Thursday, June 28, 2012

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter: A film divided against itself

And Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson seems so cool.
My Twitter friendly review of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is: "It would be somewhat acceptable if it were not at all about Abraham Lincoln." Then you would just be left with some (still cool to me) nineteenth-century Matrix-esque vamp slaying with a silver-dipped axe (thought silver was anti-werewolf?-- whatever) and the film could have jettisoned its sloppy, irresponsible, and straight-up offensive treatment of abolitionism and the Gettysburg dead.

Abe suffers from what I've termed the "Captain America Problem" (CAP!) because, well, I had a problem with a scene in Captain America. One moment in last summer's film shows Cap shield slinging in a snow covered forest during World War II. Now, maybe it was because I had just seen Band of Brothers, but for me, snow covered forests [plus] World War II [equals] The Battle of the Bulge where thousands of Allied soldiers slowly froze and starved when they weren't being, you know, blown up, trying to hold the line. I couldn't help but think that injecting a fantastical savior into a very real battle where very real people endured very real losses cheapened and sanitized the suffering. But that was just one scene. Abe takes the CAP and makes it a foundational narrative component of the film.

I knew I was in for trouble when, in an opening scene of voiceover exposition that lays down the (underdeveloped and incomplete) account that hey, there are vampires in America, a throwaway line mentions that said vamps decimated Native Americans. Um, well, unless they tricked the European settlers into all those massacres and land grabs, that sounds a bit like blaming the genocide on vampires instead of, you know, THE HUMANS WHO ACTUALLY DID IT. And that was just the beginning.

Because the protagonist is Abraham Lincoln, and the film retains just enough "actual history" to keep the character recognizable, the abolitionist movement and the Civil War loom large. And because the script is committed to collapsing a vampire vs. human war for dominance over America into the pro- vs. anti-slavery conflict that exploded into the Civil War, the latter traumas are reduced to narrative pawns. Vampires are pro-slavery because of a steady food supply, and the Confederates who eventually ally with them do so out of, well, who knows. Abolitionists, including, may God forgive screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, Harriet Tubman, are conscripted into the fight against vampires because that's so much more important than, you know, ending chattel slavery and liberating millions of human beings. The implicit argument that vampires, not people, were ultimately accountable for supporting and perpetuating institutionalized slavery culminates in the scene when the slaughter at Gettysburg is ret-conned to argue that vampires were responsible for the tens of thousands of Union dead. It tasked me. Sort of like how Kirk tasked Khan.

Sci-fi and fantasy texts are not only capable of, but I would argue, uniquely suited to, making cogent and powerful arguments about socio-political injustices. See Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, X:Men, etc., etc., etc. And it is not inherently dangerous or disrespectful to fictionalize history. See Beloved, Kindred, V., etc., etc., etc. But when historical traumas become glibly instrumentalized to enable big explosions and blood-spatter, and an ill-defined supernatural evil substitutes for and glosses over the human actions and rationalizations that enabled and encouraged human suffering, well, that cannot stand.

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