The paperback cover of Twilight, the first of four best-selling teen-vampire fantasy novels by Stephenie Meyer, shows a pair of pale female hands in close-up, proffering the reader an obscurely menacing apple. I haven’t been able to make it through that book’s 500-plus pages of turgid vampire-ogling. (“He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn’t sleep.”) But after seeing director Catherine Hardwicke’s flawed yet transfixing adaptation of the book, I can understand the appeal of that poisoned apple, and I think I might want another bite.
The feminist critique of the Twilight phenomenon (see this astute reading by Laura Miller in Salon) points, quite rightly, to all that’s reprehensible about the Twilight universe: the heroine’s passivity and masochism, her utter lack of grrl-power spunk. Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is the anti-Buffy; she’s a mortal high-school girl committed not to slaying vampires but to being slain by them. Make that one particular vampire: Bella’s highest ambition is to be snacked upon by the lavender-lidded, incandescent-chested Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and thus to join him forever in the realm of the permanently teenage dead.
As the movie begins, Bella has just relocated from Phoenix to the remote, rain-soaked town of Forks, Wash., where she’s moved in with her father (Billy Burke), the small town’s taciturn chief of police. Her new lab partner, Edward, spends his days glaring at her with Morrissey-like intensity, then suddenly saves her from an impending car crash with what seems like inhuman strength and speed, then returns to insulting and ignoring her. What’s going on with Edward and his four impossibly attractive foster siblings? They never seem to eat or sleep, and they fraternize only with one another, floating through the school day in a pale, silent pack. Oh, and in an apparently unrelated development, Bella’s dad is investigating some mysterious deaths outside of town—it’s almost as if people were being eaten by some strange bloodthirsty animal. …
This early part of the movie, in which we wait for Bella to discover what any consumer of pop horror already knows, is static and at times unintentionally funny. Pattinson, a British actor chosen for his sculpted face and gazellelike physique, doesn’t seem to have been given much direction beyond “melt the camera with your eyes.” But despite his studied gaze, the lens remains stubbornly at room temperature, and this opening act could have been cut by half an hour. What finally convinces Bella isn’t the weeks of glaring but a few minutes of Googling: The Cullens, she realizes, are a family of “vegetarian” vampires, forcing themselves to subsist on animal blood as they chastely coexist with delicious, delicious humans. Bella’s blood is especially tempting to Edward, for some reason—who can explain the vicissitudes of young love?—and he’s been keeping his distance all this time for her safety. But when Edward confides his secret and starts spiriting Bella to the tops of giant pines for moony dream dates, the movie takes on a pulp immediacy that somehow draws you in, even if century-old guys with ice-cold, glittering skin are totally not your type.
The director, Hardwicke, began her career as a production designer, and that shows in the convincing texture and detail of the world she’s created. The Pacific Northwest locations (with Oregon standing in for Washington) are eerily lovely, and the understated costume design by Wendy Chuck manages to make weatherproof parkas look Goth. Bella’s schoolmates—the nonvampiric ones—are convincingly sketched characters, vulnerable and goofy, like real high-school kids rather than readymade archetypes.
Hardwicke, whose first film was the harrowing mother-daughter melodrama Thirteen (2003), has a keen sense memory for female adolescence—not just the social insecurity of that time but the grandiosity that can make self-destructive decisions feel somehow divinely fated. Unwholesome, sure, but arguably no more so than Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, two better-written Gothic romances about young women in thrall to a remote, charismatic, often cruel hero. And while Pattinson’s Edward is a bit of a vain prig, no one you’d want to risk your immortal soul for, his worthiness doesn’t really matter. Twilight is a story about pining for the one person you can, and should, never have, and who among us hasn’t at least once experienced that vampiric craving? As a life lesson for teenage girls, Twilight (excuse the pun) sucks. As a parable for the dark side of female desire, it’s weirdly powerful.
Slate V: The critics’ take on Twilight, Special, and Bolt