Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.
Another week, another bestselling young adult novel adapted into a Hollywood film. These are done in the hopes of kicking off a huge franchise, in pursuit of a slice of the profitable Harry Potter/The Hunger Games pie. How many of these things have been released in recent years? Vampire Academy hopes to distinguish itself from the (blood) pack.
Rose (Zoey Deutch, Ringer) and Princess Lissa (Lucy Fry, Mako Mermaids) have run away from home—or, to be specific, away from the prestigious St. Vladimir’s boarding school. Lissa is a Moroi, a peaceful, non-immortal breed of vampire. Rose is a Dhampir, half-human half-vampires who act as bodyguards to the Moroi. Rose is letting Lissa drink her blood to keep Lissa alive while they’re in hiding.
Rose and Lissa are apprehended and returned to St. Vladimir’s, which is a school exclusively for Moroi and Dhampirs. Once there, Lissa is the target of vandalism and violent attacks. Rose tries to investigate who’s after her friend, while also getting closer with Russian Dhampir (Danila Kovlosky, Dukhless). Waiting in the wings are the Strigoi, an immortal, violent breed of vampire that wants nothing more than to destroy the Moroi.
I wanted to like Vampire Academy. I went in hoping it would surprise me and that, even if it were cheesy, I’d still be engaged in the story and characters. Then the movie begins. In the opening scene there are about three “As you already know” lines of expository dialogue, telling the audience important plot points while sounding nothing like something a person would actually say. Then Rose lets Lissa bite her. This should be played up for its intensity and weirdness, showing that Rose is someone willing to go the most extreme lengths possible for her friend. It should be the part that makes viewers lean forward in their seats, thinking, “Whoa, this movie’s going to go in strange, unexpected places.” Instead, Rose just bares her neck and Lissa goes in for the bite. This signature moment, what you could call the movie’s mission statement, is filmed so flatly and matter-of-factly that it leaves no impact on the audience. This sets the stage for the rest of the movie, in that it’s overstuffed with exposition yet lacks any creativity or emotional investment.
Not that Vampire Academy doesn’t try. There are three types of vamps to keep track of, but also the vamps have magic powers, based on the old fantasy magic cliché of air, water, earth, and fire. So they’re grouped into those four groups as well. Other characters have additional magic powers, such as psychic abilities. With Lissa as a princess, we’ve also got to deal with drama amid the vampire royal family. As this is a school, there’s also a bullying mean girl causing trouble and a sourpuss headmistress running the place. A better movie would have these elements as puzzle pieces combining into a larger whole that is the plot. Instead, the script constantly throws new concepts and ideas at you, giving them little to no payoff. Here the thing: This movie is about a school for vampires, but it never once plays up the novelty of what it’s like to be at a school for vampires. Classes just have everyone practicing their magic, so it might as well be Hogwarts—it’s even surrounded by a forest filled with CGI monsters, to make it more Hogwarts-like. (That was a spoiler, but ehh.) What is a school for vampires like? After watching this movie, I still couldn’t tell you.
Shouldering the burden of the most of the movie is our hero Rose. Many people have compared Zoey Deutch to Ellen Page’s performance in Juno, and I must admit I saw the similarity as well. Rose speaks only in sarcasm, with every line a quip of some kind. No matter what the situation, she wisecracks her way through it. The idea is that her spunkiness makes her the “every-girl,” the normal human surrounded by the supernatural fang gang. Except no, because she’s already invested and immersed in the vampire world. You could argue that Rose’s non-stop snark is a defense mechanism. Except no again, because she never quite has that moment where her personal defenses break down and we see the “real” her. The constant verbal barbs and jabs just make her look like a jerk. Also, it’s way too much of a stretch for the petite-looking Deutch to be throwing around musclebound dudes twice her size during the action scenes. No way does her tiny wrist block a blow from a stuntman whose arm is wider than her whole head. You could argue that being a Dhampir gives her supernatural strength, but she’s just fighting other Dhampirs. I know I’m coming off like a total jerk here by commenting on the actress’s physicality, but there are other, better ways to do these things, like, say, have her do one of those Muay Thai/Ong Bak moves where she jumps up and knees her opponent in the chin. But, no, it looks like they’re rehearsing fight choreography rather than actually duking it out.
As for Lissa, she’s more of a plot point than she is a character. Everything revolves around her being targeted, and there’s all this talk about how important she is and how everyone has to keep her safe. The entire story has to do with her, but she’s not the protagonist, and this makes her come across as an object rather than a person. There’s a stretch of movie where she uses hypnotic “persuasion” magic to goad her fellow vamps into a scheme, and later we’re told this was a metaphor for the whole clique/popularity thing. First, a movie should never tell the audience what its own metaphors are. Second, it wasn’t clear at the time that misusing her powers was character development. This part of the story comes and goes pretty quick, establishing what it needs to establish, skipping over how it affects Lissa’s character. Lissa is also given a romantic interest, but it’s so shortchanged that at the end when she declares she has a boyfriend now, I was all, “She does?” As the movie concludes, we’re left with Lissa as a non-character.
The script has a few scenes with voiceover, in which Rose fills us in on information. This only happens a couple of times, and is only there to explain things or set up the next scene. If that wasn’t enough lazy screenwriting, there’s another scene in which Rose talks to her pet cat, explaining to it (and the audience) exactly what she’s feeling at that moment. Right now, every screenwriting class everywhere in the world is teaching first-timers the standard of “show, don’t tell.” Now here’s Vampire Academy, a multi-million dollar Hollywood film that violates the simplest basics of what beginners learn.
What’s really sad as that this script comes from Daniel Waters, writer of one of my all-time favorite films, Heathers. This both does and doesn’t explain a lot. Rose’s non-stop sarcasm definitely evokes the exaggerated teen-speak of the gang at Westerberg High. Perhaps Waters was hoping to recapture some of the ol’ Heathers magic, or perhaps studio executives were hovering over his shoulder, saying “Make it more like Heathers!” Either way, that sort of heightened dialogue can be brilliant in context, but it’s not right for every film. In Vampire Academy the seemingly-endless stream of pseudo-teen witticisms feels out of place, and is more distracting than clever.
Vampire Academy looks and sounds great on Blu-ray, which is to be expected for a recently-made Hollywood flick. Colors and flesh tones really pop off the screen in this 2.39:1/1080p HS transfer rich with detail and vibrancy. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track offers up dialogue that’s clear and many pop songs fill the room with sound. For extras, there’s an alternate opening, some deleted scenes, an interview with author Richelle Mead in which she explains how she originated the Vampire Academy world, and a digital copy of the film.
There’s just nothing to sink your teeth into.
Guilty of narrative vampiric truancy.