Summit Entertainment // 2008 // 122 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // March 20th, 2009
When you can live forever what do you live for?
For the most part, all cultural phenomenons are the result of media-induced mass hysteria. Talent and interest can play a part, and sometimes, carry the day. But for the most part, individuals or events that transcend their initial trappings to become something unfathomable do so because the press and public opinion inspire a sense of inclusiveness/exclusiveness. If you're part of the process, you're in. It's the social setting clique all over again, except this time no one thinks you're a nerd. If you're against the out of control appreciation, you're snobbish or stupid. You're square and sadly misinformed. So which side do you sit on when it comes to the happenstance hoopla surrounding Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series? Are you a member of the coven, a "Twilighter" as they like to call themselves? Or are you a heartless cynic, incapable of getting lost in this Young Adults world of angst, pouting, and veiled vampi-romance? Your answer will determine how much you enjoy the cinematic adaptation of Meyers' first novel. Faithful or flopsweat -- there really is no middle ground.
Poor Bella (Kristen Stewart, Jumper). When her stepfather decides to pursue his dream of playing major league baseball, Mom ships the teenage drama queen off to a sleepy Pacific Northwestern town to live with her dad, Sheriff Swan (Billy Burke, Untraceable). Instantly a hit among the cool kids at her new high school, Bella develops an incurable crush on haughty rich boy Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Though his family has a reputation of being stand-offish and snobby, the two slowly become acquaintances.
Still, Bella can't help but feel uncomfortable around her new classmate. Edward is always giving her odd looks, and reacting to her in funny, unsettled ways. Finally, one day, the truth comes out. Bella's buddy is a vampire, the kind that no longer feeds on humans. Though he's drawn to her blood, Edward cannot hurt her. Sadly, that's not the case for an opposing clan of neckbiters. It's not long before James (Cam Gigandet, Never Back Down) and his group of Nomadic Vlads are crashing the Cullen's territory, and threatening everything they care about.
For anyone whose picked up a copy of Stephenie Meyer's mediocre book Twilight and, within a couple pages screamed "This is Anne Rice without the talent," be warned: there's a legion of dedicated 'literature' aficionados that will take your tired judgment and pound your pointed little head into chop meat. Unlike J.K. Rowling and her heavenly Harry Potter epic, this gloppy Goth franchise aimed at lonely dateless tweens and spinsters-in-training offers little in the way of genre invention. Instead, it takes the legacy of scribes like Bram Stoker, the mythos they created about a certain bloodsucking fiend, and fashions it into an adolescent obsession with everlasting love and the paranormal perfect mate. With book sales so massive they fill the other publishers with envy, and a fanbase fully prepared to embrace anything the marketing monopoly unleashes, it was only a matter of time before Twilight and its three and counting follow-ups were turned into films.
Frankly, there are only three legitimate ways one can look at Catherine Hardwicke's interpretation of Meyer's matronly mood swings. Fans will probably only care if the director (with a little help from screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg) was faithful to their favorite book. All they want are the translation truths, and little else. Individuals more interested in the social impact of such a film will probably want to see Twilight for how it stands up from a wholly commercial sense. In dissecting the various factors that turned this title from a fad into a full blown spectacle, they hope to understand what is, for the most part, insular and elite. And then there are those like yours truly who could give a crap about the book or the box office. In their mind, all that matters is the movie. To this end, Twilight doesn't live or die by how well it matches Meyer's vision or if it proves that wistful unfulfilled females can drive a motion picture's profitability. If the film is subpar, nothing else really matters.
In taking apart the entire Twilight experience in the following manner, you might be able to find some insight into whether you should seek out and watch/rent/own it. For the devoted, this analytical exercise won't matter. For the bean counters, the cash is already in the coffers. But for the curious and the non-committed, such a breakdown could be the light at the end of a very long and very complicated tunnel. Let's begin with:
Twilight as Adaptation
For the most part, Twilight is almost too faithful to Meyer's high school confidential conceits. One could easily argue that it suffers from the Zack Snyder/Watchmen syndrome of being too reverential to the material. But while the latter's respect translated into an eye-popping spectacle filled with nuance and visual panache, Twilight looks like a Lifetime Movie gone gangrenous. Director Hardwicke wastes her entire shot list on blue-gray overcast skies and Twin Peaks inspired woodland menace. Her casting is also questionable, though many in the know feel that she definitely nailed her two all important leads. It's odd to see Stewart, so good in other films, play the kind of vacant, teary-eyed non-entity that is easily swayed by some smoky glances and a really bad pompadour. For his part, Pattinson just has to look like a kabuki-masked ex-member of Bauhaus and he's a dead ringer for Meyer's leading man.
That being said, the film will fail those looking for a more controlled narrative (the villains appear almost immediately compared to their literary counterparts) and removes many of Meyer's side characters for "composites." A few scenes are rearranged, and a couple of conversations happen in places more cinematically 'open' than in the book. Still, with Meyer involved to the point of mandating certain protections from the studio -- no deaths not already in the novel, no making the vampires more "animalistic" -- this will definitely be a dedicated fans fever dream. Some have even compared the translation of Twilight to Peter Jackson's work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While that is high praise indeed, it is also insanity. The Kiwi creative genius turned the story of a bunch of hobbits on a quest to save Middle Earth into award winning masterworks. Twilight on the other hand, is almost intolerable to anyone outside the whole doom and gloom dynamic.
Twilight as Artifice
Tyler Perry gets torn apart for catering to a horribly underserved demographic. A fluke success like Sex and the City: The Movie, is equally mocked for giving another neglected audience its lust-soaked entertainment due. Indeed, Hollywood is so busy bringing male viewers ages 15 to 35 their curse-word laden comic book frat boy fantasies that it totally forgets that there are other members of the potential viewership out there with disposable income burning a hole in their Ed Hardys. Catering to a niche can occasionally backfire on you, but what Twilight learned is that, when the sect is already ignored by most of the media, you can guarantee they will come out in droves if you dish to them. It's hard to deny the film's initial success at the box office ($300 million worldwide is nothing to sneeze at), and the vast majority of that comes from the teeny-boppers, housewives, and college gals who've embraced Meyer and her feminized wish fulfillment universe. Tinsel Town will continue to tap that asset as long as possible.
In some ways, this should make Twilighters angry. The powers that be aren't making these movies because you want to see them -- they are making them because you PAY to see them. Rest assured, fans of City of Ember, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and any number of attempted franchises know that's true. Otherwise, the studios would be stepping up to make sure that each volume in these well-received works of fiction got their celluloid due. No, if Twilight was a flop, a big fat hairy no one gives a damn dud, this would have been the final showcase for Bella, Edward, and his vein draining disciples. And it's also important to remember that financial success does not measure artist success. Just ask Paul Blart, or Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. No, money can change a lot of things, but it can't make a mediocre movie good. In the case of Twilight, we have something sitting somewhere near the critical middle -- a fan-fueled favorite masquerading as a mainstream entertainment. As we will soon see, this commercial costume can't cover up the truth.
Twilight as Art
Of course, the bottom line with any title is whether or not it's a good film. A perfect adaptation that flawlessly conforms to the parameters of cinematic commerciality can still be a big hunk of unremarkable garbage, and that's this vacant vampire pic to a "T." Argue all you want about the gender of the individual writing the review or his lack of appreciation for Meyer's methodology, but a boring theatrical experience is just that -- a trip to Dullsville on Nosferatu's ratty wings. It's not just the horror that doesn't work here -- and it's not supposed to, really. No, it's the overall idea of a young girl falling madly for someone who is several decades older than her, who is by his very nature evil and inhuman, and who believes that an everlasting life with this supermodel pretty boy with a desperate romantic's heart would be preferable to any connection with reality. Remember, at its very core, Twilight is a fantasy, a chance for individuals to get lost in a world of hopes and dreams. Sadly' it's a sentiment that doesn't carry beyond the core cult for this flawed fairy story.
Hardwicke doesn't help matters much. Her use of special effects is laughable, especially when you consider that low budget Sci-Fi Channel efforts have more convincing aerial work. You can practically see the wires when Bella and Edward go tree hopping. Even worse, the CG employed to give our hero his diamond like shimmer resembles a Photoshop experiment gone wonky. There are moments when we believe the bad stuff -- the last act showdown between James and Edward is somewhat thrilling, as is the iconic moment when Mr. Mystery stops a car from crashing into Bella. But this is one of the sloppiest looking F/X driven pieces in quite a while. Hardwicke also has a hard time with emotion. Her choices are grossly simplistic -- close-up on the actor as they search for a sense memory. Wait. Wait. Oh, what the Hell, let's move on. Her cast is quite capable, able to deliver the laughable dialogue without reducing the audience to stitches. But Twilight is not the heartstring tugging title the already converted masses would have you believe.
The allusion to Watchmen and other 'failed' underage fiction translations is apropos. You have got to be 100% clued in here or you will feel lost and disconnected. No one likes being outside a party while everyone else is celebrating. It's what makes Perry's popularity so confusing -- the average moviegoer isn't one of his invited guests. Yet Twilight strives to be a commercial entity. It wants to trade on the previous work of speculative treats like Time After Time and Beauty and the Beast. Yet because it is dealing with vampires, creatures that notoriously sexualize violence to the point of metaphysical orgasm, there's an implied sensuality that's all but drained from the material. Even Ms. Rice couldn't make it work from a homoerotic standpoint -- what makes you think her post-millennial copycat can? In the end, we are supposed to support Bella in her pursuit of life everlasting, hope she and Edward can find happiness, and root for the Cullen family to avoid the dispatch of those mean, people feeding members of the genus. It doesn't even come close, unless you've spent hours daydreaming of the different ways you yourself would approach the possibility. As a result, Twilight is too "interactive" to be truly engaging, to insular to do anything but preach to the converted.
As part of Summit Entertainment's Two Disc Special Edition, Twilight does look really good on DVD -- much better than it played at a packed press screening back in November. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation has the flash and patina of a professional production with none of the light/dark issues that come from an underlit projector or a band of screaming shrews. Even better, the softness used to infer romance is all but gone here, almost as if the studio decided to crisp things up for the eventual digital presentation (or maybe the print this critic saw just plain sucked). Whatever the reason, Twilight becomes something else visually on the home video format.
From a sound standpoint, Hardwicke's TRL tendencies are in full effect throughout the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Every twee shoegazer indie band seems to be represented on this schizoid soundtrack. Some of the songs work. Others do not. Thankfully, the dialogue is clean and kept up front. This is especially important when Bella and her beau resort to mumbling as a means of heartfelt expression. From a tech spec standpoint, Twilight is a much better looking and sounding experience than it is entertaining.
However, it's the bonus features that will draw the most attention/aggravation, especially from the Twilight faithful. This is especially true of the irreverent commentary track featuring Hardwicke, Stewart, and Pattinson. The director is happy to discuss the intricacies of the shoot, but it's our hunky male lead that lets loose with a series of self-deprecating put downs that make fun of the film, his role in it, and Edward's fashion statement issues. Some members of the Cullen commandos will laugh right along. Others may feel betrayed by the bawdy Brit. We are then treated to a selection of deleted/extended scenes which run the gamut from good to 'glad they're gone', and there are some music videos to give viewers a chance to put faces with facile soundtrack selections offered.
Meyer then turns up to talk about and introduce the best bit of the entire package -- a seven part documentary that follows Twilight from its origins (one of the author's more vivid dreams inspired the book) to the surrounding hype prior to release. We get to see the preproduction, the freezing Pacific locations, the usual onset antics, the clear camaraderie between the cast and crew, and the laborious hours spent in getting certain scenes just right. Toss in the Comic-Con presentations for the film and a few trailers and you've got a wonderful set of supplements.
As part of the DVD packaging, director Hardwicke makes a bold, and rather benign statement about the next film in the Twilight series -- New Moon. She indicates that, during a certain scene in Bella's bedroom, a painting of a wolf can be seen. It was her, Hardwicke's, attempt at giving a nod to knowledgeable fans and setting the scene for the inevitable sequel. In essence, she was providing the first film a strong symbolic foundation for the rest of the series. Oddly enough, right after Twilight took over the box office, Hardwicke was removed from the franchise, "creative differences" and issues over compensation cited as the reason she would not be returning. In her place will be Chris "I wanted to make The Golden Compass a profitable cinematic extravaganza and failed" Weitz, with rumors already flying about who will take on the inevitable Part Three. You see, at this point, Twilight is already out of the hands of anyone who could give it some artistic heft. It's pure pop product for now audiences, and it's not going to improve with age. As stated before, phenomenons are usually not born out of abject talent. Sometimes, group psychosis takes over. That's Twilight in a critical and commercial nutshell.
Look, there's no way to defend this subpar film except to say the following -- Not Guilty for Twilighters and anyone else already in love with Meyer's marginal work. Guilty for anyone else, including those open to syrupy tales of idealized supernatural romance. Ugh.
Review content copyright © 2009 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted/Extended Scenes
* Comic-Con Footage
* Music Videos
* Official Site