Director : Catherine Hardwicke
Screenplay : Melissa Rosenberg (based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Kristen Stewart (Bella Swan), Robert Pattinson (Edward Cullen), Billy Burke (Charlie Swan), Ashley Greene (Alice Cullen), Nikki Reed (Rosalie Hale), Jackson Rathbone (Jasper Hale), Kellan Lutz (Emmet Cullen), Peter Facinelli (Dr. Carlisle Cullen), Cam Gigandet (James), Taylor Lautner (Jacob Black), Anna Kendrick (Jessica Stanley), Michael Welch (Mike Newton), Christian Serratos (Angela Weber), Gil Birmingham (Billy Black)
I am usually attuned to significant trends in popular culture, whether they be on disc, in print, or on screen, which is why I was surprised to learn not too long ago that I had somehow completely missed the arrival and growing popularity of Stephenie Meyer’s series of teen-pulp gothic novels about vampire romance, which have generated such an intense fan base among adolescent girls that it is being discussed as the heir apparent to Harry Potter. The first I heard of the books, in fact, was when news surfaced that Twilight, the first entry in the four-part series, was being turned into a much anticipated film. Thus, given that I was largely unaware of the source novels’ existence and have not read a single sentence in them, I approached Catherine Hardwicke’s screen version with no expectations or assumptions and cannot speak at all to their fidelity to the novels in either story or tone.
The tone of Hardwicke’s film lies in a highly stylized, moody netherworld between starry teen fantasy and brooding gothic melodrama in the vein of Emily Brönte, which makes for an awkward, albeit sometimes effective, mixture. The story is quite thin, almost brittle in fact, which makes Hardwicke’s intensive stylistic panache feel more like weighted filler than thematic elaboration. Like many a gothic melodrama, Twilight is set in a world of perpetual gloom and rainfall, as if the weather itself is embroiled with angst. In this case, the setting is the Pacific Northwest, specifically the tiny town of Forks, Washington.
The heroine is Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), an insular teenager who moves to Forks in order to live with her police chief father (Billy Burke) after years of living with her carefree mother in Phoenix. Bella is immediately taken in by a group of warm and cheerful friends who go out of their way to make her feel welcome, but in true brooding-teen fashion she is fatalistically drawn to the mysterious hunk Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the member of a large family of similarly mystifying, pale, and beautiful teens who look like fashion models and keep almost entirely to themselves. (Given how glum the two main characters are, the “normal” teens seem like aliens from another planet with their smiles, laughter, and interests in surfing, the school newspaper, and going to the prom.) The story that has circulated about the Cullens is that they are the foster children of the local doctor (Peter Facinelli) who have recently moved to Forks from Alaska, but Bella senses that there is something more.
Something more, indeed. I don’t think I will be spoiling anything to reveal that Edward and his entire clan are ageless vampires who keep a low profile in human society while satiating their bloodlust on animals to keep from killing people. Edward, ever the tragic figure, still considers himself a monster and tries to keep away from Bella even as he is constantly drawn to her, which causes him to risk revealing his identity by saving her from a sliding car. Like an undead James Dean with blood-red lips and eyebrows that are so perfectly sculpted they look digitized, Edward is everything and nothing at the same time, and Bella can’t keep away, even after she figures out what he is and he reveals to her that he has a special desire to sink his never-revealed fangs into her flesh.
From a story perspective, that is about all that screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, a television veteran of Party of Five and The O.C. (hmmm … I wonder why she was chosen …), manages to wring out of the novel. There is a last-minute subplot involving a trio of roaming vagabond vampires who start feeding around Forks, one of whom (Cam Gigandet) takes a special interest in making Bella his next meal, but the film’s backbone is primarily emotional, not narrative. Hardwicke invests most of the film’s visual energy in swooning crane shots that lurch and spin and find respite only in soaking up the smoldering eye contact between Bella and Edward, which makes the film both relentlessly heartfelt and intermittently silly. While drained of virtually all color except dripping-wet green and blood red, Twilight pulsates with a shameless intensity that is buoyed by wailing electric guitars and a healthy dose of overacting, whether it be Pattinson’s electric-on-the-verge-of-creepy gaze or Stewart’s constant biting her lower lip.
Thankfully, Hardwicke brings in a few moments of effective comic release, including an amusing scene of the Cullens playing a hyped-up game of baseball in a thunderstorm and virtually any scene between Bella and her father, which hit just the right notes of awkwardness (unfortunately, there is unintentional comedy in some of the effects that depict Edward moving with superhuman speed, which make him look odd and weightlessly cartoonish). Too much of the film’s romance is overheated, but at times it really works, such as when Bella and Edward exchange their first, extremely delayed kiss, which, unlike most movie kisses, has a real fire and sense of danger to it (literally--if Edward tastes her for too long he might go in for the kill). However, it’s not quite enough to make up for Twilight’s more ludicrous moments, which tend to drip rather than soar.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Summit Entertainment