Monday, November 16, 2009

Blood Lust, Caution

“So the lion fell in love with the lamb,” vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) tells Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart). “What a stupid lamb,” the smitten Bella pants at him. Edward wryly and tenderly counters with a half-chuckle, “What a sick, masochistic lion.” Ladies and gentlemen, behold the wonderful awfulness of Twilight. Funny, I felt kind of stupid and masochistic for watching it. I always knew that I would watch it, though. I haven’t been consciously avoiding it (hmm, maybe I have been a little - I‘m a Harry Potter girl, so I think there‘s a little spite there), but it took me awhile to get around to it. But what perfect timing! I took the plunge less than a week before the next installment hits theaters. I (masochistically, perhaps) signed up to review New Moon for a site I’ve been writing for, so this was my necessary homework. I mean, I’m sure I could have managed the sequel without seeing this one first, but alas, it was just my time for Twilight. It was just my time. I’m not going to lie or make excuses - I’ve been dying to see it. Part of me is always going to be a squealing teenage girl. I’ve been so curious about the phenomenon. Signing up to review New Moon was no accident; it was my motivation, my way in, at long last.

Twilight isn’t a great movie by any means. In fact, the more I think about it, the more glaring the problems become. In the moment, though, I enjoyed it quite a bit. For sheer, mindless entertainment - and let me stress the mindless part - it’s good stuff. Her mom wants to go on the road with her new husband, so Bella Swan, a high school junior, decides to leave Phoenix and go live with her dad in middle-of-nowhere Forks, Washington, a rainy, dreary place (ideal if you’re a vampire). The town is very small, so the new girl is exotic and instantly popular, even though Bella doesn’t particularly give people any real reason to like her. She’s pretty bland, actually, but I‘ll talk more about that later. Bella is intrigued by the independent Cullen clan, especially broodingly gorgeous Edward. You know from the instant she sees him that the two are destined to fall in love. They’re partnered up in biology class, but it seems like Edward can’t stand the smell of her. Bella thinks that she repulses him. It turns out that her scent was just too intoxicating to him. He craved her blood more than he had ever craved human blood before. She was irresistible to him; he even calls her “my own personal brand of heroin.” Insert eye roll here. Even after saving her life superhero-style (he has super-strength and super-speed), he insists that they stay away from each other, but of course, that’s not going to happen. She won’t let it.

Bella is fascinated by Edward; he’s a mystery, and she needs to solve him. We know that Edward is a vampire, but it takes Bella about half of the two-hour running time to figure it out. Once it was out in the open, I enjoyed the movie a lot more. I just found their interactions much more interesting when they could talk about it. Overall, I think Twilight is a bit long. It was a little too slow on the set-up, and since this is the first in a series, there’s a ton of set-up. Oh, before I forget, there’s a lot more going on plot-wise: Edward‘s vampire family (I found them delightful - they have some great scenes, including a very awkward, refreshingly unconventional, and funny dinner visit with Bella at their home), rival vampires who actually do kill humans (Edward’s family sustains on animal blood), Bella’s developing relationship with her estranged father, and Native Americans with an ancestral connection to wolves who have a legendary beef with Edward’s kind (one young man named Jacob, played by Taylor Lautner, is especially interested in Bella - cue impending love triangle!). The other plot elements aren’t superfluous, per se; it’s just that nothing else matters except the love story between Bella and Edward. Director Catherine Hardwicke doesn’t care about anything else, and consequently, neither do we. But it’s okay, because the swooning love story is the best part.

I haven’t read the books by Stephenie Meyer, and I’m not sure if I ever want to. I think the movies (yes, that’s plural - it’s a visual potato chip, you can’t watch just one) will be enough for me. I suspect that the books might make me want to throw things, that her flowery, seemingly aimless prose would grate on me. More importantly, I’m really angry with Meyer for wasting a critical opportunity to give the young masses a female character with strength and substance. There’s nothing strong or substantial about Bella whatsoever! Instead, Meyer has given young girls a simpering heroine whose identity is totally and inextricably linked with a man. Edward IS her identity. And he’s all protective of her, which sounds sweet, but it’s just his way to control her. He owns her, and she seems fine and dandy with being a possession. Bella also rather easily makes up her mind that she wants to become a vampire so that she can live forever with Edward. Is that all that she aspires to, really? Doesn’t she want anything else out of life? I know that not every book or movie has an obligation to be a shining beacon of powerful womandom, but come on, Bella is absolutely ridiculous. She’s weak and pitiful. And what makes the whole thing even more abominable is that this is a movie directed by a woman, written by a woman, and based on a book by a woman…tsk tsk, ladies. Way to represent. I feel sorry for all of the young girls who are undoubtedly looking up to Bella as a role model. They deserve better. Shame on you, Ms. Meyer.

Not only does Bella make me ashamed to be a woman, she’s not even interesting as a character. I don’t get why people like her, and I certainly don’t understand Edward’s instantaneous, undying devotion to her. What does she have to offer? What does she bring to the table? She’s totally devoid of personality, but she’s pretty, so therefore she has value, and everyone fawns all over her. Great message. I think Meyer and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg have confused mopiness with depth. Seriously, why are we supposed to care about her? Edward doesn’t have much going on other than constant brooding and good looks either, but he’s not the protagonist, Bella is. Bella being so boring is unforgivable. Ugh. She kind of makes me sick.

Twilight and Harry Potter don’t really have much in common, but they’re definitely compared, and it annoys me, because Twilight doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Harry Potter. They’re both global phenomenons aimed at a certain age group and dealing with the extraordinary (magic, vampires), but the similarities end there. I’ve always asserted rather emphatically that Harry Potter, in whatever incarnation, is far superior to Twilight, and after finally exposing myself to Twilight, I was right. Twilight is nothing compared to Harry Potter. For starters, the target demographic is obviously totally different. I can’t imagine many young males picking up a copy of Twilight. In fact, I don’t see many males reading Twilight at all, no matter what age. Actually, I don’t even think Twilight would appeal to women over a certain age (what that age is, exactly, I’m not sure - I’m a writer, not a sociologist). Twilight is smut (tame smut, but smut nonetheless) for teenage girls. Harry Potter, while maybe more popular with females and younger readers, is kind of a gender leveler that appeals to all ages. Also, with Twilight, what you see is exactly what you get. There’s absolutely nothing else going on there, no subtext or deeper meaning, nothing at stake (ha, pun totally intended). And even though Harry Potter takes place in a more fantastical world, the way the material is written in the books (J.K. Rowling is a genius/goddess) and approached in the films makes it feel relatable and real, way more than anything in Twilight. Both series also deal with growing up and the angst that process entails, but Harry Potter does it far more successfully, with intuitiveness and intelligence and resonance. I could go on and on about this subject forever, possibly even in a thesis, so I have to stop myself now. In short: yay Harry Potter, boo Twilight.

As far as the filmmaking in Twilight goes, it’s a mixed bag. The special effects are cringe-inducingly awful, pedestrian really, but the cool cinematography (cool as in lots of blue) by Elliot Davis is quite striking. The film has a gorgeous look to it, but the script is abysmally cheesy. Granted, I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how much of it is simply adapted cheese versus organic (my gut tells me the onus falls primarily on Meyer). The score by frequent Coen-collaborator Carter Burwell (what are you doing, man?!) is ominously beautiful, but the directing by Catherine Hardwicke (capable of insight and greatness, i.e. Thirteen) is negligible at best. The acting is decent but nothing terribly special. Some performances are definitely better than others. For instance, I found the supporting actors comprising the Cullen clan vibrant and engaging (especially the earnest Peter Facinelli and the spunky Ashley Greene). Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson…eh, what can I say? To be fair, they’re not required to do much except for heave at each other and brood, and I guess they do that well enough. They both have a strong presence, for sure, and they look good on screen, but that’s about it. I don’t foresee a whole lot of growth in their performances throughout the rest of the series, which is probably largely due to the fact that their characters are so glaringly one-note. Still, I don’t think these two young actors will be challenging themselves much here. It’s a shame, because I know both are capable of better, especially Stewart.

The vampire lore is so ludicrous. I thought vampires were supposed to burst into flames in the light, not sparkle like diamonds. It’s truly Vampire Lite. And for all of its smuttiness, Twilight is actually pretty tame. There’s a lot of heavy breathing but very little follow-through. It’s all talk, all foreplay with no consummation. It’s really kind of juvenile. So…why did I like it so much?What’s wrong with me?! I’ve talked forever and a day about all of its problems, but when it comes down to it, I was really, really into Twilight. It got under my skin, deep, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I even dreamt about it! Logic be damned, I enjoyed the smut, the absurd melodrama, and the swooning romance. Oh, it’s so achingly, unabashedly romantic! I was enraptured by Bella and Edward, sucked in by the intensity of their heaving, whimpering, creepily dependent love. Stewart and Pattinson have smoldering chemistry, and it’s dizzying, hot even. And I never thought I would say this, but I thought Robert Pattinson was positively dreamy! I feel like I’ve gone into arrested development or something. As a woman, I’m affronted by its misogynistic, anti-feminist implications; as a person with a brain, I’m appalled by its idiocy. But so help me…I liked this silly, stupid movie…a lot. On some sick level, I might even love it. I feel like a hypocrite, and I kind of hate myself for it, but there it is. Twilight is mesmerizing nonsense, the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures. I was intoxicated by it.

I can’t wait to see the sequel. I need more. Twilight has become my own personal brand of heroin, I guess. In voice-over, Bella says about Edward, “I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.” Well, that’s how I feel about Twilight. I’m in now…unconditionally and irrevocably. Sigh. What have I done?

Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)