Only Lovers Left Alive is easily summarized as Jim Jarmusch does vampires, with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton playing the bloodsuckers. If having vampiric Loki isn’t enough for you, how about adding Mila Wasikowska, an extra delicious choice given her previous starring role in Park Chan-wook’s Stoker.
Hiddleston and Swinton are Adam and Eve, two immortal vampires though we are not told if they are the Biblical couple. Both shun predating on humans for blood, wary of contamination from drugs and disease and mindful of a modern sensibilities. Adam appears to be both a musician and a scientist and seems to have inspired countless luminaries of both fields throughout the centuries. But he is world weary out of frustration of humanity’s failure to preserve the Earth and their tendency to pull down their greatest heroes.
Now at this point, you’re either thinking, “cool vampire backstory!” or getting a sick feeling that you’ve seen this somewhere before. For me it was definitely the latter since, like every other gamer who has been around since the 1990s, I’ve read White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade. I mean, goth clothes, obsession with art, existential angst, refined poise, super speed (but not strength), this is the Toreador clan down to a T. Hey, they even kept the Biblical connection with these names. My wife seems okay with a straight up cinematic version of a White Wolf vampire but there’s a good reason why gamers today look back on that period as just another example of the embarrassing things you liked when you were a teenager.
It definitely doesn’t help that this movie is way too cute with its references. O Negative blood type is universal donor so aren’t we clever by establishing that it tastes especially delicious to vampires? And let’s have a giggle over how Christopher Marlowe really wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, which was a really cool conspiracy theory back in the 19th century. Dr. Faust and Dr. Watson, really? We’re really scraping the bottom of the in-jokes barrel here. It’s cool that both Marlowe and Eve have set up their modern bases in Tangier but would it have killed them to include some non-European names when they name-drop historical figures?
I don’t dislike every single element of this film. I loved how Adam established himself amidst the urban decay of Detroit and enjoyed the references to more local bits of history. It just gets tiresome when everyone immediately reaches for the most well-known historical references. I found Eve’s supernatural ability to identify and date the objects she touches to be an interesting take on the auspex vampiric power. There is also no doubt that it is a technically accomplished and visually very interesting film.
But at heart this film is about a take on vampires that is not at all novel to me. Its light tone and cheesy jokes clash with its angst, making even the talented cast seem like flailing LARPers. While I won’t begrudge Jarmusch the right to make something more mainstream, the themes explored here are laughably simple compared to those in something like The Limits of Control. For all of these reasons, it gets a thumbs-down from me.