Saturday, January 31, 2009


Going into Twilight, my knowledge of the film (based on the novel by Stephanie Meyer) consisted of two vastly different reviews by my wife and a twelve year old girl I had occasion to interview.  One of them called Twilight unintentionally laughable and the other called it a gritty, romantic date movie.  First let me dispense with some obligatory good-will so my wife won't kill me: Twilight is a good date movie.  That is, as long as you're willing to shut off your brain.  I'm not one of those purists who think think that there is no place for angsty teen literature or programming in the arts.  I will even admit to getting a giddy chill from the nostalgia of certain teen-oriented CW shows like Dawson's Creek and Everwood.  

The movie version of Twilight is written by Melissa Rosenberg who cut her teeth on television shows like The O.C. and Party of Five and one of the central problems is her script which reads like some of the worst of these programs and is directed with a surprising lack of cohesion or investment by Catherine Hardwicke.  Hardwicke worked as an Art Director before segueing into a directing career and the production design in the film is impressively understated.  The sets feel lived in and the setting lends the film a suitably gothic atmosphere, but I was surprised by how little the characters register.  After all, Hardwicke is the same director who was praised for her gritty, insightful, direction of the teen film Thirteen.  

Generally speaking the movie is shot like a student film, in a fashion that does little service to the acting and lacks a consistent point of view.  The sequences in which Ms. Hardwicke attempts to raise the temperature with special effects or big revealing camera moves, fail to convince and seem at odds with the rest of the film.    She is not an instinctive action filmmaker and the requirements of the story highlight the times that she is in over her head.  Particularly the "tree climbing" scenes, which are meant to be euphoric and lyrical but play like Crouching Tiger lite.  Unfortunately, much of the dramatics are equally lacking.  There are lingering, conspicuous, close-ups filled with strained silences and anguish-filled faces from the two leads.  A discussion of these close-ups may seem overly academic for a movie like this, but the fact is they slow down the pace and prevent the movie from realizing its full potential.  

In theory, the story of a teenage girl who moves to a small town and falls in love with a boy at school who happens to be a vampire, has the promise of a modern day Romeo and Juliet.  The two star-crossed lovers come from very different worlds.  We learn that Edward Cullen is a "good"vampire, feeding only on animals.  His path to becoming immortal was a story borne out of survival rather than a lust for power.  Bella, his love, is the daughter of divorced parents and her father is the town Sheriff, investigating a series of "animal" attacks that we are told is in fact something else.  

The problem is the script doesn't mine the material enough.  Bella's parents are remarkably absent from the story and from her life as she grows more involved with Edward.  Likewise, Edward's "family" is remarkably accepting of Bella -- considering the risks.  The leads, Kristin Stewart and Robert Pattinson, are attractive and appealing.  They do their best to sell the love story, but the script ignores every potential obstacle and every opportunity to generate meaningful conflict.  Bella is instantly embraced by a new group of friends, the day she arrives at her new school and they remain loyal, background characters in spite of her obvious disinterest and even contempt for them.  When Bella enters her science class and Edward first gets a whiff of her, the comical look on his face is the picture of a man who has just drunk a carton of milk that's past the expiry date.  Rather than thumb her nose at his rebuff, Bella is intrigued.  Who is this boy who's so repulsed by me?  Eventually she confronts him and his warning to stay away from him only makes her want him more.  

The fact that he's a vampire is a foregone conclusion.  We know this going in.  What is missed is an opportunity to build mystery around what he is after.  Imagine if we were kept in the dark as to who is responsible for the "animal attacks," with all clues pointing to the Cullens while Bella's father investigates.  If Bella's father were more driven to stop these attacks and his mounting evidence were pushing him towards a climactic confrontation with the vampires, the movie might have also forced Bella towards a more difficult realization.  As Bella became more intimate with Edward, she would also ironically grow further from her father.  This would also make the arrival of the murderous rival vampire clan a bigger surprise and a more ominous threat in the final stretch of the film.  

Maybe I'm being unduly critical.  We're supposed to surrender to stories like this without analyzing them on such a microscopic level and judging by the $180 million the film has grossed domestically, it seems as though I am in the minority.   Maybe its naive of me to expect more from a movie like this.  I haven't read the books, so comparisons may reveal new insights. All I know is that the world of the story and the concept driving Twilight had the potential to make for great teen escapism.  Instead it made me smile goofily and apologize to my wife for being so close-minded.  

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