Vampire Academy review
Another much-loved YA series makes its way to the big screen, but with so many other YA franchises around, can it find a place for itself?
In the vampire world of Richelle Mead, there are four classes of people (roughly speaking). There are the Moroi, the Strigoi, the Dhampir, and us normal folks. The Moroi are a noble race of creatures that practice magic, who don't like being in the sun - but it doesn't kill them - and who drink human blood for food. Like their food supply, the Moroi are mortals who have a code, a society, ethics, and a higher education system of sorts at St. Vladimir's Academy. The Strigoi are the vampires we're all familiar with: sunlight or a silver stake through the heart will kill them, they live forever, and they feed on unwilling humans while generally going out of their way to kill off their Moroi brothers and sisters. The Dhampir is the thin blood-red line between the peaceful Moroi and the killer Strigoi. Half vampire and half human, the Dhampir protect their Moroi masters from the Strigoi menace.
This is the helpful voice over narration brought to us by Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch), who is a dhampir guardian to Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry), the last of the Dragomir family, heir to the royal throne of the Moroi, and Rose's best friend and classmate at St. Vladimir's, dismissively referred to as Vampire Academy by several students throughout the film. This is where Moroi learn to control their magic powers (oh, I forgot, they're magic) and where Dhampir learn how to fight and kill Strigoi.
But, can Rose protect Lissa from the most dangerous creature in any world: high school girls?
Part supernatural romance, part high school comedy, part action movie, and part coming-of-age flick, Vampire Academy is kind of a scatter shot piece of film-making that can't quite pick what it wants to be, and in the end tries to do a little too much. The idea of a secret school for beings who use magical powers isn't a new one, nor is the idea of high school vampires new, even if the culture clash of human-friendly Moroi and the human-predator Strigoi is an interesting idea, but the movie has a lot of interesting ideas and it can't quite get them all to come together.
The script is from Daniel Waters, the brilliant writer of Heathers, one of the best black comedies ever made. Fittingly, when the film takes place in the confines of St. Vladimir's and is more concerned with teenage, school-based drama, it's pretty good. It's sharper, seems more focused, and is a little more biting; by comparison, the supernatural elements and the royal intrigue seems slightly toothless. The mythology, explained via very long voice over, is also ponderous, and the movie is definitely setting up sequels plural, since the series is six books long, and it doesn't really try to hide that fact, either.
Vampire Academy does have its moments where it works well, and it's nice to see a take-charge female protagonist, but the whole exercise seems a bit flabby. Mark Waters (brother of Daniel) made his name with the brilliant Mean Girls, which holds up really well considering I just watched it last week. Vampire Academy could have been cut down by 30 minutes easily and been a much punchier, much sharper film. The film drags a little bit in the middle, and some of the individual scenes linger just a little too long and contain a little too much wistful staring back and forth. The elements are there, but the film needed pruning.
Zoey Deutch (whose mother is Lea Thompson, by the way) is a pretty fun lead actress. She's funny and charismatic enough to carry the film, while Lucy Fry is a pretty good foil as the aristocratic friend, even if she doesn't have a lot to do other than be friendly or catty, depending on the scene. Danila Kozlovsky, unfortunately, doesn't work quite as well as the female characters do. Quite frankly, he sounds entirely too much like Tommy Wiseau (the hair doesn't help), and he's stuck with the pretty thankless role of mentor. Dominic Sherwood as the handsome, brooding, 'weirdo' outsider is a little better bit of casting, even if the role's a bit flat. Gabriel Byrne and Joely Richardson could have used a little more screen time, but that would have detracted from the movie's focus on the kids.
As the first volume of a series, Vampire Academy isn't bad. It's funny, it has some decent action scenes, the lead characters are solidly crafted, and the world they have built for themselves, in which vampires are as agog about the iPhone as humans are about being feeding troughs for vampires, is a pretty fun one. It's not as clever as it thinks it is, and it won't become a cult classic, but it's a far sight better than most YA supernatural romances.