Review: Twilight (2008)

120 minutes
Rated PG-13

How do you judge a film where the core element doesn't work but everything else does? To say that I kinda liked Twilight but didn't care for the romantic drama at its center may be the epitome of absurdity. On the other hand, it should be noted that the other elements of the film are worthwhile. And really, is enjoying Twilight despite the flaws of the main love story any different than enjoying Quantum Of Solace despite the abysmal editing of the action scenes?

A token amount of plot - Bella (Kristen Stewart, making her character's immaturity seem almost noble at times) has just moved to Forks, Washington to live with her father for awhile. She almost immediately attracts the attention of the brooding and handsome Edward Cullen. They quickly hit it off, but Edward is off-putting and afraid of forming a real connection. Eventually, Bella learns the truth (refreshingly, she actually uses her brains and does research): that Edward and his family are actually vampires and part of Edward's attraction to Bella is driven by his desire to drink her blood.

For those living in a cave for the last few years, Twilight is the first of four books that have scorched the best seller lists. The tale of the forbidden romance between the young schoolgirl and the centuries-old vampire who happens to look and act like James Dean with super powers has captivated young girls, older women, and a token number of males. While most vampire fiction (Dracula, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Interview With The Vampire) use vampirism as a metaphor for rape, the Twilight series (apparently, since I have not read the books), uses it as a metaphor for forbidden, but consensual sexuality (I'll get into the alleged symbolism and 'deeper meanings' in a separate article).

The problem with the core romance is that Edward is brooding, boring, and bland. His opening scenes, where he is physically drawn to Bella's pheromones, are laughably played, to the point of resembling a bad mime act. Yes, Robert Pattinson is a handsome stud of a man, and he'd probably be great in the sack, but what exactly would he and Bella do when they aren't brooding about not having sex (or really, about not even kissing)? He's not funny, he's not charming, and for the first half of the story, he's so rude and obnoxious to her that we question Bella's judgment for continuing to pursue him (he doesn't treat her all that much better when they do start dating). He doesn't wear flowing trench coats or half-buttoned dress shirts, but merely puffy winter coats and t-shirts. He can't even act gallant and romantic when saving her from potential rapists. He doesn't bother to leap from a rooftop and strike a bad ass pose (he's a vampire - he could do that if he wanted to); he just pulls up in his car and flashes the beamers a couple times. Yes, teenagers usually don't care about personality and charm, but it still doesn't make it easy for us grownups to care about this romance and its implications where we know that Bella could do a hell of a lot better, even among other vampires.

It doesn't help that much of their romance is basically them staring at each other and engaging in halted, awkward attempts at conversation about how unhealthy their relationship is. If the majority of your relationship involves talking about your relationship, that's not healthy. The film also stumbles in the third act, by arbitrarily introducing rogue vampires who randomly decide to hunt Bella (to be fair, unlike the book, these villains are introduced at the beginning of the film). It's like the author of the novel decided 'wait, we need to create a situation to bring about the rescue/protection fantasy' and awkwardly tossed in evil vampires. It is faithful to the novel, but that doesn't make it good.

So if the core romantic storyline doesn't work, what does work? Well, the supporting characters are surprisingly engaging, even when they don't have to be. Bella's new friends at school are all friendly and charming, but just a little obnoxious in that 'teenager way'. The Native American neighbors are humorous and opinionated, even if they are in the story mainly to introduce local folklore (I'll assume they play a bigger part in the future stories). And Edward's vampire family is genuinely entertaining, and the gently awkward first introductions at their house is a highlight of the film (when Bella arrives, they are all frantically fixing her a meal, using their kitchen for the first time and desperately trying to learn how to actually cook). Of course, the first appearance of Edward's physician father elicits chuckles, as his vampire makeup is so cheesy that I half expected his name tag to read 'Dr. Acula'. Even Bella's newly married mother (Sarah Clarke), who has gone on the road with her minor-league baseball player husband, is given a final scene of empathy and warmth that belies her complicated life choice.

Most importantly, Bella's father (Billy Burke) is portrayed as a completely capable and loving father, not domineering, rarely judgmental, and occasionally funny. Frankly, the shockingly realistic relationship between Bella and her father was the one I cared about in the end and almost makes the movie worth recommending on that basis. They truly love each other and care about each other, and the third act confrontation between them (in which Bella is forced by circumstance to spew hateful things to him to keep him out of danger) is so devastating that the film wobbles by not actually showing their reconciliation.

So, in the end, Twilight is handsomely produced, well-acted (save Pattinson, who was better and far more of a catch as Cedric Diggory), and relatively engaging teen melodrama. That I didn't buy the core romance would usually be a fatal problem, but I found the rest of the film charming enough to compensate. I liked the ridiculous vampire baseball game (dig those old-fashioned pinstripe uniforms), I laughed out loud at both of the scenes between Bella's dad and Bella's boyfriend, I liked that Bella's female friends are allowed to be pretty and engaging and completely living their own lives unrelated to the central plot. Truth be told, I am genuinely curious to discover what happens next to the people of Forks, Washington, even if I couldn't care less if Bella and Edward end up together.

Grade: B-