Saturday, December 12, 2009

Twilight (Summit Entertainment, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie Charles and I ran last night was Twilight, the heavily hyped first film in the series of adaptations of Stephenie Meyer’s young-adult vampire novels, all of which seem to be titled according to times of day between dusk and dawn. The film was released last year and was an instant hit, and the sequel, awkwardly called The Twilight Saga: New Moon, was released a couple of weeks ago and was an even bigger instant hit, setting box-office records for the opening weekend. I ordered it my last time at Columbia House and decided to watch it while the sequel was still in theatres and the smell of hype was still in the air. It’s the sort of movie that grows on you; thinking about it now I’m liking it better than I did when I was directly experiencing it, and I’m impressed with it as a workmanlike piece of entertainment even though, since I’m about 40 years older than its target audience, it’s a bit difficult for me to see why it became such a high-profile cult item and attracted the enormous audience it did.

As just about everybody who’s living in a less remote place than Timbuktu knows by now, Twilight is the story of a 17-year-old high-school girl, Isabella “Bella” Swan (Kristen Stewart), who starts out the movie in Arizona, where her mom lives with her stepfather, a minor-league baseball player who spends a lot of time on the road. With mom planning to spend that time on the road with him, Bella decides to move up to Forks, Washington, where her dad Charlie (Billy Burke) is the police chief. Since Forks is a town of only 3,000 people — though Charles joked that its high school looks large enough to hold that many students — being its police chief isn’t that tough a job, and any qualms about its remoteness and isolation soon drain away for Bella because, unlike in virtually every other story ever told about a new kid in high school, rather than being looked down on Bella is instantly popular.

She’s got boys of various colors — Asian nerd Eric (Justin Chon), Black guy Tyler (Gregory Tyree Boyce) and white kid Mike Newton (Michael Welch) — interested in her almost immediately, but she’s unimpressed by any of them. There’s a brief glimmer of interest between her and a Native American kid, Jacob Black (Tyler Lautner), but it dies when she learns he attends school on the local reservation rather than at the big high school, but the boy she eventually goes for is Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who lives with a mysterious clan led by his foster father, Dr. Carlyle Cullen (Peter Facinelli), and Carlyle’s wife Esmé (Elizabeth Reaser). The various Cullens all seem to have paired off with each other — they can since they’re not biologically related — and they’re all pale-skinned. Though they can go out during daytime, they prefer cloudy weather (one reason they located themselves in the chronically foggy, rainy climate of Washington state) because sun makes their skin look like it’s covered with industrial diamonds.

As this movie takes its own sweet time telling us — but most of its audience knew in advance anyway, making the l-o-o-o-o-n-g exposition especially annoying (director Catherine Hardwicke and writer Melissa Rosenberg take 50 minutes of screen time to give us story premises the folks at Universal in the 1930’s and 1940’s would have tossed off in a couple of brief, to-the-point scenes) — the Cullens are actually vampires, though they’ve taken an oath not to consume human blood but to feed themselves only on animals. In one of the nice pieces of dry wit that abound in the script, Edward explains that would be like a normal human being living entirely on tofu — it’s nourishing but tasteless.

Generally, Twilight is at its best when it’s combining the two genres that gave it its special appeal to the teenage audiences who made first the books and then the movies such enormous hits: the teen coming-of-age comedy/drama and the vampire movie. Though Kristen Stewart played an alienated teen in an even better movie, Speak — in which her alienation came not from being the new girl in school and falling in love with a vampire but from having been raped by the B.M.O.C. and then turned into a pariah because she called the police to raid the party at which she met the guy but then ran away instead of staying to press charges —she’s damned good here, and so is her vis-à-vis — even though I thought Cam Gigandet (a boy named Cam?) as James, member of a trio of bad vampires who do drink human blood and commit two murders in the movie (one of them of Waylon, played by Ned Bellamy, an old friend of Bella’s father), was considerably sexier than Robert Pattinson. Charles noted that for a modern-day movie Twilight is unusually well constructed — the story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and though the end is open-ended enough to set up a sequel it’s also a satisfying resolution to this phase of the story, like the endings in Wagner’s and Tolkien’s Ring cycles and not like the maddening serial cliffhanger-style endings of the first two Matrices.

One rather amazing aspect of Twilight is that it’s probably the first vampire movie ever made that doesn’t qualify as a horror film; there’s a fair amount of action (including a spectacular fight scene at the end between the good and bad vampires — one of the conceits of the saga is that vampires have super-powers, able to leap great distances, climb trees, move far more rapidly than normal humans and bend dented cars back into shape; in one sequence Edward uses his super-strength to block Tyler’s SUV as it’s hurtling towards Bella, thereby saving her life) but the emotions the filmmakers are evoking are romance and thrills, not terror. While I personally found the Underworld movies (at least the first two) more convincing rescensions of the vampire mythos into the modern era, Twilight is quite a workmanlike and impressive movie — indeed, I found myself liking it better than the Swedish import, Let the Right One In, that had been promoted as the more intellectually respectable alternative to it (in the Swedish movie the leads were still pre-pubescent and it was the girl, not the boy, who was the vampire) but which seemed to me much colder and less emotionally involving than Twilight.

The film ends with Edward and Bella swearing eternal love for each other even though both of them are all too aware that the only way they can make it eternal is if Bella is herself “vampirized” — and Meyer, Rosenberg and Hardwicke make much of the Anne Ricean irony that she’s more eager for that to happen than he is: at times it seems like one of those stories in which a person who’s never considered himself Gay or herself Lesbian has his/her first sexual experience with a same-sex partner, falls in love immediately and then is warned by the veteran Queer they’ve just fallen in love with, “Not so fast. This kind of life is a lot harder than you think.” Though Twilight suffers from the length of its exposition — it improves dramatically at the 50-minute mark once Bella finally realizes her boyfriend is a vampire — and doesn’t entirely escape the risibility any supernaturally-driven story treads on the thin edge of, it’s a quite impressive piece of work, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the fact that the original story writer, the screenwriter and the director are all women helped shape the marvelous emotional sensitivity with which the story is told. Believe it or not, I’m actually looking forward to seeing the sequel some day!