Vampire Academy, based off the popular young adult series by Richelle Mead, is a film that easily avoids being as bad as it could be, yet somehow fails to capitalize on the tantalizing potential of a book that often seemed more like a movie pitch than a full-fledged novel. It constantly swerves from charmingly self-confident to painfully awkward — the sort of movie adaptation that ticks off all the things fans want to see, but doesn’t tick them off with style.
Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch) is a teenage Dhampir, a half-vampire bred and trained to protect the Moroi (mortal vampires with magical abilities) from the evil Strigoi (undead and physically powerful vampires). She shares a deeply emotional and mystical bond with Princess Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry), the last of her line and potential heir to the Moroi throne. One day, Rose will become a graduate of the Academy and an official Guardian — but for now, she has to survive high school brats out for blood while a sinister plot threatens the life of her best friend.
This movie had to do one thing right to make fans of the books happy, and that was hitting the bull’s-eye on Rose’s character. If nothing else, the film managed to do just that. Zoey Deutch is endearing as the pugnacious, fast-talking, and irreverent hero, carrying the entire film on her shoulders on the strength of her dry delivery and remarkably imposing physicality. She certainly sells the notion that this tiny teenager can kick serious ass, and quite honestly feels like the only actor who really gave the film her best effort. Rose is a character much closer to strong-willed feminist hero Katniss Everdeen than the mopey and spineless Bella Swan, someone who shrugs off the slut-shaming of her petty peers and laughs in the face of authority figures who don’t seem to have anything better to do than to patronize teenage girls. She’s a smart-ass with a plunging neckline and the stiff shoulders of a bar brawler, and she deserves a better movie.
Despite all the minor improvements one could expect from page to screen, mostly regarding action scenes, the film suffers from two major problems. The first is abysmal pacing. It feels like it was edited with a metronome, breezing through plot points every two minutes like clockwork, without any sense of atmosphere or timing. The problematic flashback-heavy structure of the book is preserved, which becomes confusing and disorienting when played at this breathless speed. In fact, every little mistake becomes compounded because of the film’s pacing. The over-reliance on voice-over narration, the expository dialogue, the under-developed side characters (Olga Kurylenko’s talent in particular is wasted) — all of it combines to deliver an experience more reminiscent of a Wikipedia article than a movie, something far more concerned with summarizing everything than it is with telling a story.
The second major problem is one of tone. While the film seems most comfortable with snarky one-liners and sassy catwalks, it struggles mightily whenever it is called upon to elicit anything other than a smile from its audience. Things that should be scary or disturbing simply aren’t — often by accident, but sometimes out of deliberate cowardice. In the book, Lissa’s troubled character copes with the burdens of intense pressures and the pain of having lost her family by regularly cutting her wrists — one of many aspects of the novel that were obviously intended to provide comfort and solace to young readers suffering silently in the cruel isolation of adolescence. In the movie, the cuts on her wrist are re-written as physical side-effects of overexerting her healing magic — a perfect example of how the film simply fails to deliver the emotional and moral depth of the book in favor of uncomplicated fun. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect anything else from the director of Mean Girls (Mark Waters) and the writer of Heathers (Daniel Waters).
If the film is worth watching, it’s because of Zoey Deutch as Rose. But there is precious little else to give this film any verve. While it is largely faithful to the letter of the book, it misses the spirit, and a great opportunity to wipe the sour memory of the Twilight saga from our collective consciousness was lost.