Friday, November 21, 2008

Twilight: Somewhat anemic

Twilight (2008) • View trailer for Twilight
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence and brief sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.21.08
Buy DVD: Twilight • Buy Blu-Ray: Twilight [Blu-ray]

Judging by the delighted squeals from the primarily female teenage audience at Tuesday evening's preview screening, director Catherine Hardwicke and scripter Melissa Rosenberg did right by their adaptation of Twilight, the first novel in Stephenie Meyer's insanely popular vampire series.
Having accepted the fact that Bella (Kristen Stewart) knows that he's far from an
average teenager, Edward (Robert Pattinson) confirms her suspicions by
effortlessly carrying her up to the top of a huge tree, where the two then exchange
smoldering, love-struck glances. Such is the nature of a growing relationship
between human and vampire, in this big-screen adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's
first novel.

Certainly the casting is spot-on, starting with Kristen Stewart as the mousy, subdued and yet stubbornly fearless Bella Swan, and Robert Pattinson as the hypnotically alluring vampire, Edward Cullen. The hesitant, fragile manner in which their star-crossed romance unfolds — so Romeo and Juliet — is this film's strongest and most appealing asset.

I'd expect that from Hardwicke, who explored the rebellious angst of young girls so superbly in 2003's Thirteen. She coaxes a persuasive performance from Stewart, who in turn makes Bella a perceptive and plucky heroine who refuses to back down after discovering that the guy she's sweet on has ... a socially unacceptable diet.

To the extent that we'd ever buy the notion of a young woman throwing herself into the arms of such danger, Stewart makes it work.

Pattinson, in turn, is just as believable as a deeply conflicted vampire who can't help being attracted to this new girl in town, despite his quite reasonable concern that blood lust might overpower his otherwise cautionary instincts. In Meyers' world, you see, a too-close proximity to humans can send vampires into a crazed, uncontrollable killing frenzy.

And the actual sight of human blood? Much, much worse.

It's the ultimate doomed relationship, and Hardwicke and Rosenberg take their time establishing its parameters — which is to say, torturing both Bella and Edward with uncertainty and raging mood swings — just as Meyers does in her book.

Indeed, in this respect — and I can hear the howls of indignation already, as a result of what I'm about to say — Rosenberg's script is vastly superior to Meyers' often laughably over-written novel. This film's first act unfolds quite economically, in roughly an hour, which is far more satisfying than the 150-plus pages Meyers takes to cover the same ground, often with breathlessly purple prose.

Occasionally, though, no doubt wanting to please fans desperate to hear at least some of the same dialogue, Rosenberg lifts some passages directly from the book. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don't. Even Stewart can't sell a particularly clumsy voice-over where she acknowledges three things she knows about Edward; the line prompted snickers from some of the less faithful.

Meyers has found a niche and continues to milk it well, and more power to her. But that does not make her a clever or even good writer, and I cannot recommend the book experience to complement this film, as has been the case with (for example) the Harry Potter series or The Spiderwick Chronicles.

Clearly, Hardwicke and Rosenberg also recognized this problem, for their film — no doubt setting up the inevitable sequel(s) — more quickly hints at side characters who play a more important part in subsequent books in the series. That's to the good.

They both stumble, however, when the long, languid first act yields to the sudden appearance of Danger, and that's definitely with a capital "D." Hardwicke isn't nearly as comfortable while orchestrating the climactic confrontation, which swooshes past so abruptly that it almost seems an afterthought. The abrupt switch of tone and pacing are quite jarring.

Similarly, we don't spend enough time with Edward's odd extended family. They're faces in the crowd for quite some time, until Edward — having decided that Bella can be trusted — introduces her to them. We then get a giddy family baseball game: definitely one of the film's joyfully enthusiastic highlights, as the Cullens use a thunderstorm to mask the powerful crack with which they can strike a ball with a bat, and Bella discovers that super-speed can stop even an apparently obvious home run.

But the individual Cullens themselves — Edward's two "foster parents," Carlisle and Esme, and his four brothers and sisters — never really become anything beyond ciphers. The film never tells us, for example, that Carlisle was a vampire hunter 300 years earlier, and was bitten and transformed while leading an attack; he subsequently vowed to be a "good" vampire, and never feed on people. He and Esme have added to their clan, over the years, by carefully selecting moral individuals who will share this essential value.

These are important details, but the films leaves us clueless ... just as we've no idea why some vampires also have additional special talents: Edward can read minds — but not Bella's, which makes her more intriguing to him — and his adopted sibling Alice (Ashley Greene, the only other Cullen granted something of a personality) can see the future, after a fashion.

On the more malevolent side of the coin, the evil James (Cam Gigandet) is a "tracker," a nomadic vampire who loves dining on human blood, and hunts for the joy of it.

Tracking, mind reading, future sight ... after awhile, it feels as though this film is making stuff up for the heck of it. Meyers has the luxury of her big, fat books to put a little more thought into these extra talents, but this film doesn't even try.

Meyers' backstory is intriguing and by now quite famous: a stay-at-home mother who wrote Twilight in three months following a particularly vivid dream, then saw her manuscript rescued from a "slush pile" and subject to a bidding war that resulted in a six-figure sale — for that first book and two sequels — to Little, Brown Books. Twilight debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times best-seller list, and now more than 8.4 million copies are in print.

No doubt this film will prompt more.

Meyers claimed never to have seen an episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer before writing that first book, although she certainly borrowed heavily from Shakespeare. (I also detect strong echoes of the old TV soap opera, Dark Shadows.) As a result, her take on vampire lore is both intriguing and oddly wholesome in a modern field pioneered by the likes of Stephen King, Clive Barker and the scores of lesser authors currently strip-mining the horror genre.

Indeed, the kids who populate Bella's new high school feel like transplants from Disney's High School Musical series; they're that decent and uncomplicated. Despite being the new kid in town, Bella is immediately embraced by girls and guys, the former begging to go shopping with her, the latter sparring competitively to become her boyfriend. This seems ... unlikely: more a product of Meyers' conservative wishful thinking than any attempt at contemporary reality, no matter how small the community.

And yet Meyers' softhearted view of high school life sells millions of copies, so who am I to argue?

Some of Meyers' ideas are captivating, as with her notion that vampires "sparkle" in sunlight, and therefore dare not be seen during a bright, cloudless day. That's why Edward and his clan live in tiny Forks, Wash., which boasts more overcast, gray skies than just about anyplace else in the United States. This allows them to "blend" with normal people.

This sparkling, the struggle to avoid consuming human blood and great strength and speed are reasonably easy to accept; the mind-reading and future visions ... not so much. Not in Meyers' books, and particularly not in a film that makes no effort to explain such gifts.

I also miss the depth of Bella's relationship with her father, Charlie, an undercurrent that Meyers does handle with considerable sensitivity in her books. Billy Burke makes an engaging Charlie in this film, and we certainly sense his pain, each time he sees echoes of his ex-wife in his nearly adult daughter. Once again, though, the film's accelerated climax forces Bella to treat Charlie in a manner that comes wholly out of left field, and doesn't feel the slightest bit credible.

Meyers' fans, having devoured all her books, can fill in all the details; they won't care a whit for this film's shortcomings. Indeed, I'd argue that Hardwicke and Rosenberg have made a movie solely for these fans; it can't really stand on its own, because too many details are left unexplained, and the third act feels needlessly contrived.

None of which will matter to patrons who swoon at the glances exchanged between Stewart and Pattinson ... and, in fairness, this adaptation of Twilight gets that all- important detail just right.

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