Starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson
My rating: ★★★ stars
An engaging premise combined with a flawed execution leads to an uneven if, ultimately, enjoyable movie.
Before Twilight was released in November 2008, it was already a phenomenon. Mobs lined up outside of malls to see the then-unknown stars of the soon-to-be-released film; the soundtrack album topped the charts the week of its release. Inevitably, it seems, such rapturous appreciation led to a backlash as virulent in its disdain as fans were in their admiration.
Twilight’s detractors express their hatred of it with a vitriol usually reserved for pedophiles or genocidal dictators. Bashing Twilight has become a cheap way to establish street cred as a discriminating connoisseur of pop culture. Condescending, borderline misogynistic comments about sparkly vampires litter the landscape of modern social media and pseudo-intellectual hipster pop culture websites. When the mishmash of rapturous swooning on one side and self-congratulatory snobbery on the other is put aside, Twilight emerges as an entertaining, if slapdash, film.
The premise of Twilight is typical of the Gothic romance. Bella Swan (Kristin Stewart), a shy, selfless, mature-beyond-her-years high school girl falls for centenarian vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who belongs to a family/coven of impulse-denying, non-killing vampires, who feed on animal blood instead of human blood and jokingly call themselves “vegetarians.”
Edward becomes torn between the desire to love Bella or, going against his family’s pacifist code, to kill her. As Bella is the only person whose mind he cannot read, he finds her intriguing; as he comes to know her, he falls in love with her. On the other hand, the scent of her blood holds a nearly irresistible allure for him, more so than the scent of any other human he has encountered in his long life, testing the limits of his self-control. Edward’s ambivalence reflects the twin drives of Eros (the sex/life urge) and Thanatos (the death urge), a binary embodied by the figure of the vampire and which, perhaps, accounts for the vampire’s enduring cinematic appeal.
Twilight takes the appeal a step further by honing in on the complex nature of the erotic. A key factor in the concept of eros is that of want, of lack, of desire that must remain unfulfilled. As Anne Carson explains in her study Eros: The Bittersweet, “The lover wants what he does not have. It is by definition impossible for him to have what he wants if, as soon as it is had, it is no longer wanting.” Twilight creates a seemingly insurmountable barrier between its lovers—the closer Bella gets to Edward the closer she gets to danger—thus fanning the erotic where our increasingly permissive society of instant gratification would seem to snuff it out. The scene where Edward flies back across the room away from Bella to avoid fulfilling his desire is more erotic, in the traditional sense of the word, than the most explicit consummation scene. One of the common criticisms of Twilight—that it reflects an unhealthily repressed view of sexuality—fails to recognize that this repression is part of the story’s appeal. Romance thrives on boundaries.
Where Twilight stumbles is in the execution of its premise. After languishing in development at Paramount for years, the property was acquired by a minor (at the time) studio, Summit, which filmed it quickly and cheaply, filling the cast with unknowns and rushing into shooting with a script, by Melissa Rosenberg (TV’s Dexter), that still needed work. One problem area is the clunky voice over providing exposition with all the subtlety of a Peterbilt, and the film would have been stronger if some awkward dialogue had been cut.
However, structurally, the script makes some wise choices in adapting from novel to film. The major threat (a group of three villainous vampires) is introduced far earlier in the film than in the novel. Extraneous characters are trimmed and consolidated. If anything, Rosenberg could have pruned the characters more liberally. Bella’s human cohorts (human sidekicks being always the least interesting characters in any supernatural story) take time away from developing the members of the Cullen family, who, while fascinating and fully rounded in the novels, remain flat in the films, barely conveying even a single adjective worth of description: vain Rosalie (Nikki Reed), quirky Alice (Ashley Greene), tortured Jasper (Jackson Rathbone), and jocular Emmett (Kellan Lutz).
More charismatic actors in the ensemble might have been able to flesh out the sketchier roles, but most of the performances are adequate enough not to detract from the film even if they fail to elevate it. Several of the performers do, in fact, rise above the merely adequate. Pattinson and Stewart bring a strong chemistry to the film, an essential for any romance. Among the supporting cast, standouts include Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air) as Bella’s catty friend and Billy Burke as Bella’s shotgun-cocking police chief father. Taylor Lautner’s wooden performance as Jacob Black, a notable detriment to the sequels, here is limited in screen time.
Twilight remains one of the highest grossing and most prominent films directed by a woman. Unfortunately, many of the film’s weaknesses can be laid at the feet of director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Red Riding Hood). Hardwicke’s gratuitous slow motion, heavy-handed use of music (although the score by Carter Burwell is hauntingly lovely), and overwrought camera work create a strained awkwardness in many key scenes. For example, the way the camera dwells on Edward’s murderous stare when Edward first catches Bella’s scent turns the inciting incident of the film into a moment of unintentional laughter. Hardwicke doesn’t seem to have a strong sense of what works on film. However, she does make fantastic use of the film’s Washington locations. Twilight emphasizes the lush, fecund greenness, reminding us that the Olympic Peninsula is, in fact, a rainforest.
Ultimately, Twilight falls in the vast middle, not nearly as good as one would hope, but not nearly as bad as its detractors make it out to be.
A Few Words about Twilight-Bashing
What is particularly loathsome about Twilight-bashing is that the film’s attackers take their criticism beyond the film itself to the film’s fans, so, when I reveal myself to be one, I must not only defend the film—hey, guys, it’s really not that bad—but defend myself against aspersions cast on my intelligence, film knowledge, and ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Yes, I must say, I was a college professor. Yes, I did go to film school. No, I’m not being brainwashed to be a mindless love slave to an attractive man.
I have been told directly and indirectly through numerous commentaries that I should find Edward’s behavior toward Bella disturbing and that the reason that I don’t is because Robert Pattinson is attractive. That Pattinson is not remotely my “type” doesn’t seem to matter to the Twilight-bashers. They feel they know better than I do why I think a certain way. However, it’s not because I find Edward pretty that I don’t find his behavior disturbing. I don’t find it disturbing because it’s not. For one thing, in the real world, the crime of stalking is an act of violence, an attempt to force the stalker’s will on and enforce his dominion over his victim; that type of power dynamic is absent in Twilight. Also, stalking hinges on the lack of consent of the victim—the perpetrator’s behavior is unwanted. Bella accepts Edward’s hovering. Furthermore, in the fantasy world the Twilight stories create, Edward’s behavior is presented as acceptable, and, even though the stories are set in a world we recognize as our own, the stories are fantasies that should be taken on their own terms, as long as the rules of the fantasy world remain consistent. Yes, I would object if the film presented something obviously counterfactual, like identifying the capital of Washington as Seattle (which it doesn’t) and then tried to excuse it by claiming the error to be part of the fantasy. But I see no reason to object if the stories present different standards of behavior for vampires in their fantasy world than we would expect from human beings in the real world.
Another common criticism I find overstated is the claim that Twilight is anti-feminist. One reason for this claim is Bella’s supposed lack of personality. However, she doesn’t so much lack a personality as embody a type of heroine less common in recent narratives than in the past. She’s not a witty, effervescent, take charge, kick ass kind of girl. She’s diffident, self-sacrificing, and mature. In the novel, she shows a fondness for Jane Austen, and her critics fault her for not being the Elizabeth Bennet-type heroine modern audiences are used to and, instead, reflecting more of the qualities of Fanny Price (the heroine of Austen’s Mansfield Park). But Bella, like Fanny, is heroic in her own way, in her selflessness, in her perspicacity, in her perseverance. From her very first action in the story, leaving behind her home and putting her mother’s happiness ahead of her own, Bella shows her strength of character. There are many ways for women to show strength—ass-kicking is just one of them.
The other reason for anti-feminist argument is that the most important thing in Bella’s life becomes her boyfriend. First of all, as the genre of the film is romance, the characters can hardly be faulted for focusing on romance. (It would be like criticizing the characters in a war film for being too focused on war.) Secondly, love, emotion, and relationships have always been important to women. It’s hardly anti-feminist for a film to recognize that women have a strong interest in those aspects of life.
The one area in which the anti-feminist criticism does hold water is the series’s promotion of the patriarchal family structure, an issue which is less apparent inTwilight than in the subsequent novels and nonexistent in the film adaptation ofTwilight.
The most maddening of all criticisms of Twilight is the suggestion that it’s bad for the women and girls who like it. This argument is predicated on the notion that women cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and it reflects the condescending and misogynistic idea that women don’t know what’s good for them. Recent commentaries about the dangers of Twilight for women and girls are remarkably similar to criticisms that were commonly lobbed against women reading novels 200 years ago. It’s disheartening to see that we’ve progressed so little in two centuries.