Bella is the new girl in town, and Twilight waits a full hour before revealing to her what the rest of us knew from the moment he strode pale-faced into the school cafeteria: the quiet, glowering boy in her grade is a vampire. It's the skin, it's the brooding look, it's the magnificently gelled hair, it's the slo-mo entrance. Dead giveaways. He doesn't talk to anybody, ever, but, alas, he locks into Bella's gaze, and she smolders for the rest of the film, usually in tight shots that alternate with close-ups of his burning unrest.
Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown) sees the humor in the portrayal, and her whiffs of wit carry a long, slow setup. When the vampire, Edward, is seated in biology class — still brooding, ever brooding — Hardwicke positions a stuffed bird on the shelf behind him, spreading its wings so they seem to be attached to the scruff of his neck. In Magnolia, P.T. Anderson used a caduceus painted on a back wall to make the sad boy genius in the foreground even more angelic, even more Falconetti-esque, and in Twilight Hardwicke evokes genuine, giddy laughter with the shots of first one wing, then two, the pair growing in prominence as Edward senses Bella's approach through the bio-science doorway.
But Edward is not, in fact, happy to see her. He holds his head low like the reluctant angel in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. This blue-lipped, aggressively plucked boy is not a reluctant angel, of course, but a reluctant vampire smitten by the girl who should be his prey.
Therein lies his conflict, and therein lies hers, and from the two a familiar story emerges: love at first sight needs no justification; opposites attract; beautiful people attract; dangerous boys attract bold girls who, in time, will benefit from the protection provided by their speed, strength, mystique, and wisdom (or, here, telepathy). Protection from what? It matters not; girls need protecting. From reckless drivers. Rival vampires. What have you.
But — here's the rub — if the boy loses control of himself in the heat of passion he could destroy her. She has an intoxicating scent. She's filled with blood-red deliciousness. Perhaps he would not retract his teeth were they ever to take hold. It's the story of a thousand romances, of two thousand movie teens who struggle against chastity, and it's a story not altogether different from that of poor Peter Parker who cannot declare his love for whatshername because certain ne'er-do-wells would then use her as Spider-Man bait. In short, nothing attracts boys like somebody else's letter jacket. But in this case, the ne'er-do-well is Edward himself. Stuff that duality into your Spidey tights, Peter.
For an hour the movie takes micro-steps toward revealing the truth about Edward and his "family." Local Native Americans, said to be descended from wolves, are suspicious of the boy, as are bearded nobodies who sit sternly in the local cafe. Bella is undeterred, and once she has observed Edward's bare chest and had a heart-to-heart with him in the woods, the film moves into act two which scrambles to develop the components of an action story out of that dangerous love. A rival gang of vampires turns up, and they suck not only blood but wit straight out of the story. The action then jerks forth and sends the final half hour swiftly spinning until it peaks in Bella's old ballet studio — psychoanalysts, take note — where venom is injected and sucked, floorboards are torn up, mirrors are shattered, pyres are stoked, and physical forces fight over the fate of our dear Bella, who — spoiler alert — ends the movie a few minutes later at the prom with 1) the date of her choice and 2) a bit of a limp.
Against all expectations, however, the epiprom does not close the film with a saccharine rendition of "Earth Angel" but with a nearly poignant exchange in a gazebo between our star-crossed teens who talk about growing old, sharing a life, and the possibilities of total, reckless sacrifice for the loved-at-first-sight. Might a precious neck be bitten at the prom, of all places?
What's almost touching about the story given how little we know about any of the characters — practically nothing — is that Hardwicke and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (who may be drawing on the novel by Stephenie Meyer, which I haven't read) have peppered Bella's personality with the flattering traits of a modern woman:
- she easily identifies single-cell organisms on the slide of a microscope;
- she instantly recognizes the square root of pi in casual conversation;
- she advises a friend to stop fretting about prom and just ask the guy she wants to go with, telling her "you're a powerful, independent woman;"
- she knows the works of classical composers, or at least Debussy;
- she maintains good relationships with both of her divorced parents;
- she can't dance;
- she's not good at sports;
- she's just all-around clumsy;
- but she knows her way around Google;
- ditto independent bookstores;
- and she has almost no interest in picking out prom dresses, although she encourages a friend to go with the one that accentuates her bust.
Bella is a powerful, independent woman. Who will use her skills to impress and claim a boy. Or a blood-sucking beast. (Six of one.) None of her abilities upends the story's basic design, which is as old as the hills: a waif is in need of a male protector who will complete her, and she'll endanger herself to get him because she thrives on the allure of sacrifice. Plus he's dreamy. And in a way he needs her, too, but only to overcome his self-disgust. "You're beautiful," she says of his shameful skin. In such movies, love conquers all: it stomps on live turkeys and green fauna and supple brains and vibrant creativity, and it especially conquers the power and independence of powerful, independent young women. Its presence supersedes the usefulness of intelligence and wisdom, which are shunted off in service of boys' egos. Movie love is a zero sum game; Twilight is no more modern than His Girl Friday.
Carving a space in the film market for a fantasy made specifically for teenage girls (and, if necessary, their dates) is certainly a kind of triumph in an industry that more commonly offers scraps to those girls, in the form of light subplots and minor female characters, sidekicks plugged strategically into products that are aimed at the girls' male peers. And certainly Bella could have been a squealing airhead who makes us all retch. Instead, she may introduce a whole generation of teens to Debussy and the square root of pi. But the qualities that are intended to modern-up this waif, while not at odds with a credible swoon, are a lot more interesting than the long revered swoon itself. Unfortunately, it's the latter that commands the screen and cants every shot twenty degrees from plumb. (And every cheek bone seventy, every eyebrow eighty-five.)
Someday a filmmaker will figure out how to shoot intelligence as seductively as a good smoldering look between pretty teens. Until then, we remain at the cusp of darkness.