Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: 2008’s Twilight has a Metacritic score of 56. That’s pretty lousy, but looking over the list of semi-positive reviews (whoa, Entertainment Weekly gave it a B?), it doesn’t sound like the sort of train wreck that normally demands attention. It seems more like a middling, fairly dull adaptation of a bizarrely popular romance novel, aimed at a demographic I don’t belong in, and earning fistfuls of money by giving the already existing fan base the nearest thing they can ever have to experiencing the story again for the first time. Genevieve Koski, A.V. Club debutante, editor, and widely recognized staff expert in all things squealy, gave the movie a C-, stating that it “never manages to strike the balance between the low-key romance it could be and the action-packed epic it wants to be.” By all accounts, watching Twilight is the cinematic equivalent of seeing a turnip shaped like the Virgin Mary: a miracle for the devoted, a punchline for everyone else.
Curiosity factor: But that’s part of the appeal, isn’t it? Reading about screaming fans stalking Robert Pattinson, the chalk-faced moper who plays Twilight’s male lead, or seeing pictures of the conventions, and learning of the lengths people will go to prove their commitment to characters with only half a finger’s hold on reality, offers the impression that you could summon mobs of rabid teenagers simply by leaning out a window on a cloudy day and shouting, “Edward Cullen!” three times fast. I’ve loved a lot of different movies and books over the years, but I’ve never been committed enough to any of them to want to make costumes or write elaborate wish-fulfilling fanfic. (Look, that piece I did about the X-Men wanting to hire a new mutant named Jack Awesome who could skateboard real good was textured, okay?) And while obsessions are never as interesting to people on the outside as they are to the ones locked in sweaty rooms watching the New Moon trailer frame by frame, I’m still curious about what drives this one. It’s the same reason I read a Left Behind book a while back—not because I thought it would be good, but because it can be fun to try and imagine why someone else thinks it’s so good.
Plus, vampires! Admittedly, they aren’t as cool as they used to be, but unlike, say, a Miley Cyrus movie, Twilight at least pretends to have horror elements. That makes any medicine go down easier.
The viewing experience: I’ve actually seen Twilight twice now. I wasn’t a 13-year-old girl either time, so I doubt I’m getting the full experience. I can confirm for the curious that, yeah, this is a pretty dull movie. At just over two hours long, it’s at least 20 minutes longer than it had any right being; the plot, what little there is, comprises maybe an hour. The rest makes me think of the way stage comedies have to leave space between jokes for the audience to laugh, but here, instead of rapid-fire quippage, we have stumbling, banal dialogue punctuated by long looks at nothing that I assume are meant to give watchers a chance to swoon, safe in the knowledge that they won’t miss any important eye contact.
But it isn’t completely dull, or else I probably wouldn’t have survived a second viewing. There are some unintentionally hilarious moments, like when Edward learns he’ll be sharing a table in science class with Bella (Kristen Stewart):
We later learn that he was overcome with an incredible, nearly uncontrollable desire to rip out her throat and drink her sweet, sulky blood on the spot, but what it really looks like is a guy who probably needs some alone time in the bathroom, and a fresh pair of pants.
A lot of the love babble between Stewart and Pattinson (using the actors’ last names makes it sound like a forbidden tryst between thriller novelists) is easy to snicker at, and anytime you get a group of vampires together in one scene, the sub-par makeup and special effects betray the movie’s basic indifference to its central conceit. Yes, these are nominally monsters who drink blood and have weird skin conditions, but apart from Pattinson’s surprisingly tormented performance, there’s nothing really threatening about any of them. Not even when they kill people.
For example, here’s Pattinson revealing the horror of his true self in sunlight:
Again, it’s easy to laugh at, because the actual effect of sparkling skin doesn’t look eerie or pretty. It’s just something you might expect to see in a SyFy original about a group of murderous human prisms. But there’s something going on under the surface, past the obvious absurdity of the image. Pattinson acts as though he’s ashamed of his shine, but judging by Stewart’s reaction, he’s beautiful, not hideous. Pattinson’s shame about his monstrous nature is forgiven over and over again, by both Stewart and the narrative. He has cool powers, he’s devoted, he’s protective, and, hey, that whole blood-drinking thing? Pfft, that’s just, y’know, part of what being a dude is all about. For the normals, it’s wanting sex. The fact that Pattinson admits more than once that his passionate, undying love makes him want to devour the object of his affection is just the same thing as getting a boner when Susie walks by in her field-hockey outfit, really. And hey, when he’s draining you dry, you don’t even have to worry about getting him to wear a condom.
There’s a lot of curious subtext flitting through the story, ideas that make the film impossible to take seriously (such that it’s creepy to realize that lots of people do take it seriously), but a lot more interesting than it would’ve been without them. I love how much the narrative goes out of its way to worship its heroine. Her dad is supposed to be nice to her, since he’s her dad, but every person she meets at school admires her too, and wants her approval or her attention. In a more traditional teenage narrative, I’d expect the lead to be the outcast, shunned by most of her peers because she’s just so amazing that it takes a very special, very particular kind of person to realize how amazing she is. Instead, you get the impression that if somebody did a thorough search of the town, they’d find a lot of notebooks with hearts and stars surrounding Stewart’s name.
The first time I saw the movie, I was impressed by Stewart’s popularity. It wasn’t an expected choice, and it changed the nature of her relationship with Pattinson by making her stronger and more his equal, because she wasn’t waiting for him to save her from being a loser. Or at least that’s how it could’ve been, if Stewart wasn’t such a lump of nothing. I’m not sure how much of this is her fault and how much is the text, but I’m willing to give Stewart some benefit of the doubt, because I suspect this is part of the wish-fulfillment angle that makes the Twilight books so popular. Bella never comes off as all that bright, caring, or independent. Her biggest deduction is a Google search, and she wanders through showers of praise and adoration acting generally bored and uncomfortable, accepting all the love as her due without ever comprehending the value of it. She doesn’t have to do anything, beyond being barely capable and not immediately put off by learning that the guy she’s dating likes to break into her bedroom at night without asking permission. So anyone watching the movie who really wants to put themselves in Stewart’s shoes can accomplish the mental transition with a minimum of effort. For all her talk about being the “strong” woman, Stewart is essentially passive. Good things happen to her because she’s there.
As for Pattinson, well, he at least tries to give a credible performance as one exceedingly unpleasant dude. I’m guessing we’re supposed to consider him a tortured, passionate lover, and not a reformed pedophile who likes to hang around playgrounds telling the 12-year-olds how they can’t ever see him again. Everyone wants to believe that love is a force so powerful that it transcends everything else, that there are connections between people so deep and unbreakable that they justify any risk, any betrayal, even the laws of nature. So here, it’s okay that a guy who knows that the more he cares about people, the more he wants to eat them, can’t stop hanging around this girl he cares about, even though he keeps telling her they can’t be friends. It’s like when Buffy and Angel tried to keep being friends post-Angelus, only Stewart doesn’t have anywhere near the physical ability needed to defend herself against Pattinson if things go bad.
It’s supposed to be romantic somehow—and of course, it’s supposed to be about sex. Vampires are always about sex, which is probably one of the reasons they aren’t nearly as frightening as they used to be. Pattinson’s resistance of his throbbing biological urges is, I think, intended as a sign of his devotion, but while there’s no doubt his character is devoted to Stewart, I’m not sure his ability to not murder her every time he sees her really makes him a keeper. Pattinson brings a surprisingly subversive honesty to the role; if you can get past the music cues and moody lighting, he comes across as unsettled, awkward, and deeply repressed, like someone raised in a cult trying to deal with the real world. Check out this scene where, just for a line, the mask slips, and not even Stewart is all that comfortable with what’s revealed:
Moments like that make me wish the movie had been willing to go a little deeper. Because Pattinson’s vampire family, with its not-really-incestuous couplings, really is a cult. When Pattinson brings her home for a visit, she’s warmly welcomed by almost everyone. They include her in their games, they protect her when she’s threatened, they’re compassionate and friendly and trusting. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? What makes Twilight such an unsatisfactory experience is that while it offers lip service to the dangers the Cullens represent, those dangers never seem entirely real. By the last scene, Stewart wants to be turned into a vampire, and while Pattinson demurs, the audience doesn’t. Why wouldn’t she want to be a vampire? Why wouldn’t anybody? Like any good cult, the Cullens offer Stewart the world, then smile and say “You’re not ready for this. Oh, we couldn’t possibly. Look, you just don’t understand yet. But maybe someday, you’ll be ready for it. Maybe someday, you’ll be special enough to join us.” It’s a question that only pretends you have any choice in answering.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? 30 percent. A lot of what happens below the surface of Twilight is unsettling, but it’s fascinating, too; Stephenie Meyer, author of the book series (as well as the novel The Host, which I reviewed and didn’t like much) really isn’t a very good writer, but she has managed to capture something that gets its hooks into people. The movie is unconscionably long, and I can’t imagine ever wanting to watch it again, but I am glad I got to see vampires playing baseball. It’s the sort of thing that’s so stupid that it goes out of stupidity to become kind of neat, but then goes right back to being stupid again.