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Twilight (2008)

DIRECTOR: Catherine Hardwicke

CAST:

Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Cam Gigandet, Ashley Greene, Nikki Reed, Jackson Rathbone, Kellan Lutz, Elizabeth Reaser, Taylor Lautner, Gil Birmingham, Edi Gathegi, Rachelle Lefevre

REVIEW:

Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling Twilight book series, like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter before it, has exploded into an adolescent phenomenon. It’s also a film that’s likely as critic-proof as they come. It’s no secret that the most rabid Twilight fan base is young teenage girls swooning and screaming over dreamy vampire Edward Cullen (embodied onscreen by latest heartthrob on the block Robert Pattinson) and imagining themselves in human heroine Bella Swan’s shoes. As an early 20s male, I’m not Twilight‘s stereotypical target audience (although I can name a couple other 20-something males who are as crazy over it as any 14-year-old girl, and a couple older individuals besides), so it’s no surprise that I’m not about to declare it any kind of masterpiece. In truth, Twilight is not an especially good movie. In fact, it’s all quite corny teeny bopper stuff, and the movie’s production itself is on the cheap. I was neither impressed nor driven to poke my eye out; the movie simply doesn’t generate that strong of a reaction in either direction (unless you’re a rabid screaming fangirl, of the type flocking to theaters on Twilight‘s opening day). Overall, I would say more works than doesn’t work, but not by overwhelming proportions.

Our teenage protagonist is Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), who moves from sunny Phoenix, Arizona (although Stewart is so pale it’s even joked about in the script) to dreary, rainy Forks, Washington to spend some time with her police chief dad Charlie (Billy Burke) while mom and step-dad are on a road trip. It’s not long before Bella makes the acquaintance of mysterious classmate Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who seems so inexplicably disturbed by her presence that he immediately tries to change his schedule to avoid her, but develops a habit of staring fixedly at her. Oh, and Edward never eats or drinks, is pale and ice-cold, and saves her from an out-of-control van by pushing it away with his bare hand. With a trip to a bookstore and a few Google internet searches, Bella pieces it together; Edward and his surrogate family- town doctor Carlisle (a bleach-blond Peter Facinelli), wife Esme (Elizabeth Reaser), and adopted children Edward, Rosalie (Nikki Reed), Jasper (Jackson Rathbone), Alice (Ashley Greene), and Emmett (Kellan Lutz)- are vampires. But by the time Bella finds this out, the connection between them is powerful enough to overcome any fear she might have felt, and to break his resistance to allowing himself to get too close to a human whose blood he thirsts for. As it happens, the Cullens are ‘vegetarian’ vampires, meaning they feed on animals and abstain from preying on humans. But when a trio of nomadic vampires (Cam Gigandet, Edi Gathegi, Rachelle Lefevre) who don’t share their compunction get a sniff of Bella, she and the Cullens find themselves in danger.

First things first: if you’re expecting something dark and creepy, move along. Twilight is long on teenage romantic angst and melodrama but very skimpy on menace or horror. Those who crave the gruesome, sinister traditional vampire aspects will decry Twilight‘s amiable clan as defanged and neutered, and the bad vampires aren’t threatening. Like most vampire movies, it has its own spin on the mythology; they don’t burst into flame in the sunlight, they just avoid it because it makes their skin sparkle like diamonds (yes, it is as goofy as it sounds). When Bella enters the Cullens’ spacious, sunlit house, Edward jokingly asks if she was expecting a dark castle filled with coffins. There’s no mentions of garlic, holy water, or crucifixes. In fact- brace yourself, gentle reader- they don’t even have fangs. In fact, the only vampire traits they have at all are living forever and drinking blood, and the Cullens only hunt deer (Meyer is a devout Mormon who doesn’t watch R-rated movies and has purposely never read any vampire stories other than her own to avoid anything that contradicts her ‘vision’). It’s worth keeping in mind that both the book and film’s core fanbase is preteen and teen girls. The movie doesn’t push its PG-13 rating; what fairly little violence there is isn’t graphic, and due to Edward’s fear of losing control, he and Bella’s romance is mostly chaste- in the audience I attended with, comprised predominantly of teenage girls, you could feel the anticipation building up to the one scene where Edward briefly allows he and Bella to get a little hot-and-heavy before he pulls away.

The cast includes a few recognizable faces, but no ‘big names’ (although that might be in the process of changing). Some will remember Kristen Stewart as, among other roles, Jodie Foster’s daughter in Panic Room, and Robert Pattinson as the ill-fated Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire , and there are a couple character actors like Billy Burke and Peter Facinelli. Best is Stewart, who does an admirable job of anchoring the film with a straightforward, serious performance. We believe in Bella because Stewart plays her straight and real. Pattinson isn’t quite as successful. Physically, he’s the ideal Edward- with his lanky frame, smooth, coldly white skin, intense stare, and, of course, artfully disheveled hair, he’s right on the line between dreamboat and spooky weirdo (of course he lands mostly on the former side of the line, sending many a teenage girl’s heart a flutter with one intent glance from those hazel contact-colored eyes). He’s stiff (the Englishman’s American accent might have a little to do with that), and there are occasions when he’s cringingly overwrought (although the dialogue must take some of the blame), but most of Twilight’s fanbase will be too busy focusing on his looks to judge his acting abilities. There is some chemistry between Pattinson and Stewart, which deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the movie succeeding as much as it does. Billy Burke brings a touch of sensitivity to Bella’s father, and got a few laughs from my audience with his awkward attempts to reconnect with her. In fact, it could be argued that Burke’s average Joe Charlie is the character in the movie who comes across the most like a real person. A bleached-blond Peter Facinelli provides a steady, warm, collected presence as the head of the Cullen family (though Facinelli’s vague resemblance to Tom Cruise, both physically and vocally, is occasionally a little distracting). The rest of the Cullens don’t have much screentime but do an effective job of getting across their most important individual traits. As the villain, Cam Gigandet is terminally bland. Those who decry the ‘vegetarian’ Cullens and hope James will inject a little more typical vampire menace will probably be disappointed. The vampire conflict subplot feels tacked on as an afterthought to provide a dose of action, but the Bella-Edward relationship is more effective.

In terms of what works and doesn’t work, Twilight is uneven. Scenes that onscreen seem unintentionally laughably hokey, such as Edward showing Bella how his skin sparkles in the sunlight, are contrasted by the low-key sweetness in moments like Edward teaching klutzy Bella how to dance, and even the occasional grand sweeping romantic gesture like whisking her up to the top of a tree where they look out over the entire lake and surrounding forest. This moment in particular gives us a glimpse of a movie on a higher level than what it usually achieves. For most of the rest of its running length, Twilight has more the modest look and feel of something you might happen across on TV- an episode of the shameless Twilight rip-off Vampire Diaries, for instance- instead of a major studio blockbuster. Catherine Hardwicke does a static, workmanlike job except for occasional attempts to vary it up with a couple scenes of the camera continually circling the characters as they speak, that is actually more annoying than interesting and feels like too obvious ‘look at me! I’m directing!’ shout-outs. The visual effects are unpolished; a few too many times, when the actors leap around on wires, that’s what it looks like, and the speeded-up effects look hokey, with the exception of Edward whisking Bella up the tree, which works. Some of the lines are ridiculously clunky, on par with the cringe-inducing romantic dialogue in the Star Wars prequels, especially when Edward tells Bella, about as angstily as possible, that ‘you’re like my own personal brand of heroin’. Lines like ‘so the lion fell in love with the lamb’ don’t exactly roll off the tongue either (note to Stephenie Meyer; I’m pretty sure even angsty melodramatic hundred-year-old lovelorn perpetually teenage vampires don’t talk like that). Then again, such lines made girls sigh all over theaters across America, so maybe I’m just not who they’re aimed at. When the humor is intentional, it actually works fairly well. Bella’s introduction to the rest of the friendly but eccentric Cullen clan is one of the bright spots of the movie, and the filmmakers get a few effective laughs out of the ‘vampire introduces human girlfriend to vampire family’ scenario. They have an entire wall covered with graduation caps (since most of the Cullens are physically teenagers, and never age, they have to move every few years, before their eternal youth gets too obvious), and can only play baseball in thunderstorms to drown out the crack of the bat in their superhumanly powerful hands, in a scene that actually avoids seeming as corny as it easily could have (if by this point you’ve accepted vampires who go to high school and play baseball). The movie includes a small army of supporting characters, such as Bella’s gaggle of new classmates (Michael Welch, Anna Kendrick, Christian Serratos, Justin Chon), who are uniformly annoying and generate more screentime than interest, and Native Americans Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who obviously has an eye for Bella, and his father (Gil Birmingham), who obviously knows more than he says about the Cullens and isn’t thrilled about Bella hooking up with one of them, who are clearly poised to play more significant parts in following installments, and the last shot of the movie might as well have ‘to be continued’ subtitled beneath it.

Fans of the books will likely be enthralled by the movie. For everyone else, an awareness that this is a lightweight teenage romance whose fanbase is dominated by preteen and teen girls is worth keeping in mind. I moderately enjoyed Twilight, or at least didn’t mind sitting through it, but I’ll be the first to admit it’s not anything exceptional. Stewart deserves kudos for bringing about the most conviction to the material as anyone could muster, Pattinson is at least physically well-cast in the romantic vampire mold, and if he often varies within the narrow range of being angstily sullen and angstily overwrought, he and Stewart at least make an appealing couple, and that’s enough to make most of Twilight go down pleasantly enough, even if it’s too light and watered-down to make a lasting impression. There’s potential for this story to be something more than a swoonfest for 14-year-old girls, but only time will tell if the inevitable sequels will come any closer to realizing it.

**1/2 stars

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