In which Jesse Hassenger sees Twilight so you don’t have to, unless you already have, which seems likely.
In observing the Twilight phenomenon, I think it’s important to note that its hardest-core fanbase must employ word-of-mouth at twice the strength of your typical young-adult-and-beyond property. Whoever’s actually recommending these books rather than sheepishly admitting to having read them must be describing them the way I would describe 30 Rock or something, because I know a lot of people who have read the Twilight books, but unlike, say, Mad Men, no one has ever, ever told me I really have to give this Twilight thing a shot.
But also unlike Mad Men, I totally checked out Twilight anyway, because of its trashy YA roots, and also because there is a movie version. Hoping for the contact high from crazy fans, I joined a little group for an opening-night viewing — a diverse assembly of an actual fan of the books, a love-hate fan of the books, another bemused non-fan, and the actual fan’s husband, who was under strict orders to be at least kinda nice.
Though we were on a massive line at the Union Square Regal in the midst of many sold-out shows, I got the feeling the frenzy had burnt itself out on midnight screenings; we saw no costumes, witnessed no shrieking or fainting, and only saw one pair of teenagers making out. I hypothesize that maybe by 9PM on Friday, a lot of the audience had already seen the movie three or four times, and had been running on two hours of sleep to do so, and maybe also lost their voices at 12:02AM the night before.
Despite a fairly subdued crowd — the Star Trek trailer at Quantum of Solace got a wilder reaction than the Harry Potter trailer in front of Twilight, proving that no one does the teenage girl shtick better than twentysomething dudes — the most fun aspect of the movie was the constant murmuring of the crowd, specifically when I could hear multiple fans explaining supporting characters’ significance to their non-fan friends.
These hand-in-hand desires — to see how the movie made these characters flesh, and to see what this fuss is about — have resulted in Twilight posting a new box-office record: the cheapest, least eventful movie to gross over $50 million in a single weekend. Viewed faux-objectively, the movie is kinda almost okay, by which I mean it’s a lot better than The Covenant, which is what it resembled in the trailers.
The director, Catherine Hardwicke, is a hit-or-miss chronicler of youth subcultures. She burst onto the scene with the histrionics of the wildly overrated Thirteen, then made the actually sorta underrated Lords of Dogtown (featuring Heath Ledger’s first great performance), and now, after tackling the Virgin Mary in The Nativity Story, gets her shot at the vampire/teen angst metaphor. You can see her strengths in the secondary casting; the ethnically diverse teenagers actually look and sound a little like actual human beings.
But the easy believability of the backgrounds actually undermines the story’s angst and accompanying metaphor. Bella (Kristen Stewart) is supposed to be some kind of loner outcast, but the kids at her high school actually seem pretty nice, which makes her doomy embrace of sexy vampire Edward Cullen seem like more of a fetish than even an infatuation.
Stewart has presence as an actress, but Hardwicke either let or encouraged her to telegraph Bella’s awkwardness through a series of blinks and twitches probably visible from space — she acts like she’s creeping through a horror movie (or psychodrama) far, far scarier than anything in Twilight. And talk of Robert Pattinson’s star quality playing Edward is the clumsiest media bungle this side of Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar; he’s such a sunken-faced blank that the idea of Edward Cullen as some kind of romantic super-being becomes an elaborate joke on what (some) (extremely young and/or sad) women want.
So Twilight is far from The Covenant because all of this twitchy incompetence and earnestness makes sure it’s not boring; the movie is campy fun, at least if you’re watching with an audience. It just happens to fail in terms of, you know, romance or thrills or acting or the ability to circle your camera without using that cheap-looking Saw-style super-sped-up effect. When images from the film replayed over the credits in black-and-white, my fellow Twilight sideliner observed that the whole movie would’ve looked great this way. She was right; not only would black-and-white photography give the movie sorely needed atmosphere and eerie beauty, it would also hide the atrocious pancake makeup slathered onto all of the movie’s low-budge vampires. Maybe Hardwicke can lobby for a limited palette in the sequel; if ever there was a fanbase that will show up no matter the cosmetic appearances, it’s the crazier seventy percent of Twilighters. I know the book already has some other title, but let’s call the movie version Twi Harder.