Thursday, February 20, 2014

Girly Girls Being Friends and Fighting Evil. Yes. (Vampire Academy)

Vampire Academy has a 9% on Rotten Tomatoes. This bothers me on a deep and meaningful level. Why? Because I saw this movie. I saw the movie that I can only assume the reviewers whose scores are currently tanking it also saw, and I did not see a movie of a level comparable with M. Night Shyamalan's Avatar

So what gives? Why is this movie being totally lambasted for the crime of being a little bit complex, and a whole lot not mainstream? 

Or, more specifically, why the hell is Vampire Academy tanking right now, while Robocop, which is, by all accounts, horrible, doing a lot better?

The answer, I'm pretty sure, lies in two places: first, in marketing, and second, in sexism.

I know, those are both really surprising things for me to complain about, right?

For those of you not in the know, or who just don't care enough to do your research, Vampire Academy is based on the book series of the same name. Apparently these books are really popular, which makes sense once you realize that they're a combination of Twilight and Mean Girls, which is kind of, well, a great combination. The movie tracks with the first book in the series, and follows Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch) and Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry), two vampire girls who've run away from school and are bumming around Portland, Oregon.

Lissa is vampire royalty, one of the Moroi (sort of like classical "high" vampires, only not evil), and Rose is her Dhampir (half-vampire, or "low" vampires) bodyguard. They're on the run from some unspecified danger, and as we slowly come to learn, even Rose doesn't know exactly what they're running from. Or why they ran in the first place.

But all that is moot because when the film starts, Rose and Lissa have been found, and the Guardians are there to drag them back to school. Vampire Academy, or St. Vladimir's as it is more properly called, is an uptight boarding school where vampire children go to learn how to control their powers, or learn to fight, and to be protected and coddled in a safe environment. Also it's apparently in Montana.

The first part of the film has Rose and Lissa dealing with a lot of crazy high school stuff - catty girls, namecalling, hardcore bullying, and some awful pranks - but as it progresses the story becomes a bit more sinister. Someone is clearly trying to get Lissa to use her powers more fully, and, more specifically, to reveal herself as a very powerful magic user, the likes of which hasn't really been seen since St. Vlad himself.

Oh, and she can bring animals back from the dead, heal people, and generally kick some major ass.

Which would be fine, if it weren't for the part where using her powers makes Lissa weird and a little crazy, and also she has a soulbond with Rose that makes them both frustrated and more than a little codependent, and Rose is a control freak who meddles in everyone's lives, and so on and so on and so on.

Those so ons aren't a bad thing, for the record. I actually quite like how the story is handled here.

Now, for a while, we think that the badness in the story is coming from the third group of vampires: the Strigoi. The Strigoi are more classic vampire villains: soulless, immortal, powerful, and mildly psychotic killing machines. A Moroi vampire can become a Strigoi, if they kill anyone they're drinking from, and it's a constant danger looming over everyone's heads. The Strigoi are, after all, the Moroi's only natural predators. They're what the Dhampir are trained to fight. 

And this is made even more important by the fact that Lissa is a solid claimant to the throne, and the Strigoi probably want to eat her. Because she is a nummy nummy treat. Except it turns out that the Strigoi aren't the real villains here (at least not right this second) - it's actual other Moroi who are the bad guys. 

People who want to use Lissa's amazing gift for their own selfish purposes, and people who are willing to drive her insane to do it. That's what Rose and Lissa were fleeing from, and that's what's going to potentially kill them before Lissa can ever even get within sniffing distance of the throne.

But all of this is plot. The real story here is actually a lot simpler. It's about two girls, a friendship, and having each others' backs. 

You see, while all of this craziness is going on, the movie really just focuses on Lissa and Rose, and later their friend Natalie (Sarah Hyland). Lissa and Rose have a bumpy return to school, and face some intense bullying. Their reactions are really different. Rose figures that it's annoying, but whatever, there's a real threat out there and they should be ready for it. Lissa, on the other hand, sees the psychological aspects of the bullying as a real threat in and of themselves, and decides to end all this nonsense by taking back the school. By force, if necessary.

It's not a narrative we see a lot, where the two characters start off as really close friends, who then waver as they grow apart, only to come back together in the end. Or we do see it sometimes, but usually only in a romantic context. This is not a romantic context.

I mean, yes, there is some lesbian speculation among the other students about Rose and Lissa - they lived alone in the outside world for a year, and Lissa had to feed on Rose to survive (which is very taboo) - but the real love story here is a platonic one. And, even better, Lissa goes so far as to call Rose her soulmate. In public. Just because they aren't sexually attracted to each other doesn't mean their love isn't important. At the end, they both each have a solid love interest, but they still care most about each other. And I'm really okay with that.

So we've got a heartwarming story about female friendship overcoming all obstacles, some kickass vampire mythology and a really scary overarching plot, as well as teenage cattiness and some attractive love interests. What are we missing? Oh yeah, humor. Well, don't worry. This movie is funny. Really funny. Like actually laugh funny. Mostly down to Rose and her quippy remarks, but I'm okay with that. Rose is a cool character. I like her. I like how she can't not snark. And it's really fun to watch a movie with this much going on that doesn't take itself too seriously. It's having a good time, and it wants you to do the same.

With all of this in mind, then, why is Rotten Tomatoes having such a fit over this film? And why is it totally tanking in the box office?

Like I said in the beginning, first you have to blame the marketing. I barely heard about this movie coming out, and I am in the movies all the freaking time. Like, I am their absolute target audience. I will go see anything. I saw Bullet to the Head for crying out loud! Market your movies to me!

But for all that, I saw exactly one trailer for this movie before I went to see it, and I saw one poster. The poster looked dumb, but the trailer was funny, and I figured that I might as well see the movie. I'm glad I did, but again, I will watch literally anything. So, the net was pretty wide here. What about all the people who just plain didn't know this movie came out? Or the ones who saw the poster, but didn't get it? Or, probably the biggest group, who saw the poster, and the trailer, but totally forgot it existed?

I bet a fair number of them would have liked it. Just saying. It's a fun movie. I also think it's worth noting that while the critics score on Rotten Tomatoes is at a 9%, the audience score is at 77%. And that is a hell of a difference. So what's up with that?

Well, here I think we really do come down to sexism. Not the obvious, "Get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich!" sexism we're trained to think of, but the more insidious kind. The kind that suggests that a female protagonist movie needs gravitas, and strength, and a, well, masculine hero in order to be "good".

Hunger Games. I'm talking about Hunger Games. These critics are pissed because it wasn't Hunger Games.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love me some Katniss. But it's reductive, and frankly awful, to believe that a movie is somehow lesser because it doesn't take itself seriously. Because its characters wear makeup and flirt with boys and like having pretty dresses. Rose and Lissa being attractive women who enjoy being attractive does not make them kick less ass, nor does it make their story less important. Unfortunately, though, we're conditioned to see them as trivial. Silly. And a little dumb.

That and, to a large extent, the film critics just don't get it. They do not get this movie. At all. You know why? Because almost none of them remember what it was like to be a teenage girl.

Seriously, I had flashbacks. Horrifying flashbacks. This movie was a little too accurate sometimes.

It's a bit frustrating, really, that the arbiters of our culture are so overwhelmingly skewed to one particular demographic that they really have no appreciation for a movie like this. It's not too complicated for viewers to understand, guys, nor is it too trivial. It's funny, yeah, but that's a feature, not a bug. And yes, these teenage girls spend an awful lot of time talking about boys and what they're going to wear to the dance, and I get that this annoys you. But you know what?

We do. We do actually talk a lot about clothes and boys and things like that. Or we don't. But either way, there is nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, we live in a society that would much prefer to stigmatize feminized expressions of teenage girldom in favor or more masculine role models.

And again, that's not a dig on Katniss. I like Katniss. I just also happen to like Lissa and Rose. Can't we have both? Can't we have the girls who like makeup and boys and then kick ass, and the girls who don't give a crap and also kick ass? I'm pretty sure there is room in this culture for more than one interpretation of womanhood.

So, I guess what I'm saying is this: Go see Vampire Academy. It's funny, it's sharp, there's good action, it's got a freaking amazing speech at the end that says everything you would want to say to a bunch of teenagers, and it doesn't take itself too seriously. As for those critics who didn't get it, your loss guys, but don't worry. I'm sure someone will be along soon to take your place. Someone who does get it.

Also, Dimitri (Danila Koslovsky) is dreamy.


  1. I loved the movie. (Then again, I'm also a fan of the books.) But I have been extremely disheartened to see how the critics have responded and how poor the box office has been. I've seen the criticism of "well, it's no Twilight." And my response is "Yes, and that's a good thing!" Glad to hear someone who isn't familiar with the books enjoyed it too.

    1. It is genuinely so nice to know that someone else saw this movie! The theater was deserted when I went, which is a total bummer! I'm glad you liked it - it's always really comforting when fans of the book like the movie too. Then it's like, "Oh thank goodness, I'm not accidentally desecrating a beloved book by liking this."

  2. I think I cried the whole time reading this article... It's so sad what is happening with VA and what you said it's exactly what I've been trying to say to people since I started reading these books 4 years ago. The movie did so bad that we are probably not having it here in Brazil and this is so disappointing after waiting so many years. Thank you for this.

    1. Oh no! That really stinks. I hope it still comes out there. That would be really sad if you guys didn't get to see it.

  3. I adore this article. I am a massive fan of the books and was really looking forwards to seeing the movie (which I am doing tonight, yay!) but I was really disheartened by how they marketed it. Hardly any publicity, and from what I hear it was released in few cinemas for a really short run. Also, by them changing the release date there was a great deal of confusion as to when the film was actually being released!! It makes me so sad to see a great movie with strong female leads be treated like this! It makes me sad that sequels of this great story might not be made because of the unprofessional treatment of it. And can I just say that almost every "professional" review follows the same line - can't follow the story line and its just another YA adoption so its crap. Argh I could rage. But enough complaining. Thank you for this, as a big fan of the books, its nice to see that the non-book customers appreciate the story I love so much.

    1. Agreed. The way this movie was handled was atrocious, and I am so frustrated with the critical community for being buttheads over it. I hope you have a great time at the movie tonight!

  4. I actually love this article. I am a fan of the book but I'm also a movie buff. To be honest when I saw the movie I didn't understand how the score could be SO low. It really wasn't that bad! in fact it was enjoyable! (and i'm not even in the demographic) I know it had its flaws but that really came down to the people behind the camera, and I don't know if you know this but the Weinstein company actually edited the film down from 2 hours and that's why it was choppy in places and storylines weren't resolved properly. All in all I'd expect at least a 50% RT for this. Oh well I'm just sad it did so bad in the box office because the story gets really good and I'd encourage you to pick up the books. Because at this point I don't think there's any chance a sequel will be made.

    1. I only just found out about the possible missing footage, and that just bothers the crap out of me. I mean, if you're going to basically dump the movie and write it off, why bother to delete the footage first? Aaaaaugh.

    2. Yeh the Weinstein company pretty much set this movie up to fail. If you like, read this post by daniel waters (the writer) that is screen capped in a post on someone's tumblr. If real, and i think it is, it explains a lot.

  5. The answer, I'm pretty sure, lies in two places: first, in marketing, and second, in sexism.

    And I'm totally sure the latter has nothing to do with the problems of the former. No, wait, the complete opposite.

    And, even better, Lissa goes so far as to call Rose her soulmate. In public. Just because they aren't sexually attracted to each other doesn't mean their love isn't important.

    Well, that resolves my hemming and hawwing about whether Lost Girl is worth your time. Because such a relationship is right there at its heart. Right down to, on the night before a huge battle is going to happen:
    Kenzi: "You should go be with [one of Bo's paramours]. You shouldn't be alone tonight."
    Bo: "I'm not alone. I'm with you."

    Ok, that's not very on topic.

    Because its characters wear makeup and flirt with boys and like having pretty dresses.

    Their important relationships being with each other is probably a factor too. Katniss has a couple of important relationships with girls - the most important as well, probably - but one is far away from her and the other dies fairly quickly. After that it's mostly guys - and I would imagine the critics counted that towards its gravitas - another way to "stigmatize feminized expressions of teenage girldom in favor or more masculine role models."

    I was looking at this in the supermarket last week and wondering whether it was any good.

    1. Ah sexism and marketing. Things I hate.

      And platonic soulmates? Yes, I am definitely going to watch Lost Girl. I love me some platonic soulmates.

      I hadn't thought about Katniss real isolation from other women, but you're definitely right on that front. I feel like it only starts to get better in the third book, when the real emphasis falls on her relationships with Prue and Johanna and to some extent Cressida. I hope that carries through to the movies.

  6. Another great platonic soul mate relationship is Meredith Grey & Cristina Yang (Grey's Anatomy). I love their friendship a lot more than I like Meredith's romance with her husband Derek.

    Lost Girl is great. I love me some Kenzi! Not only is Lost Girl a great show but the main character is a bisexual/pansexual woman and the show really respects what that means with having a romantic and physical attraction to different genders. There are a lot of strong female characters, a good black character, a male that is 4' 7'' and his height doesn't become his storyline, and the friendship between Bo/Kenzi is so early seasons Xena/Gabrielle.

    I've had Vampire Academy checked out from the library for over a week and still haven't gotten up the courage to watch it because I'm afraid I'll hate it. It looks campy and like all of the seriousness in the books was siphoned out in a reverse BtVS (the movie was flimsy while the tv show was deep). I loved the Vampire Academy books and I've read all of the Bloodlines books that are out.

    Maybe that is why the movie got such a low score. It's hard to love movie adaptations when you've read and fallen in love with the book first.

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  10. I actually love this article. I am a fan of the book but I'm also a movie buff. To be honest when I saw the movie I didn't understand how the score could be SO low.

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