Many believe that pop culture is cyclical; a couple times each generation, a phenomenon gets a heyday until everyone is sick of it. But just like expired fish, there’s no magical moment where it’s clearly time to phase it out and make room for the next big thing; taking careful smell-checks and individual tolerance thresholds for sourness into consideration, turning food and fads alike operate more on a gradient. There’s a widely defined grey area that is highly subjective, but extremes are easily discerned. When fish is fresh, it’s delicious, and when it’s rotten, it is horrifically apparent. At this point, vampires are the putrid trout of the cinematic world, but studios that have used them to suck money from audiences before are still clinging to the possibility of a neighborhood fish fry, where they can maybe ask the kids how many upvotes they’re getting on Myspace these days.
Vampire Academy is squarely aimed at tweens, preferably tweens who missed out on the height of the Twilight craze or latched on when it was firmly in the grey area a couple years ago and people started complaining about the smell. A tenuous-at-best grasp on irony is another thing that would be kind to squirt on your popcorn before seeing this movie; for all the attempts at self-aware quips and snarks lambasting the tropes that have become synonymous with this tired genre, the movie seems to think it’s somehow hipper, cleverer, and better than those other films.
It’s a bit of a snob, really, which serves as a reassurance that the movie at least understands its characters. I’m going to attempt to break down these characters, along with the plot in a way that doesn’t sound ridiculous. I wish that whoever originally pitched this had also written some Cliff’s notes on the subject, because they’d be pretty helpful right about now. Imagine a world where blonde people are inherently better: more refined, more regal and elegant, rich, many even royal, and they all speak in British accents and can do magic.They’re like a bunch of Lestat’s little bastards! They are Moroi, or “benevolent vampires” (according to the series’ wiki) despite being the embodiments of people too perfect and privileged to like, and though sunlight doesn’t hurt them (and they don’t sparkle, our obnoxious narrator is sure to point out, just so you know this is nothing like Twilight), they’re basically too good for sunlight, hence the little umbrellas they carry around during the day.
This brings us to the brunettes, also known as Dhampirs, also known as “guardians.” They exist for the sole purpose of protecting the Moroi, and they’re totally OK with this. They aren’t special enough to attend magic classes, but their gym classes are off the hook. They get trained to punch and kick evil vampires called Strigoi in highly choreographed fight scenes, and defend their popular, beautiful, amazing classmates from all of life’s difficulties. What greater calling could there be than acting as a glorified bodyguard for the beautiful people? Not many, according to the frequent church services these characters attend validating their antiquated social order and way of life.
After a car accident that kills her entire family, the royal Moroi Lissa Dragomir runs away from boarding school with her Dhampir guardian Rose Hathaway. The two are something akin to soul-bonded and to get by, Rose allows Lissa to feed from her while they are in hiding. Meanwhile, we allow Rose to gratingly set up the story, telling us what we’re in for in a “snarky teen voice” that sounds like an experiment in Starlet’s First Acting Workshop. Lissa is established as gentle and meek, aided by Lucy Fry’s puffy lips and helpless, scared eyes. Rose is established as brusque, tough, and take-charge; Zoey Deutch’s approach makes her come off as snotty and arrogant, and a little bit psychotic when she starts drifting into trances that allow her to spy on Lissa’s day to day life. Rose is jealous and possessive like a lover rather than a friend, and while this subtext may be fully intended, my guess is that most of their literary romance scenes are written by fanfic authors rather than Richelle Mead. Regardless, their love nest is disrupted by Dhampirs who drag them back to Hogwarts-for-Vampires, where they are chagrined to leave behind Facebook and iPhones, but soon find themselves busy with really important things: gossip, crushes, and shopping! And there’s danger, too, grave danger, but that can be addressed after their pal Natalie has given them the 411 about exes, new crushes, that skank Mia, and other tedious hormonal issues that we can’t summon the energy to care about.
It reads like a parody, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s anything but. The movie and all of its characters take themselves drearily seriously, seeming not to understand that the joke is on them, even as the script pokes fun at other similar films. For example, the human “feeders” in the “obligatory cafeteria scene” are prefaced by Deutch’s voice-over asking if the viewers remember their friend who was obsessed with vampires, and revealing that this is where they ended up. They are happier than Dhampirs to serve the Moroi, cheerfully greeting their predators as they lie back and get drained. “She writes Twilight fanfiction,” Lissa reports to Rose after one such session, proving that she does in fact care enough to get to know her blood bags. But for a wish-fulfillment fantasy, the movie misfires significantly; I highly doubt that teenagers read these books and watch these films and daydream about being a feeder, or even a Dhampir. The standard, tried-and-true teenage fantasy is about being special, chosen, extraordinary, and the center of everyone’s world, or the precise definition of a Moroi. The entire movie feels like it’s peering through the window of someone else’s dream come true; no one wants to play second or third fiddle to a superstar when they’re 14, because that’s depressingly like real life.
The movie appeals to the juvenile desire to apply labels. It slaps them with abandon on nearly everything. The Moroi are lovely and special, the Dhampirs are only half-Moroi so they’re not as special and seem to only be valuable for their muscles and reflexes, and the Strigoi are essentially fallen Moroi that have traded their empathy for strength and are universally reviled. The Moroi can each declare a major at school, specializing in Water, Wind, Fire, or Earth. But the rarest, most special of all the Moroi can perform a different kind of magic. I wish it wasn’t Spirit, but I think that Richelle Mead really likes Captain Planet. We all know that Spirit is Heart under a different name.
In hindsight, I regret not creating a bingo mat of teen issues and placing a piece of popcorn on it every time a clumsy allegory or metaphor for said issue came up. Though I had the pleasure of viewing this with another good-humored woman in her twenties (seeing it alone would have been utterly mortifying), I think we would have had a little more fun between bouts of inappropriate laughter if we’d turned it into a game. Girls kissing girls was there; so was waiting for sex, both encapsulated in the totally unoriginal act of vampires drinking blood. It’s intimate, kind of titillating, and penetration is involved, so it’s logical if uninspired, but in this movie, it becomes the subject of much vicious gossip, because of course it does (“Bloodwhore!” a girl hisses, upon hearing that Lissa spent some time giving her guardian the fang). I’m pretty sure I saw something like drug use during a party scene where Rose goes all Judgmental Judy on Lissa, and there are so many varying degrees of cut wrists throughout that I repeatedly thought I was looking at a Skinny Puppy mosh pit. Oh, and the bullying cannot be forgotten; even the teachers get in on the action. There’s a scene where a catty girl is caught passing a note and very clearly wants the teacher to read it aloud to humiliate Lissa and Rose, and he does exactly what she wants him to. To punish her for passing fake notes. Did his Captain Planet major take time away from learning how to read a couple sentences ahead before just blurting out highly inappropriate, delicate information? There’s another scene where the vampire queen humiliates Lissa in front of the entire academy by standing her before an assembly to criticize her openly and harshly. Actually, I don’t think a single adult in the film knows how to have a private conversation with a student about a sensitive matter, because to do so would subtract from the maximum drama the movie aims for. And those are just the instances of open bullying; there is much gratuitous animal abuse and death used to terrify and torture the soft-hearted Lissa, and those sensitive to graphic depictions of slaughtered cuddly critters should approach this one with caution.
Romance does not appear in this movie; shallow makeout sessions and alternately brooding and flirtatious gazes do, though. I think that there are somewhere between three and fourteen male love interests, but it is difficult to keep track of them, as they all resemble a poor woman’s Edward Cullen. What is certain is that neither Lissa or Rose are ever hurting for suitors. It might be due to their sparkling personalities and wit; it might also have to do with wearing skirts that barely cover the bum and displaying more cleavage than Harry Potter ever saw before his wedding night.
It feels almost unfair to pick on Vampire Academy; it is earnest enough in execution, despite the fact that it doesn’t seem like it has the budget to sustain even its sparse special effects. Acting is cheesy and overzealous where there’s youth, and lazy and tired where there’s experience; veteran stars Gabriel Byrne and Joely Richardson inject what life they can into their anemic roles, but seem more anxious about sinking their teeth into their paychecks. The film feels much, much longer than its modest running time of 104 minutes; it’s difficult to compare it to Waters’ strong previous project, Mean Girls, without wincing. The writer Daniel Waters was behind the giddily darkHeathers, as well, making me question just what happened here. Did they use up all their good ideas? Have they lost their sense of smell, rendering them incapable of detecting the stench of vampires wearing out their welcome? Or are they determined to overcook their material to mask the rot, serving it up to audiences knowing too well the state of their ingredients? At any rate, I hope that the next time Mark and Daniel decide to fish and fry, they cast their nets in deeper “Waters.”
(By the way, that terrible joke was better than anything in the movie.)