the books and slut shaming was a big part of Rose's character arc...though without having read the books I wouldn't know if these flourishes bring any depth to the characters or not.) But regardless, they had no depth on the silver screen, and as a viewer, I left the movie not caring about the unresolved plot threads (what it meant for Rose to be "shadow kissed") or what might happen to these people in the future. Not a good sign when a movie sets up a cliffhanger sequel and all audience members can think is "so what"? :/

    1. Hi! Thanks for the comment.

      Yeah, I discount everything anyone who has read the books would say; the movie is the movie and has to stand on its own.

      And the girls were types and there are at least a dozen better strong fighter female protagonists I can come up with in film than Rose. I mean, off the top of my head even . . . .

      Glad you liked the Twilight dig issue I had; it's always interesting to me to see what parts of my reviews resonate with readers.

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment!

      -W.L. Swarts