Stephenie Meyer’s freakishly popular novel Twilight (the first in a series of four) is all about a perverse kind of wish-fulfillment: Average teenager Bella Swan falls madly in love with perfect, ageless vampire Edward Cullen, who sweeps her off her feet (often quite literally), protects her from harm and loves her unconditionally. Meyer’s extremely old-fashioned, pro-abstinence courtship story (vampire elements notwithstanding) has struck a chord with a large, mostly female, mostly young audience, people who long to play a damsel-in-distress role opposite a flawless, masculine rescuer rather than deal with the complications of real modern romance.
Studying the pathology of Twilight fans is key to understanding the appeal of Meyer’s overwrought, superficial novel, and in adapting it to the screen, director Catherine Hardwicke and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg have greatly improved the sluggish pacing of the book while making sure to retain its cardboard characterizations and gooey, romantic tone. What’s meant to come off as swooning and grandiose in print often sounds silly and uncomfortable when spoken out loud by actual people, and Twilight’s central romance thus has an even greater sense of falsehood onscreen than it did in print.
After moving to the small Pacific Northwest town of Forks, Bella (Kristen Stewart) meets the mysterious, brooding Edward (Robert Pattinson) in her high-school biology class. She soon discovers that Edward and his adopted “family” are all vampires, although they drink only the blood of animals. Bella and Edward fall completely in love for no apparent reason, and eventually Edward must save Bella from a pair of less friendly vampires who don’t share his qualms about attacking humans.
Compounding the inertness of the book’s Edward/Bella romance is Stewart and Pattinson’s complete lack of chemistry; they both give such wooden performances that it’s hard to buy their passion for anything, whether it’s love or blood or the lush greenery that envelops Forks. The creepy power imbalance that defines the story’s central relationship is that much clearer when we can see Edward spying on Bella as she sleeps or ordering her around with the excuse that he’s protecting her. Rather than a sweet teen romance or a love story for the ages, Twilight is a parable of codependency, and the movie version lays bare just how disconcerting that is.
Not that it does any better when it tries to modernize some of Meyer’s throwback style. Hardwicke has now directed four movies about teens, each equally clueless in its own way; here Bella’s non-vampire friends all speak in awkward, outdated slang, and the world of the high school is relevant only as a tool to bring Bella and Edward together (or to provide the magical romance of the prom that ends the movie). Twilight is devoid of intentional humor, although fans at the screening I attended tittered throughout, perhaps finding the story’s overwhelming cheesiness harder to take when seeing it enacted before their eyes.
It doesn’t help that Hardwicke still lacks nuance or sophistication as a director, and paints her themes as broadly as she did in her teensploitation debut Thirteen or her plodding Christmas fable The Nativity Story. The special effects look cheap, the action rudimentary. The acting is generally on par with an episode of 90210 (the new version). Meyer’s dunderheaded brick of a book may be poorly written pap, but it affords its audience a level of pure escapism as alluring as it is unrealistic and unhealthy. Twilight the movie brings all of that crashing down to earth, and inspires only nervous laughter.