Feb 12 2013
I really wasn’t planning on seeing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. While it’s the very definition of “high concept,” I was skeptical of the author, and the movie simply didn’t get good notices upon its release.
Basically, it was more or less received as a movie with noticeable narrative problems. That’s not always a deal-breaker for me, but more damningly I kept hearing it described as dull and self-serious, failing to reconcile its subject matter with its tone
And THAT, I would contend, is absolutely the wrong way to look at things. The critics whiffed big on this one.
Let me clarify: I don’t have a standing grudge against critics. In fact, I think it’s a bit obnoxious when people proudly claim they don’t care what a film’s critical reception is. Film criticism is a very legitimate and useful pursuit. When done right, it can illuminate movies that stymie us, show us movies that elude us, and give us a deeper context for the movies that engage us.
Good film criticism is just as essential to the medium as its audience. Without it, film would likely be spiritually more like the sideshow attraction it used to be, instead of the brilliant, ambitious medium it is.
That doesn’t mean the critic community is problem-free. There’s no qualification for the job; you don’t necessarily have to see a certain amount of movies or have any relevant experience. The deadline-driven nature of online publication means that there’s not time to see a movie, or even revisit it, before having to publish a permanent opinion on it.
And yeah, a lot of the time it seems like the most visible film critics devote an alarming amount of their brainpower to coming up with pithy dismissals of films they don’t like, instead of, you know, saying something.
What were we talking about?
Oh, right. Skeptical at first, heard it took itself way too seriously. Saw it later on.
Here’s the thing about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. There’s a scene somewhere near the middle of the movie where Abe finds the vampire who killed his mother. He angrily confronts him, only to have the baddie incite a horse stampede in an escape attempt. An absolutely ridiculous action scene ensues, wherein — I promise I’m not making any of this up — an evil one-eyed vampire attacks our nation’s 16th president by throwing horses at him (okay, he’s not elected yet, but still…).
Now, I’ll happily hear people say that doesn’t make a lick of sense, it’s way too fake looking, or that the movie (and this scene specifically) has pacing/editing problems. I’ll even be glad to entertain the idea that these (true) things impede people’s enjoyment of the movie.
What I will NOT get with is the notion that the flick is somehow attempting to convince us of its “seriousness” in and amongst all this horse-throwing and axe-spinning. Yet this is what a good half of the reviews I came across claimed sunk the movie.
Oh, to be sure, it’s played straight. There’s no Schwarzenegger-worthy one-liners, very little comic relief, and zero winks at the camera.
Still, it’s important to remember that this is a movie about Abraham Lincoln killing vampires with an axe, armed with the power of Truth, while they throw horses at him (that scene really made an impression on me). No one should be under the impression that this wants to be an Important Film or Serious Movie or anything.
It also has at LEAST the third most respectful depiction of slavery in the past year.
And, speaking of which, when did we start requiring movies to apologize for being ridiculous? That’s a trend that needs to die, post-haste. I’d explain why, but here’s what author/screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith said in an interview, and he’s more successful than me:
“One of the big challenges of this film that you’re getting at is that this is an absurd premise for a movie. And one of the ways to get by that is to treat the material as seriously as possible. If you were to just do the Mel Brooks version, it would be about as sustainable as an SNL sketch.”
“Even though what we’re doing is admittedly an absurd take on Lincoln’s life, we’re doing it with real care and consideration and respect for his ideals. And we’re bringing the legend of Lincoln to a new group of people.”
I know that what he’s saying kind of sounds like the very definition of “self-serious,” but I think that’s way over-simplifying the material. It’d be like calling Speed Racer a thoughtless, turn-off-your-brain light show…
I… okay, moving on. Eyes on the prize.
That there’s a respect for Lincoln underneath this movie is… well, that’s kind of awesome. It’s relatively easy to make a ridiculous movie with a tone that tries to push even further; just look at the dreck SyFy keeps pumping out. Making a ridiculous movie that nevertheless attempts to retain some degree of reverence for its subject matter and put a functional, historically relevant story in the background? In a way, that’s outright audacious.
In other words: The movie is, at its most base level, ridiculous. It doesn’t matter what tone it takes; it’s not being serious. Except when it is. Which is really not that often at all.
Honestly, it’s a lot of fun to watch the juggling act, and more than one chuckle comes from the movie’s sheer commitment to its premise. Which doesn’t inherently make it a “good movie,” but I’d take a flick willing to bite off more than it can chew over a movie that’s content to lazily cash in on a marketable premise any day**.
It seems like a good many people (and a lot of the critics) wanted the movie to apologize for its own existence. I’m here to say… well, that that’s stupid. So there.
All that said, don’t read this as a passionate defense of the movie, okay? It has some weird pacing problems — having not read the book, I’d guess they come from the adaptation process — and the in-movie logic doesn’t work for me at times, even on its own terms. I won’t act like it’s not an enjoyable way to spend two hours, though.
Getting back to our topic, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter doesn’t always show a great result for all the effort I described above. Even so, it would certainly be more productive criticism to deal with what all is going on in the movie, as opposed to simply dismissing its worth outright. Especially on the grounds that it’s willing to commit to its premise.
**Counterpoint: I have an oddly passionate admiration for Dredd, which succeeds purely because it doesn’t really try for anything amazing; rather it’s perfectly content to execute its modest ambitions flawlessly. The key in this case is the perfection of the execution. It’s the LAZY, or MESSY execution of unambitious premise that really irks me. I’d go for examples, but you know the kinds of movies I’m talking about… Okay, it’s Madagascar 3.
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