Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 at the Movies #8: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) doesn't earn my vote. 

Like some presidential campaigns of recent vintage, this 2012 movie from director Timur Bekmambetov is all style and no substance. 

Worse, much of the visual style in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter doesn’t make sense within the confines of a grounded historical fantasy.  Rather, the-you’ve-seen-it-all-before, slow-down/speed-up, Physics-defying fight sequences merely exemplify a terminal case of BMF-ism. 

That’s Bad Mutha-Fucka-ism, meaning that the images are designed to look ultra-cool, but boast no grounding in the movie’s actual narrative or themes.  Characters like Lincoln can thus defy gravity because…they can, not because they possess special abilities or powers, in other words.  By contrast, in The Matrix (1999), bullet time and other laws-of-nature-defying fight moves could be rationalized in a meaningful way that tied in with the story of life as a computer simulation. But not here.

Beyond this concern, Abraham Lincoln -- a man known for his stance that the freedom of all men must be recognized and maintained (per the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863) -- here relegates an entire race (the vampire nation) to bloody death because he believes, essentially, in stereotypes.

If some vampires are murderous, they must all be murderous, he concludes.  Lincoln believes in this stereotype fervently despite the fact that one of his most trusted allies, Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) is a heroic and noble vampire.  This fact hardly gives him pause.

In short, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is bad fantasy and bad history, and that makes it a very bad movie indeed.  A tremendous amount of money was sunk into the film in hopes that the audience will avoid this conclusion, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is ultimately uninvolving on a human level, even if it blows up things “real good.”

“History remembers the battle, but forgets the blood.”

Young Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) sees his mother die at the hands of a man named Barts (Marton Csokas), a vampire.  Nine years later, an adult Lincoln swears vengeance for her death.  He becomes allied with a man named Henry, who offers Lincoln the opportunity to train as a vampire hunter.

Lincoln accepts, and soon learns that vampires are thriving throughout the Southern United States.  They are led by a man called Adam (Rufus Sewell) and an enforcer named Vadonna (Erin Wasson), his sister. 

Lincoln moves to Springfield, Illinois to work in a local shop by day, and hunt vampires by night.  He soon meets the love of his life, Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and moves into politics.

Eventually Abraham Lincoln ascends to the White House and prosecutes the Civil War.  He learns that vampires are planning to aid Jefferson Davis (John Rothman) in a plan to destroy the Union, and draws the final battle lines…

“I shall kill them all!”

I haven’t read the book by Seth Grahame-Smith, so I can make no judicious commentary on its quality, or whether or not the film faithfully follows the details of the literary source.  What I can state rather unequivocally is that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the movie, leaves plenty of gaps in its discourse.

The most irritating of these gaps involves Lincoln’s shift from vampire hunting to politicking.  He decides that he needs a “contingency plan” for his life, and so goes into politics where he can make use of his skills in persuasion.  The film completely glosses over Lincoln’s campaign to win the Presidency, a place where any discussion of blood-sucking vampires might have been funny and pointed, and so we lose track of our connection to the character.

Also, it floors me that any film about Abraham Lincoln would transform perhaps the ultimate “conviction” politician into a guy who ran for president just because he needed “a contingency plan” in his life.   

The half-assed way the film covers politics and Lincoln’s decision to move into politics is borderline insulting, but also, in terms of the drama, it just doesn’t work.  The film could have followed two possible courses that would have made the choice to pursue the Presidency meaningful.  Lincoln could have become President because he wished to quash injustice in our land.  Or he could have become President because he knew what dangers (vampires!) lurked just beneath the surface.  Why the film wouldn’t at least pay lip service to one approach or the other is baffling.  Perhaps we’ve just become so cynical as a society that we can’t believe a man would seek high office to help other people.

I also really find it incredibly disturbing that this film would categorize the Lincoln of the Emancipation Proclamation as a man who would sanction and prosecute what is essentially genocide without some very deep contemplation.  But the film simply avoids a discussion of vampire nature here.

Why is Henry good, but other vampires are bad?  Aren’t there other good vampires too?  Are we to believe there is only one good vampire?  The Civil War pit brother against brother, so is it too much to believe that it might have pit some vampires against other vampires?  Would all blindly follow Adams call to bloody violence against humanity?

It’s true that I don’t automatically expect sympathy or equal rights for vampires in all horror movies.  But Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter -- because of its time period and central character -- exists on a terrain that demands some discussion or debate of this subject matter.  It can’t just avoid the question in favor of more cool fight scenes and expected to be regarded positively.

It seems to me that, historically speaking, part of Abraham Lincoln’s courage came from the fact that he could see beyond the prevailing stereotypes and nonsense about blacks being of an inferior breed.  He recognized that slaves are men too, and thus deserve the same rights as all men. 

So it just doesn’t make any sense that the same man who could visualize that greater perspective of racial justice would gaze narrowly at vampires and assume that every individual vampire is a drooling abomination, especially since he has evidence that this is not so in Henry.

In real life, Lincoln was a politician who spoke out against unnecessary violence and warmongering (such as the Mexican-American War) and so this idea of him as some unthinking agent of genocide, even against vampires, doesn’t work for me.

But of course, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn’t interested in either politics or painting a realistic historical portrait of Lincoln, the man.  No real, substantive tie is made between the evil of slavery and the evil of vampires in the film.  It’s lightly touched on, but not deeply considered.

Unfortunately, the film isn’t interested in satire, either.  The title suggests a degree of intellectual absurdity and playfulness that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter completely fails to capitalize on.  The film could have been an action-packed satire about politics as “blood sport,” but instead it boasts almost no humor whatsoever, except from the humor audiences may locate themselves in seeing a tall-hatted, lanky Abe Lincoln wield an axe while jumping over train cars and battling vampires.   

I imagine some folks will probably read this review and say, come on, John, it’s just supposed to be an entertaining movie.  Don’t overthink it.  

Well, the problem there is that the movie only entertains in hiccupping fits and starts.  Some visuals are powerful, to be certain, like a battle amid a horse stampede, or the final, fiery combat over a burning bridge. 
But between these admittedly-spiky visuals, almost nothing interesting happens.  The movie jumps over all the intriguing events in Lincoln’s life, including his bid for the Presidency, and even his first campaign to win in the House of Representatives…just to get to ridiculously-styled vampire fights.

And those fights just aren’t good enough to carry the day. I’m a strong proponent of the belief that especially in fantasy films, some rules must be observed.  If we are to imagine a world of dragons, or Hobbits, or even vampires, we must see that the world is still grounded in ways that make it recognizable to us, as human beings. Slather on too many fantastic elements, and a fantasy begins to crack under the strain.  

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter -- with all its crazy angles and gravity-defying battle sequences -- sacrifices realism for excessive but meaningless-style, and this approach simply doesn’t fit the gravity of the narrative. 

If this movie wants us to believe that Lincoln was a man who both freed the slaves and eradicated the vampires, then the filmmakers should have undertaken steps to make those acts seem believable and consistent with one another 

Instead, it doesn’t even try.  

 Like a lot of politicians and campaigns, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire just insults our intelligence on a near-constant basis. 

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:40 PM

    Did it seem to anyone else like this movie was edited on a tight deadline? Characters disappeared at random (Alan Tudyk especially), each scene seemed to only last a minute or two, and plot structure was basically non-existent. It felt like I was watching a film with a very rushed/troubled production history and yet there have been no reports of anything of the sort.

    Even Seth Grahame-Smith has admitted that the film "didn't work" and he wrote the screenplay.