However, something about the media phenomenon surrounding the book and its big screen adaptation piqued my interest, coupled with the widely differing reactions to it. On the one hand, you’ve got the legions of adoring fans who swoon at the very mention of its title. (If you want some idea of just how scary these people can be, head over to the movie’s IMDB board.) On the other, you have unprecedented levels of vitriol being hurled in its direction, mainly from people who consider it nothing more than a self-infatuated author’s overblown wank fantasy, and one with a very dubious moral at that. More often than not with such cases, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I wanted to know more and swiftly came to the conclusion that it would be easier to do this by watching a two hour movie than by reading a 500-page book.
First, the plot. Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is a pasty-faced teenager who goes to live with her police chief father (Billy Burke) in the rain-drenched Washington town of Forks after her mother remarries and goes on the road with her new husband. On her first day at her new school, she is smitten by Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), a fellow student with piercing eyes, ultra-pale skin and seemingly superhuman speed and perception. Initially doing everything he can to warn her off, he ultimately gives into temptation and falls as madly in love with her as she has with him. Have you guessed it yet? Edward is (dun dun dun!) a vampire, and as such his greatest desire is to feast on her blood. He and his vampire family, however, have opted to abstain from feasting on humans and instead drink only animal blood. (“We think of ourselves as vegetarians,” he explains - I’m afraid you’ve lost me there.) Will Edward succeed in controlling his vampiry urges or will he give in and sink his fangs into Bella’s enticing neck?
It must be said that, even before watching Twilight, what I had heard of its plot had already left something of a sour taste in my mouth, and that sourness only intensified as the film progressed. This tale of unconsummated love has been read by many as a thinly veiled allegory promoting abstinence, and this reading begins to make a great deal of sense when you consider that Stephenie Meyer is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church. Mormons, who in my understanding are at the crazier end of the already pretty crazy cult of Christianity, aren’t exactly common in the entertainment industry. Apart from Meyer, I can only think of Eliza Dushku, who was raised as a Mormon but made good her escape. Around half an hour into the film, I asked my brother, who had seen it already, if he was aware of the author’s Mormonism or the abstinence interpretation. He replied “no” on both counts, and was more than a little sceptical of the latter, passing it off as typical academic over-analysis. As the film continued, however, I watched his eyes widening with dismay as he saw it in a completely different light.
Personally, I haven’t much of an opinion on the concept of abstinence. It’s not something that I see as noble or righteous in any way, and I don’t believe “true love waits”. Furthermore, the concept of “virginity” is in my view an idiotic one, a non-existent binary manufactured by those infected with religious mania as a way of controlling and commodifying their children (particularly if those children happen to be female). Either have sex or don’t have sex - it’s all the same to me. That said, I won’t deny for a moment that far too many teenagers fuck up their lives by, well, fucking each other. Therefore, it’s not the “good girls and boys say no” message that riles me, heavy-handed though it is. Instead, it’s the story’s combination of self-infatuation and oblivious misogyny that tickles my gag reflex.
On the one hand, Bella is clearly a Mary Sue of the highest order. Mary Sues, for those who aren’t aware, are characters who serve as idealised stand-ins for their creators, allowing them to play out wish-fulfilment fantasies within the confines of fictional stories. In the case of Bella, this is particularly noxious. Within seconds of arriving at her new school, seemingly every single person wants to be her friend. She’s witty, intelligent, thoughtful and attractive, and doesn’t appear to have a single negative bone in her body. She’s also irresistible to just about every male who crosses her path (including the town rapists), none more so than Edward, the hundred-year-old vampire who proclaims her to be the person he has spent his entire life searching for. It’s all pretty sickening, and would continue to be so even if Bella wasn’t such an obvious stand-in more Meyer. The fact that she so clearly is simply makes it all the more nauseating.
It gets worse, though. What we have is essentially the story of a girl whose entire existence revolves around an alluring predator, to the extent that she’d gladly give up her own life to satisfy him. She gazes longingly at him; she is touched when she discovers that he has been stalking her for some time; she serves as the damsel in distress (repeatedly) so he can heroically swoop in and save her (repeatedly), all the while acting the perfect gentleman and refusing to give into his overwhelming desire to screw her brains out… sorry, feast on her. She actually gets to the point of offering herself to him so he can satisfy his longing for her blood. It’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer as written by a crass misogynist. Why is Bella so infatuated by Edward? It clearly isn’t his winning personality or his vibrant conversation, or his attention to her needs. No, it appears to simply be because he’s attractive. And apparently that’s what True Love™ is. Cynic though I may be, I’d like to think there’s a bit more to it than that.
Am I reading too much into this? Maybe, but I generally try to resist over-analysing a film, at least on a first viewing, and yet these dubious messages leapt off the screen and sucker-punched me without me even actively searching for them. It boggles my mind that the three key creative personnel on this film - the author, the screenwriter and the director - were all women… Then again, given my understanding of Mormonism and its institutionalised sexism (which among other things states that a woman can only get into Heaven if her husband deems her worthy enough), perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. (See, there was a point in my mentioning Meyer’s religious beliefs after all.)
Ironically enough, if Twilight was a better film than it is, I suspect I would have been even more incensed by all of this. As it stands, however, the end result is so clumsy, ineffectual and downright laughable that I’m afraid I just can’t bring myself to hate it. It’s not dreadful enough to take it into “so bad it’s good” territory, but it comes pretty close. At around the one-hour mark, it suddenly struck me that I would be finding all the absurdity and melodrama a whole lot more palatable had it been a 60s Hammer horror production. The source material is patently ridiculous, and no amount of dressing it up in glossy packaging can hide this. It’s thanatophilia (thanks, Roger Ebert) for the Hot Topic crowd; a celebration of being a pasty-faced social outcast with an unending scowl and a pair of iPod headphones perpetually plugged into your ears. It’s the sort of film that works extremely hard to convince you that it’s deep and introspective, when in reality it’s nothing bit a collection of scenes of good-looking young actors standing around looking soulful. It’s no wonder Kristen Stewart spends the film’s duration with the glazed expression of someone whose mind is elsewhere. She’s probably thinking “Panic Room was the high point of my acting career.” (For the record, I think Panic Room is a very good film and that she, twelve years old at the time, was excellent in it.)
The director, Catherine Hardwicke, is an unusual choice to helm this film. A former production designer, she made her directing debut with Thirteen, a slightly clumsy but rather effective tale about a teenager who falls in with the wrong crowd. I haven’t seen either of the two films she made between Thirteen and Twilight (note: one of them was a religious picture - the plot thickens), but on the basis of the former’s grubby, almost documentary-like style, I’m somewhat surprised she was anyone’s first choice to helm a sweeping, effects-laden romantic fantasy. Throughout its two-hour duration, I got the impression that she wasn’t entirely comfortable with the material. The pacing seems off, and her penchant for erratic, handheld camerawork jars with both the visual style and the often low-key nature of the characters’ interactions. The soundtrack, a wall-to-wall smorgasbord of licensed songs, each more skin-crawling than the last, is often so deliriously out of phase with what’s happening on screen as to be laughable. Worse still, though, are the action sequences, which are clumsily choreographed and filled with inane CGI effects. One moment, where Edward hoists Bella over his shoulders and sprints up to the top of a mountain with her, is so ridiculous that it has to be seen to be believed: it looks as if someone has hit the “fast forward” button on their remote control and sped the footage up. The worst moment by far, however, is a vampire baseball match, surely the most ludicrous scene captured on celluloid since Spider-man 3’s cooking dance-off.
Is there anything positive I can say about this film? Probably the strongest compliment I can pay it is that it could have been worse. Not significantly worse, but still. The visuals are undeniably striking, if repetitive (blue is the dominant colour in 99% of scenes), and the casting is also pretty much spot on, at least as far as the players’ looks are concerned; their performances often leave something to be desired, but I’m more inclined to blame that on the turgid script than their acting ability. Like most modern films, it’s a good half-hour too long, but it’s rarely outright boring - usually just annoying. I actually held on to a slim hope that I’d like Twilight: a colleague told me that if I enjoyed Buffy I’d enjoy this. No such luck, unfortunately. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it an unmitigated disaster, and I can certainly understand the appeal it holds, but the likelihood of my being first in line for the remaining three films in this saga is… well, to quote Chris Morris, “You’d have more chance getting a blowjob from the Pope.”