The Good: Good casting, Interesting fantasy storyline, Moments of character
The Bad: Plot has been done before, Dumbed down to appeal to young adults
The Basics: Fun, if a bit simplified for the young adult audience, Twilight tells a Romeo & Juliet type story (save the conflicts are largely external) with a young woman and a vampire.
When I first watched Twilight, I was in no way educated in the book series that began with Twilight. Even now, I have not read any of the books (save the latest novella) so this review is strictly of the film Twilight. In fact, I had no idea that Twilight or its sequels existed until I was on my summer cross-country trip in 2008 and found myself at the Mall Of America for a Breaking Dawn release party at the Barnes and Noble there. The place was packed with teenage girls there for the release of the latest novel in the Twilight series and I found myself somewhat envious: I hope someday my literature might earn me legions of fans staying up until midnight to buy my books just for the thrill of being one of the first to own them. Actually, it is refreshing to see people that eager about reading.
So when I went to a screening of Twilight, I had no preconceptions. I had seen the trailers and that was about it. When I was a young adult, I probably would have been into the book and movie Twilight, though; it is fantasy and I was a big fan of fantasy and science fiction. Now, it takes a pretty special work in that genre to get me to appreciate it. Fortunately, Twilight - the movie - does that, for the most part. In fact, if anything, my real problem with it was that it tried too hard to appeal to its target demographic as opposed to serving the story it was trying to tell.
Bella Swan is a teenage girl who has moved to Forks, Washington with her father. There she finds herself less of an outcast than she was at her old school, but some of the students seem to still be standoffish with her. One of them in particular, Edward Cullen, seems to be largely indifferent to her until a freak accident nearly kills her. Bella suspects that, despite Edward's excuse of stopping an SUV with his body being an ability that comes from an adrenalin rush, there is something different about Edward and, of course, there is.
Edward, as it so happens, is a vampire. Fortunately for Bella, he is a friendly vampire who only drinks the blood of animals and is not out to hurt Bella. In fact, he and Bella soon fall for one another when he shows her both his abilities and his perspective on the world. Unfortunately for both of them, as Bella is accepted by members of Edward's family and the prom approaches, a rather fiendish vampire - James - comes to town ready to kill Bella and Edward both.
Sound familiar? Fans of science fiction and fantasy will find the plot remarkably familiar. It's the plot of the first few seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. At least Joss Whedon and his team made an effort to differentiate between the vampires who were good those who weren't. In that mythos, vampirism costs the victim their soul and as a result, they simply cannot help but being soulless and evil (even if some Whedonverse vampires are more mundanely annoying or hapless in an evil way as opposed to actually malicious). Angel, the vampire Buffy falls for, is endowed with a soul and thus loathes his instincts which pull him toward murder, bloodlust and mayhem.
In Twilight there is nothing so concrete. Edward is just a decent guy who happens to be a vampire. His family are just nice people who happen to suck blood and have renounced doing it from humans. Instead, they drink the blood of animals and that is just fine with them. So, what's the difference? Twilight replaces the comedy that Joss Whedon used to buffer his fantasy notions with a strong sense of romance. This is a love story and while Bella has a pretty healthy skepticism at first, she falls with a very adolescent sense of emotion for Edward.
This is where the movie both works and fails itself. It works because Twilight portrays a very young love and it does it well (to a point). In that, Bella and Edward make for a charming young couple with Bella swooning in many of the right ways to lend a sense of realism to her character as a mid to late-teen girl. She has a very girlish sensibility about what love is and that works well because, frankly, young love can be fun and when done right it it enchanting to watch in films and television.
Where Twilight falls down is in its emphasis in the violence over the sensuality. Teen lovers make mistakes (often stupid ones) and Twilight shies away from that earning its PG-13 more for the violence than any expression of chemistry between Bella and Edward. In other words, when it comes to the moments that ought to be passionate - even in a young love kind of way - director Catherine Hardwicke pulls the punches. The result is a feeling that Twilight leaves some of its potential unfulfilled.
As well, the whole appearance of James and his little posse felt like a distraction. Actually, it felt a lot like Spike appearing in Sunnydale . . . But to stay within Twilight, the love story about a guy who is almost a century old romancing a teenager did not necessarily need a violent subplot to maintain the audience's interest. Sure, there's the whole idea that there has to be conflict, but a far more interesting one would have been Edward's internal conflict. Frankly, it would have been much more interesting to see Edward as a guy who was mature and educated enough to be striking out with older women as opposed to a guy who is essentially immortal and refuses to develop past being a teenager after a hundred years. Sure, Edward and his kin matriculate a lot, but what do they truly learn?
In other words, other than the Hollywood beautiful nature of Bella, there isn't much in the film to explain what the real attraction of Bella is to Edward. She is young (not just physically, but emotionally and intellectually) and outside being a damsel in distress who he is able to dazzle with things like running around with her on his back, there is not much that explains her appeal to him. After all, given infinite lifetimes to live as undead, one would suspect the appeal of rescuing girls who also resemble a former-favorite snack might wear thin.
In this way, Twilight disappoints adult viewers. There is very much a young adult sensibility to all of the relationships, not just Bella's. In other words, all of the relationships and characters have a simplicity to them that does not read as right to adults. It is one thing to make a movie about young adults, it is another to make one for young adults and this is clearly the latter.
That said, Twilight is remarkably well-cast. Cam Gigandet is appropriately villainous as James, even if his character is a bit monolithic and virtually all of the vampire characters look appropriately Hot Topic goth in their coloring and body language. Robert Pattinson plays well off star Kristen Stewart. Pattinson has a facade that he is able to erect that makes him appear believably more mature than a person of his years and he plays the role of Edward with a reserve that makes the character work, perhaps a bit better than common sense would indicate.
Kristen Stewart is well-cast in the role of Bella Swan. I write that she is well-cast because she is a teenage girl playing a teenage girl. This is not a significant leap of acting and, indeed, her performance is remarkably on-par with the only other performance of hers I'd seen at the time, that of her role in The Messengers. She is good enough, but how much of the performance is actual acting and how much is simply Stewart being a teenage girl is up for debate.
That said, Twilight may be derivative, but it is good enough to go see. It is fun and it is fantasy and those who like that will find enough to like about Twilight to make it the success at the box office it was pretty much guaranteed to be regardless of what critics said about it. Now on DVD and Blu-Ray, Twilight comes loaded with a commentary track, featurettes on making the book into a movie and casting.
For other supernatural movies or love stories, please check out my reviews of:
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© 2010, 2009, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.