The world doesn’t need another Twilight takedown, so I’ll begin here by saying this: Twilight, more than any superhero movie or Star Wars reboot, makes me remember what it was like to be a teenager. Not in the sepia-toned ways prompted by recent nostalgia-heavy hits like mid90s or Lady Bird, which tend to gaze back at one’s teens with a sense of wistfulness, wonder, and well-meaning pity. Twilight is much more immediate than all of that, a movie made specifically for teens that carries with it no sense of retrospective wisdom. Twilight takes the mile-high emotions and starry-eyed declarations of its players so, so, so seriously, which is, of course, both its biggest strength and most embarrassing weakness. No adult should ever have reviewed this movie, and no adult should review it now. I, being an adult, acknowledge that this isn’t an ideal way to begin this piece.
Watching Twilight for this review was my first encounter with the franchise. It will almost assuredly be my last. I hate this movie. It’s everything I imagined it would be after years of reading blisteringly cruel reviews and watching my tween nieces and nephews consume the books with hearts pumping in their eyes. As a self-consciously smug film buff in 2008, a starving artist emerging from a liberal arts education that filled my head with the lofty words of Joseph Campbell, Susan Sontag, and Harold Bloom, I took a small amount of pleasure in the critical backlash to Catherine Hardwicke‘s adaptation of Stephanie Meyer’s bestselling YA novels, one that cloaked itself in the superiority of knowing that the film’s box office pull ($69.5 million in its opening weekend alone) was merely another sign of the rising vacuity of our times. Let me assure you that that phase has passed; if anything, the last decade has taught me that we inevitably return to the pleasures we found as youths, thus spurring on my reignited love of professional wrestling and schlocky dating shows. I still pursue high art, but I’m also the first in line to see the latest Fast & Furious sequel.
That said, I still hate Twilight. The story is fine by virtue of being so boilerplate: Thoughtful, beautiful teenager Bella Swan (that name!) moves to an idyllic mountain community, where she falls for a mysterious stranger, Edward Cullen (again, that name!), who just so happens to be a vampire in a large vampire family. The push and pull of their emotions is illustrated by his inability to control his appetite for blood; their longing for each other has life-and-death stakes, giving it the electric sense of danger so integral to young love. It’s also not afraid to lean fully into horror, with a band of evil vampires opposing the good ones — the evil ones feed on humans, to be clear, while the good ones feed only on animals — and targeting Bella, who the Cullen family has sworn to protect.
That’s all fine, but Hardwicke’s queasy direction is cloying, frenetic, and riddled with disorienting, black-and-white cutaways that aim for PG-rated erotica and fail, as all PG-rated erotica inevitably must. You can’t place all the blame at her feet, however, as the studio didn’t have much faith in the project, with the entire thing having been shot in 44 days on a $37 million budget. Also, at least it has a look; much has been made of the film’s ubiquitous blue hues, but they certainly help conjure the story’s chilly, overcast milieu. Honestly, if anything stands out as truly egregious, it’s the Cullens’ powdered faces, if only for the fact that their skin never looks like skin. They are cartoons, ones that linger on the verge of humorlessness. Truly, the film’s best scene comes when Bella arrives for a dinner party with the Cullens, who are doing everything in their power to approximate a human’s idea of a dinner party. It’s a beam of sunlight in a dreadfully portentous world, one that works infinitely better than the eye-rolling antics of Bella’s overexcitable high school pals (among them a young Anna Kendrick!) and the whiplash mood shifts of Edward, whose behavior around Bella is frustratingly inconsistent.
Of course, everything about Edward is frustrating, largely due to Robert Pattinson‘s huff-and-puff performance. Having never seen the Twilight movies previously, I had no preconceptions about the guy, so unlike many of my fellow film snobs, I readily accepted what many consider the advent of his shift into indie darling: David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. Just last year I was screaming “Oscar!” at his sweaty, transcendently anxious performance in Good Time. But, holy moly, he is stunningly bad in Twilight. Kristen Stewart is, too; as Bella, she’s all breathy sighs and performative longing, but her pitfalls can be blamed on the atrocious writing more than anything. “I’m more a suffer-in-silence-type” is a slice of dialogue no actor could make work. Pattinson, however, mugs and hisses and emotes in ways that display not a lack of talent so much as a sense of bewilderment — “What do I do with this shit?” seems to be the question underlying his every move, and his public reactions to the franchise more or less confirm that suspicion.
And then there’s the scene. You know which one. Edward and Bella, having circled each other time and again, finally confess their love to each other in a grey forest, Edward leaping nimbly between branches while telling her, hilariously, that Bella is his “own personal brand of heroin.” He adds that he’s also “the world’s most dangerous predator,” a line that only gets funnier when the sun causes his face to break in a CGI patch of stupid, swirling glitter.
An adult should never review this movie, because no adult could watch that scene and not laugh. At the bad writing, the bizarre logic, and perhaps most of all, the big, dumb emotions. But think about it: we’re laughing at it because we recognize it. I do, at least. As pre-teens, we are nothing if not earnest about our feelings. We’ve yet to be numbed, to be cautious, to be scarred; love is not only real and possible, but it must be articulated, it must be scooped from your inner recesses and flung at the object of your affection. And the fantasy is that they’ll bathe in it, the hyperbole of their own declaration eclipsing yours. Watching Twilight, I was floored by how earnest all of this was, how seriously everyone involved took what is clearly a horrible, unhealthy, doomed relationship. And is there anything more teenage than that?
It’s impossible to find a scene like that in this age of irony and synergistic franchise planning, where studios aim to capitalize on modern trends of loose, self-aware comedy, while also angling to appeal as much to adults as teens. Twilight is aggressively, unabashedly not for adults, a fact that, as this wonderful Refinery29 piece on the movie points out, really seemed to irk the (mostly white, male) critics of the time. No shortage of their reviews speak derisively of the teengirl fanbase that kept it alive, which is a bizarre reaction. I don’t say that in a poptimist kind of way, as I truly don’t think there’s anything of cinematic worth to take away from this film. But there really wasn’t much to take from 1989’s The Wizard, another film that only a kid could love (and, boy, did I love it). To hate something because it speaks to kids and not you is to reveal your own insecurities: You don’t get it, therefore you don’t get them, therefore you are old. But we do get it, we just don’t relate to it anymore. We’d all be better off recognizing that.
Twilight helped kick-start the surge in YA adaptations’ popularity, and I genuinely don’t think it’ll get lost in the morass of so many new, genre-flecked titles. Because no matter how bad the writing is (and dear god is it bad), Meyer’s book, and by extension Hardwicke’s movie, treats the blind, stupid, hormone-driven idiocy of horny teens with a reverence that perhaps no other story has managed. Your 13-year old self would’ve loved it. I know mine would have.