This is the film that launched a thousand Young Adult Fiction projects. The Twilight franchise is a phenomenon that has very few parallels in the more recent history of film. And unlike other franchise juggernauts, Twilight has caused countless other studios to try their luck with their own supernatural teen dramas. Mostly with limited success.
I’ve begun to re-watch the Twilight-“saga“ for this blog. Since I have never read any of the books, I will not be able to comment on the quality of the adaptation, but can only judge the films by themselves.
I must have seen the earlier films numerous times over the years, because I re-watched them every time I picked up a new instalment on DVD (admittedly kind of fast-forwarding them later on). And somehow the first film has always been my favourite. While most people were either rabid fans or passionate haters, I thought this film was absolutely “fine”. As a vampire film, it is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you judge it as a piece of Young Adult Fiction, a run-of-the-mill teen-drama – which it essentially is – then I feel that it is probably of a higher quality than many other films that are churned out for that particular target audience.
I assume everyone knows the story: Isabella Swan’s mother and step-father have to travel a lot, because of his job, and so it has been decided that she should move to her father in the state of Washington for a while and go to school there. So she leaves sunny Phoenix and heads to rainy Forks, a small and remote town of just over 3000 inhabitants.
The contrast between sun and rain, big city and small town, is not overplayed, but it is clearly referenced. It is intended to highlight the fact that Bella has to face quite a bit of change; and there is a not so subtle allegory of her being “uprooted” as we can see her digging up a cactus in her Phoenix garden, putting it in a pot and taking it with her to Forks.
“Bella”, as she prefers to be called, is a not really atypical teenage girl. She is slightly moody, rather shy, and very reclusive. She would rather people ignored her and left her alone. But for this, she has come to the wrong place. She is the “new girl” in school, and as such she is big news in a place where nothing ever happens. More importantly, her father is the sheriff and knows everyone, and so everyone in Forks think they know her. They all remember her as a little girl from “way-back-when”, met her once when she was visiting her dad, or have heard stories about her from her father. She, however, knows none of these people who are all so friendly and “familiar”. This situation is personified quite nicely in the film in the character of Waylon (Ned Bellamy), who greets Bella with the words “You remember me? I played Santa one year.” To which her father replies: “Waylon, she hasn’t had a Christmas here since she was four.”
So while everyone is terribly nice to her, Bella does not really feel like she belongs here. But then life gets weird, interesting, and dangerous, when she meets Edward, the only single guy in the mysterious and reclusive Cullen family…
There is a somewhat pretentious opening scene, but in general I find the opening minutes of this film extremely effective. It introduces the character of Bella and tells you all you need to know about her relationship with her mother, her step-father, and her dad. And within a further few minutes Bella’s aforementioned “celebrity status” in school and in town is laid down with equal efficiency. All this is done without any of it feeling like forced exposition, which is quite an achievement in itself.
Since these opening minutes are focused on introducing the main characters, they also benefit from a strong cast. Kristen Stewart does a great job playing a moody awkward teenage girl. Or maybe she didn’t play it and it was just her. At any rate, it was a very fortunate casting choice. She is complemented nicely by Billy Burke playing Bella’s father Charlie. Throughout the franchise, Billy Burke delivers one of the strongest performances. Sarah Clarke also does a great job as Bella’s mother, but due to the plot she naturally has far less screen-time throughout this series of films, although she shows up from timt to time in some of the later films.
Jacob, whom Bella used to know as a kid, is played by Taylor Lautner. In this first film it is a small and rather undemanding role, and Lautner is doing a good job. Bella’s school mates are played by Justin Chon, Michael Welch, Christian Serratos, and Anna Kendrick. They are all very good, but Kendrick’s character Jessica is undoubtedly the highlight of the school environment – thanks to the writing as well as the delivery. José Zúñiga also does a great job in a small teacher role.
That leaves Edward’s vampire “family”. Mr and Mrs Cullen are portrayed as polite but reserved people, who we do not learn much about. Peter Facinelli and Elizabeth Reaser are doing a good job in these roles, but these are not roles that allow an actor to show much of their talents. The Cullen’s daughter Alice, on the other hand, is a very outgoing, pixie-like girl, and Ashley Greene makes the most out of this role. For the rest of the family, however, the director’s instructions apparently stated that they should act stiff and uncomfortable around Bella. Nikki Reed (Rosalie) and Jackson Rathbone (Jasper) suffer the most from this, while Kellan Lutz (Emmet) suffers mostly from his role being entirely undeveloped. But in this film, as well as the rest of the franchise, the worst performance is that of Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen. His character is badly written and badly directed, and Pattinson is entirely unable to overcome these huge obstacles. Now, given Pattinson’s filmography and reputation, it seems clear that he is not the main problem here. I assume that the character was already badly written in the novel, and neither script-writer Melissa Rosenberg nor director Catherine Hardwicke were able to solve that problem.
Since the character of Edward does not really work, most of the scenes between him and Bella do not work either. Pattinson gets no grip on these scenes, and no matter how hard Stewart tries, you never feel any chemistry between these characters. Mind you, the writing does not help at all. The dialogue (Edward’s lines especially) is at times unbearable, and someone in the creative process (probably Stephenie Meyer) thought it would be romantic (and appealing for Bella) to make Edward a character with creepy stalker habits.
One word on the character of Bella: a criticism often thrown at this franchise is the claim that Bella is a passive character, and as such unsuitable as a modern role-model for girls. As I said, I cannot comment on the novels, but in the films Bella is – as I mentioned – shy and reclusive. However, she is not passive. When it comes to her relationship with Edward she is both active and demanding. The claim that Bella is passive has often caused me to question whether the people making that claim did actually ever see the film.
The film’s actual plot (which sort of develops out of the Edward & Bella storyline but feels like an add-on) is okay-ish – but the events that lead to the action/chase climax (that comes unusually late in the film) are somewhat strange and unsatisfying. I do not want to spoil anything, but hanging out with vampires does contain certain risks.
Apart from Pattinson’s performance, all other flaws of the film are comparatively minor, but highly visible, and they do add up: a ridiculous and unnecessary overuse of Dutch angles; the famous baseball scene which probably worked on paper, but is pretty silly on screen; Carter Burwell’s obtrusive and manipulative score music; and atrocious special effects (which include high-speed running, jumping, and tree-climbing).
Many a scene is beyond cheesy. To think that the film-makers thought that this is the kind of film-making that teenage girls like and/or deserve seems rather insulting. The scenes which show Bella and Edward on an entirely artificial-looking, flower-covered meadow come to mind, which are filmed through some filter that softens and blurs the picture. It all looks like a David Hamilton fever-dream. The scene in which Edward plays the piano is another example. Shot like a cheesy music video, is sticks out from the preceding and following scenes like a sore thumb.
There are elements in these films that I have not much of a problem with. The idea of “vegetarian vampires” is not new, and although the term is a misnomer, it is quite common. I have also no problem with “sparkling vampires”. Many vampire films feature vampires that can endure sunlight, and many vampire stories try to twist and tweak the traditional lore. Trying to find something new that works for the story and that could at the same time explain the traditional lore (i. e. “sparkling” having been mistaken for “burning” through centuries of transmission and translation) is actually to be commended, not condemned. But the explanation itself that is given in the film for the fluorescent effect (which in all likelihood would be an evolutionary quirk) is ridiculous, claiming that it “attracts” prey.
When it comes to vampires and their lore, I have more problems with all those elements that try to draw parallels between vampires and animals. The vampires in this film are “growling” frequently, and a number of other behavioural traits are explained that way. If you seriously want to go down this path, you have to do it right – you are then close to body-horror territory and need to put a lot of effort into the writing, directing, and acting in order to pull it off. In this film, it all just feels pretty silly.
As I said, this is a teen-love drama, geared towards a female audience, and as such surely not the worst of its kind. If I ignore the massive cheese-factor and assume that this is what the studio thought female teenagers wanted to see at the cinema, then this film, with all its minor and major flaws, probably deserves a rating of 6.0 to 6.5 out of 10. A higher rating is made impossible by the character of Edward and the complete lack of chemistry between Edward and Bella.
In case you have never seen this film: if you are looking for a vampire film and are not into this kind of Young Adult Fiction, then there is absolutely no reason why you should watch it; unless you count its pop-cultural (and film-business) significance as a factor that might compel you to check it out.