Saturday, February 8, 2014

Fanged Up: VAMPIRE ACADEMY


Vampire Academy doesn’t seem finished. It feels like the filmmakers gave up on it, like on some fundamental level the story just wasn’t working and instead of taking the time to fix it, they filmed it anyway. The movie is flavorless, unimaginative, and often uncommunicative as it gets tangled up in its own jargon. The story starts with two runaway vampires who are quickly caught and returned to their Vampire Academy where the headmistress is awful disappointed or something. Then it becomes a teen high school movie that’s neither horror nor comedy. It involves sub-Harry Potter schoolyard conspiracies and pseudo-Twilight divisions and hierarchies of vampiric magic and wars between a variety of clans the names of which I could never keep straight despite the movie never missing an opportunity to talk about it. The movie is all tell, no show, and all the worse for it, especially since all that telling left me mostly hopelessly confused. By the time the movie finishes clearing its throat, it manages to bump up against some modest entertainment value for about five minutes. That hardly seems worth it.

We’re introduced to the movie’s taxonomy of vampires with an expositional voiceover reinforced by key terms turning up on screen in bold lettering. There are Dhampir, half-human vampires, Moroi, royal vampires, and Strigoi, who can only be evil, as represented by their paler-than-usual vampire skin and bloodshot eyes. Don’t quiz me on their differences. I only got that far by checking Wikipedia. Our leads, the runaways the story opens upon, are best friends who snuck away from the school for what seems to be a Very Important Reason that remains vague. One is a Dhampir girl (Zoey Deutch) who has some psychic connection to her friend (Lucy Fry), a Moroi who may be in line to be the next Vampire Queen. She can read her friend’s thoughts; it is cool in theory, but in practice involves her essentially watching scenes she’s not in and commenting on them for us to hear.

The head of the school (Olga Kurylenko) begrudgingly lets the girls back into the school on the condition that the Dhampir trains to protect royal pal. From there, class is in session, taking us straight into plot contortions involving a nerdy third wheel (Sarah Hyland), ex-boyfriends (Edward Holdcroft and Ashley Charles), guys with crushes (Dominic Sherwood and Cameron Monaghan), a vindictive catty girl (Sami Gayle), a missing teacher (Claire Foy), a glowering Russian combat trainer (Danila Kozlovsky), and an ill vampire gentleman (Gabriel Byrne). One or more of them may be behind the ominous messages written in blood that turn up to menace our leads. That’s a lot of characters to juggle, too many I’d say, since almost none of them get satisfying introductions or resolutions. They’re just there.

Maybe fans of the young adult book series upon which this is based could make sense of all these characters, with their variety of backstories and motivations. I couldn’t, despite the movie spending so much of its runtime trying to fill me in on the pertinent details. If there was ever a scene not devoted to explicitly explaining its place in the plot, I must’ve missed it. And yet, there’s not a bit of narrative momentum on which to hang all this talk. What curses, powers, magic, histories, grudges, potions, talismans, spells, creatures, bloodlines, and insults are supposed to matter most when they’re all given the same flatlining importance?

Screenwriter Daniel Waters (of Heathers) and his brother, director Mark Waters (of Mean Girls), know a thing or two about staging high school comedies, but here it’s as if they were working from an outline and forgot to flesh out the characters’ personalities and their film’s tone along the way to a finished product. Some attempts at memorable quips – “they looked at me like I was a porcupine in a hot tub” – fall flat since I couldn’t get my bearings in the setting or understand who any of these characters are. Who runs this school? What is at stake? Why should we care? I certainly couldn’t tell you. It’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t either. It doesn’t help that it’s all shot in a dull haze and edited together with no feeling for spatial coherence.

It’s all a bland blur, endlessly telling us what is happening, why it’s happening, and what the pertinent fantasy gibberish is, and yet still communicating almost nothing about its world or why we should be invested in it. The movie is an uninvolving mishmash of tones, wobbling from snark to snarling danger to snoozy exposition with little sense of impact or understanding of cause and effect. Worldbuilding isn’t easy, all the more because it should look easy, but if after two hours of painfully obvious hard work I couldn’t begin to tell you even the simplest facts about your fantasy world and the plotlines running through it, something has gone disastrously wrong.

I spent the film scowling, wondering if I was simply zoning out during the most important information or if every scene was really skipping away into the next with little concern for pacing or personality. I’m sure it was the latter. It’s telling that only the climactic action – when the characters finally shut up about their powers and dangers and put them to use – comes close to working on any level. More telling is this line of dialogue one girl says to the other after events have gotten largely incomprehensible: “I can’t remember who loves us and who hates us.” If they don't know, what hope did I have?

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