Four Score and Seven Slays Ago
The summer movie season's strangest studio film is a spectacular misfire. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is neither as amusing and absurd as one might expect nor as exciting and epic as the principal talent intend. The plot transpires in a revisionist vision of Civil War era America in which the South is dominated by slave-owning vampires, led by Adam (Rufus Sewell, quietly malevolent and very much typecast), and President Lincoln, played by the slumbrous Benjamin Walker in his inauspicious first leading role, is not just an attorney and statesman, but also a long-term vampire hunter who, after the murder of his beloved mother, dedicated the first half of his life to finding and executing the undead with his silver-plated axe.
The first requirement upon viewing the film is to forgive it its exploitative, borderline disrespectful obliteration of American historical fact, and I do not blame those who find this a bridge too far. Lincoln the stone-faced, axe-wielding, vampire-hunting superhero? Fine. But a scene turning the real and tragic death of his son William at the age of eleven from typhoid fever into an act of vampire retaliation? And the film's cavalier use of slavery iconography? A bit nausea-inducing.
On the surface, one might expect to find several genres represented in this film, including action, adventure, horror, and period drama. In truth, however, it is just an action film, an exhausting and uninspired one with limited reference points, the most notable and obvious being The Matrix and 300. Scene after scene finds Lincoln fighting anonymous vampires in super-slow-motion, often in artificial environments rendered with second-rate CGI. This is the negative side of the rise of the computer-generated image in cinema: limited resources, the question of how to achieve a big-budget image without an actual big budget, used to inspire the creative imagination. Now they result in scenes such as this film's train climax, with its too-elastic vampires and texture-free surfaces.
Adapting his own novel (so he has no one to blame but himself), Seth Grahame-Smith now and then generates an intriguing scene, but he fails in terms of the larger picture. The minimal character development, for example, feels strained. Characters' natures are forced to the forefront, not given a chance to reveal themselves in a slower, more nuanced way. There is no sense of dramatic momentum. The second half in particular, in which Lincoln resides in the White House and oversees the Civil War, feels fragmented, as if important scenes were cut in the favor of go-faster-faster-FASTER pacing. There is no sense of life-or-death import, not even during sequences depicting actual battles, including Gettysburg. Excitement is minimal verging on nonexistent.
There may be a worthy or at least playful idea at the core of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but the film, lumbering and out-of-date and flatly conceived in nearly every way, obscures this potential beyond recognition.