It may suck to be a teenager, but the Twilight series sucks more

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It may suck to be a teenager, but the Twilight series sucks more

The Twilight Saga: New Moon
The Twilight Saga: New Moon

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

In the realm of literature, “young adult” is still invoked as a pejorative as often as it is merely a descriptor. For every person who mildly points out that Catcher In The Rye would almost certainly have been classified as such, had the label existed back in 1951, nowadays it’s far more often wielded as a means of inveighing against the supposed dumbing down of reading as a whole. (As though the majority of stories—thrillers, sweeping epics, romances, mysteries, and the rest—haven’t always demonstrated the general truth of Sturgeon’s law.) It’s more a marketing tool than anything, which is why Stephen Colbert recently redefined the label as books “that people actually read.” The term’s general application to any narrative involving adolescent protagonists should in no way bear upon the quality of the material.

Not that “quality” is a term many people are rushing to affix to the Twilight Saga. The film franchise began in November 2008 with the self-titled first installment, just a few short months after the fourth and final book in Stephenie Meyer’s YA series was released. Due to the massive commercial success and similar scope of world-building, the fantasy romance tale was often compared to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, though rarely to Meyer’s benefit. (Stephen King captures the widespread critical comparison most succinctly: “Both Rowling and Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people… The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn.”) Unlike the Potter films, however, the tale of a human girl and her immortal beau was already complete before audiences ever laid eyes on the initial portrayal of the main characters by Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, and Taylor Lautner. Devotees knew how this story would end on the big screen—or at least they thought they knew, making it more akin to the fan expectations of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy than Rowling’s sorcery-laden epic.

Twilight

And that belief—that they knew what was coming—led to the single most enjoyable thing about this gooey, plodding franchise adaptation. The final installment, on the heels of four entire films of brooding hokum (save a few interludes), builds to a climactic sequence that essentially trolls the entire dedicated fan base with one of the ballsiest “Just kidding!” scenarios in recent Hollywood history. If you were lucky enough to be in the vicinity of a movie theater the opening weekend for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2, you might have been rewarded with the disbelieving shrieks of fans watching some of their most beloved fictional characters getting ripped apart in spectacularly violent ways, all in direct contradiction with the source material. True, it’s all revealed to be a massive fake-out, and despite the presence of several more scenes of denouement following that admission (including, as we’ve noted, a “video-yearbook-esque closing-credits sequence that lists every single character in the movies”), the film essentially ends with that moment, a “That’s all, folks!” of outsized proportions. It’s a surprisingly delightful capper on a series that, for much of its running time, can inspire fantasies of watching a much better series of films—or anything, really, other than these retrograde and largely misbegotten cinematic offerings.

The appeal is as understandable as it is old-fashioned. Twilight functions as wish fulfillment for any adolescent (or post-adolescent) dreamer longing for the perfect boyfriend. In much the same way Goethe’s The Sorrows Of Young Werther inspired a wave of young people across Europe to begin dressing and acting like that novel’s angst-ridden dandy (up to and including a rash of suicides from those wannabe-poetic souls determined to follow in Werther’s footsteps), the Twilight books and films helped inspire a cultural resurgence of vampire-as-romantic-obsession that made the brief early 1990s’ embrace of Anne Rice’s bloodsucking antiheroes seem like a flash in the pan. The impact was demonstrated in everything from The CW’s Vampire Diaries (itself an adaptation of a book series that garnered renewed interest thanks in part to Meyer’s series) to the veiled Twilight fan fiction known as Fifty Shades Of Grey. As was pointed out on this very site, much of the appeal comes from the affection and affinity people share for boilerplate teenage drama: There’s an easy relatability to stories about young women who feel like they don’t belong, just wishing for someone who understood them perfectly to come along and devote themselves fully to their happiness. In short, the enjoyment stems from participating in a collective embrace of something a little silly that nevertheless connects you with other like-minded people—or, if you’re a kid and the target demographic, the easy pleasures of vicarious fantasy.

Twilight

That embrace of nostalgia-tweaking pop culture goes a long way toward explaining the films’ popularity, because you’d certainly be hard-pressed to make a case for any of them as great, or even good, cinema. The first installment, Twilight, perfectly sets the stage for everything that follows, both by virtue of hitting on all the key themes and dramas of the whole series and by being a deeply clunky—bordering on self-parodic—slice of teenage Velveeta. It introduces Bella Swan (Stewart), an alienated girl relocated from her sunny home to the overcast small town of Forks, Washington, where she meets a brooding young hunk of cardboard named Edward Cullen (Pattinson). It’s soon revealed Edward is of the vampiric persuasion, and as the two fall in love, Edward’s non-human-drinking vampire clan works to protect Bella from other bloodsuckers who aren’t so friendly.

The plot is minimal, with local color provided by a rotating cast of barely sketched supporting kids (including a pre-fame Anna Kendrick), and the deeper lore of soon-to-be-vampire mythology provided by Jacob (Lautner), a local Native American kid who befriends Bella. At heart, it’s just a girl-meets-boy love story, amplified by an immortal boyfriend and a rumination on mortality, the latter a concept with which just about any teenager is well-acquainted.

It starts off effectively enough, with the sense of isolation and awkwardness inherent in someone moving to a new town and back in with her father (Billy Burke, one of the few who seems to realize what kind of film this is shaping up to be), but it gets stilted and thin quick, via the introduction of fellow students, all of whom act like hypercaffeinated impersonations of high school drama queens. Director Catherine Hardwicke sets the tone for the series by making lots of odd, outdated visual choices that are likely meant to evoke swooping romances of yesteryear, but instead feel dated and silly, this series’ equivalent of Dune’s voice-over thought narrations. All the zoom-ins on smoldering eyes and lingering glances play like half the characters are perpetually constipated, not aroused. (Again, lay some of the blame with Meyer. She wrote Edward as basically almost barfing when he first catches wind of Bella’s scent—he tries to hold his breath to prevent smelling her—and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg did her level best to incorporate many of those absurd flourishes from the books.)

Billy Burke in Twilight

After a borderline-camp version of meet-cute between Bella and Edward (he can read everyone’s thoughts, except for hers!), Jacob gives her a backstory about “the cold ones” and his tribe’s treaty with them, leading to one of those hilarious movie versions of Google searches. In this one, Bella literally types in “cold ones,” as though that would bring up a montage of vampire lore and not beer commercials. We’re halfway through the film before she confronts him about it, at which point it all gets even sillier.

Much of this can be attributed to the story itself—the vampires can run super-fast, leading to a game of baseball with the Cullens that’s a leading contender for most ridiculous scene of the entire series—but there’s plenty of blame to go around. Hardwicke will often swing the camera around in jarring fashion, pulling away from moments as though unsure how severely to play them. And Rosenberg’s dialogue, foolishly faithful to Meyer, doesn’t help matters. “Your scent—it’s like a drug to me, my own personal brand of heroin,” Edward says, which is not quite Attack Of The Clones-level bad, but not far off. The last half hour follows the Cullens as they try to protect Bella from a hungry vampire who’s caught her scent and locked on to her, leading to an abrupt showdown in a mirror-filled dance studio in her old hometown. Unfortunately, it’s about as tense as a dose of NyQuil. As Edward says, there’s “seven of us and two of them.” Not exactly the end of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid.

Even fans of the movies should admit the political implications of the narrative are unpleasant. While the best that can be said about the film’s moral politics is that it showcases a guy who refuses to lose control around the girl he loves, it also approves of him breaking into her bedroom at night to watch while she sleeps, without her permission. Many of his actions would qualify for the “romantic gestures that are actually creepy” list, and their relationship meets most of the criteria for an abusive relationship, which seems to be how we like our swoony romances. Meyer’s overwrought story is the porn version of romance, turning any potential subtlety into gonzo. Oh, you like standoffish types? Well, here’s a guy who will literally suck the blood from your veins to keep you from being like him! Edward could have spared us all the next four films by just letting his girlfriend turn into a vamp—something he ends up doing to her anyway, three movies from now.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Everything that’s wrong with the first film gets magnified in New Moon, a movie so bad that it will retroactively make you appreciate the finer points of vampire baseball. The problem is that Meyer’s entire plot is a slight variant on what Roger Ebert called an “Idiot Plot”—a story where the entire conflict could be resolved by a simple conversation. Only here, the conversation would reveal the conflict didn’t even make any sense to begin. Ironically, that literally happens toward the end of New Moon, a film whose entire raison d’être is premised upon a single decision that lacks any rational basis. Early in the film, Edward injures Bella while trying to protect her from Jasper Cullen (his sibling can’t control himself when she cuts herself and the blood starts running), so he breaks up with her and moves away. “It’s my job to protect you,” he says, giving social progress a hearty slap in the face. By the end, Bella has repeatedly put herself in life-threatening situations trying to bring him back, and she’s raced halfway around the world to prevent Edward killing himself because he thought she was dead. Which, as she points out, is an act completely incoherent when placed alongside his decision to abandon her for good—you can’t say you’d die without someone when they’re already as good as dead to you. It’s a nearly two-hour exercise in a couple breaking up, one of them being sad and then the other realizing he didn’t want to break up after all.

New Moon is so suffused with bad or half-baked ideas that trying to recount them all is an exercise in futility. All the mythos exposition is ham-fisted and tiring, as the reveal of vampire royalty known as the Volturi attempts to provide a larger scope to the story. The introduction of shape-shifters (Jacob develops the ability to turn into a wolf) should be exciting, but it just provides a temporary respite from Bella’s constant moping. Oh, the moping. At one point, there’s a lengthy montage of Bella sitting in a chair as three months go by, her expression unchanging. It’s an attempt to capture the dead-inside, nothing-matters feeling of teenage heartbreak, but it more effectively captures the dull-inside, nothing’s-happening feeling of watching a narrative without drama. The entire middle act is Bella stringing along Jacob, who wants romance, even as she admits she’s selfishly dangling the promise of something more with no intention of delivering, an apt metaphor for the film itself. At least Jacob-as-CGI-canine offers a more charismatic screen presence than Lautner. The film’s fatal problem is that every action is reactive: There are no active moves by anyone; it’s all just lumpen eddies in the narrative pond, listless responses formed by dropping in the rock of Edward dumping Bella.

Director Chris Weitz, like Hardwicke before him, does the material no favors, though he at least pulls off a few decent sequences. The wolves chasing Victoria, an evil vampire, through the forest to an icy electronica accompaniment plays like a 21st-century goth parade, a Crow in pre-teen clothing. (And the camera spinning above Bella in the woods as she crumples into a heap, realizing Edward is breaking up with her, is an especially apt pairing of perspectives.) But he also continues the visual language Hardwicke established, full of hokey slow-motion walks and cheesy special effects. The low point comes when Bella almost drowns, only to have a spectral Edward float up alongside her, like an incorporeal jellyfish.

One cursory bright spot comes in the final act, when the Volturi are introduced. These Italian-based keepers of the vampire peace, led by Michael Sheen as an evil pope of sorts, demand the Cullens turn Bella into a vampire as per the rules of keeping humans in the dark about their existence. Sheen is a delight in his brief screen time, like a small child in a man’s body. But it’s too late: The film has already sunk under the weight of its portentous and conflict-free wallowing. This is exemplified in a brief denouement showdown between Edward and Wolf-Jacob, in which Bella insists they can’t fight without hurting her, so everyone walks away. That’s New Moon in sum: a story where nothing is allowed to happen.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

By the time Eclipse begins, the viewer is prepped for another dreary slog, which is a shame, because it’s the most accomplished film of the entire series. Much of the credit should go to director David Slade, a veteran of lurid pulp and cool Grand Guignol alike (Hard Candy, 30 Days Of Night, episodes of Hannibal), and whose staging of action sequences is worlds better than his predecessors. In this film, Edward and Bella are engaged and planning their wedding, but Victoria, the vampire antagonist from the previous two movies, is creating an army of young and powerful newborn vamps in Seattle to attack the Cullens. In between the constant alpha-male bickering of Jacob and Edward, the wolves and Cullens have to work together to defeat the gang of young vamps and keep Bella safe. True, there’s a surfeit of miserable exposition involving the Volturi, multiple flashbacks for various characters, and more regressive gender politics, but by simple virtue of telling a coherent and self-contained story, Eclipse is easily the strongest single film in the Twilight Saga.

Additionally, Slade manages the feat of finally creating something approaching real chemistry among the cast. There are still the requisite dull scenes of Edward and Bella in a field, but under his direction, some of the formal stiffness that invaded every previous attempt at showing their intimacy has dissipated. Burke’s father character is great, if constantly annoyed-looking (perhaps he’s been watching these films?), as is Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over the role of Victoria. And, in a late scene where Bella, Jacob, and Edward are forced to share a tent, even the young male leads manage briefly relatable exchanges, best summed up by Jacob’s pithy retort to Edward: “Let’s face it—I’m hotter than you.” (Edward gets in a decent line earlier, muttering about whether the perpetually topless Lautner even owns any shirts.) Bringing glimmers of fun into the series is the film’s biggest accomplishment and helps to make the more ridiculous moments, like a fight-training montage, go down smoother. Eclipse’s biggest flaw is all on Meyer: The entire story is still just an interruption of the heroes’ lives. No one ends the film in a different emotional space than they began, no one learns lessons or grows as a person. It’s a dramatic dead zone, so Slade is owed doubly for making the most of this fleeting diversion.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn–Part 1

In splitting the last book into two films, the producers were taking a page from the financial savvy of the Harry Potter franchise, which kicked off the current trend of dividing the final novel of a series into two parts, thereby doubling profits for little additional cost. However, in nearly every instance of this habit, it’s resulted in the same result: a draggy, somber first half, followed by an all-action all-the-time final installment. Breaking Dawn is no different, as Part 1 almost challenges New Moon to the title of worst film in the series, were it not so ludicrously dumb that it bests the competition by virtue of sheer absurdity. Kicking off with a portentous scene involving the always welcome Sheen, it fools the audience into thinking it’ll be another fun-yet-weightless outing, before turning so direly turgid that one starts to suspect Meyer doesn’t really understand narrative in any comprehensible form.

Breaking Dawn—Part 1 sees Edward and Bella through the wedding and reception, where Jacob freaks out about the fact that Edward isn’t turning Bella into a vampire before the honeymoon—worrying he’ll break her apart with his lovemaking, apparently. (Jacob runs off and howls at the moon afterward, just to remind everyone he’s also got soul, no matter what Lautner’s performance suggests.) We then follow the couple to Brazil, where they spend a passion-filled night, complete with Edward reducing a headboard to splinters in the throes of their goofy slo-mo fucking. The next morning sees him freaking out about bruising her, followed by a montage featuring a lot of chess and Edward acting like a moron, for reasons passing understanding. Soon, it’s revealed Bella is miraculously pregnant, and the fetus is killing her. They travel home, where Bella engages in some suicidal pro-life arguments for keeping the baby, and the wolves announce they’ll kill Bella, because apparently they hate the idea of vampire sexy time. By now, the whole situation has turned into a standoff between the Cullens (and Jacob, who betrays his pack to protect Bella) and the wolves, right up until the ending, where Bella dies after giving birth, and Edward (who has just bitten the baby out of her womb with his teeth) injects her with vampire venom, bringing her back to life as an immortal. And that sentence is barely a tenth as nutty as it is watching these events unfold.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2

But all of this is just a build to Breaking Dawn—Part 2, which immediately improves upon the central relationships by transforming Bella into a bloodthirsty hyperactive vampire. Stewart seems to fall into the Natalie Portman school of acting, where she’s excellent in projects she knows to be quality (Adventureland, Clouds Of Sils Maria) and lackluster in films that she suspects may not be up to snuff (almost all of the Twilight Saga). Here, she finally exhibits some signs of life, getting a chance to cut loose and chew some scenery as an overeager newborn vamp, hunting deer and learning how to pass for human. Plus, the film gets a fleeting injection of new blood from an array of ace character actors, all giddy with the opportunity to camp it up as a vampire. Lee Pace, Rami Malek, Angela Sarafyan, and more fresh faces lend a good-natured summer-camp air to the story, lightening the mood and reminding the audience all this nonsense is supposed to be fun. Plus, they each get their own special power (every vampire getting their own unique power is one of the cheats Meyer uses to overcome any potential narrative dead ends), leading to such sights as a wild-eyed Malek creating a fissure in the Earth.

All these new characters show up because the Volturi have been falsely tipped off that Bella and Edward’s daughter is actually a vampire baby—a major no-no—and so Sheen’s entire posse of cloak-wearing Dracula cosplayers head to Forks, meaning the Cullens have to recruit a bunch of friends to their side as witnesses to the truth. It would be an idiot plot all over again if it weren’t obvious Sheen’s plan is merely a power play, so both sides meet in a snowy field to guardedly hash it out. In the books, this ends in yet another round of speechifying and everyone walks away, but Rosenberg, in her one great contribution to the series, realizes how damn boring that would be. So she decides to make something up, a decision that leads to the only purely entertaining sequence of the whole 10-hour ordeal.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2

Rather than having Sheen’s villain Aro simply read the mind of Edward’s sister, Alice, whose powers allow her to see the future, the film pulls a bait and switch. Alice realizes Aro plans to attack regardless of the evidence regarding the birth, so she kicks Aro a few dozen yards into the air. Thus begins a sequence of pure carnage, with heads ripped off, bodies torn in half, wolf necks snapped, and fan-favorite characters like Peter Facinelli’s vamp patriarch left for dead. Bill Condon, responsible for both halves of Breaking Dawn, stages the action with such gleeful abandon that it’s hard not to suspect he took the gig purely for a chance to murder all these people, even if it’s ultimately a pyrrhic victory. Right as Aro’s head gets ripped off and burned, we’re pulled back to the present, where it’s revealed everything we just saw was Alice’s vision—one that Aro saw, too, leading him to beat a hasty retreat. For some transitory but rewarding moments, the final film of the Twilight series indulges in the rollicking camp sensibility it should have possessed from the beginning.

It’s not hard to see why aficionados of the books also feel a proprietary sense of affection for the films: They’re a massive delivery of fan service, wholly untenable as a stand-alone series of movies, but meant to ply Meyer’s devotees with every last character, subplot, and scene they expect, no matter the disservice to either the material or the films themselves. It’s why entire character arcs are briefly referenced only to be left unexplained, and every single person who appears onscreen gets a name, no matter how incidental. Stuck somewhere between soggy melodrama and so-bad-it’s-good lunacy, the franchise never fully commits to a singular personality, too invested in remaining a receptacle for Meyer’s messy storytelling. Had it leaned into either the arch campiness of some performances (brought by Sheen, Burke, and others who saw the material for what it was) or stuck to the more casual menace evoked by Slade’s turn at the helm, it might have managed some staying power. Instead, it comes across like a cautionary tale for excessive fidelity. The best adaptations strip away every literary remnant that isn’t needed in a two-hour film, picking the bones clean to leave a properly cinematic story. The Twilight Saga, like its bloodless denizens, is a pale imitation of human behavior.

Final ranking:
1. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)
2. The Twiight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2 (2012)
3. Twilight (2008)
4. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 (2011)
5. The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)