Monday, November 24, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

What’s with all those fatally attractive vampires vamping around on our screens? There’s one for every age group, starting with Bill, the chivalrous yet smoldering Civil War vet who squires a woman too sensitive for ordinary men on HBO’s True Blood, and Eli, the world-weary 12-year-old who rescues another tormented tween in Let the Right One In, a pitch-black Swedish comedy currently playing in New York. And Edward Cullen, the glamorous 17-year-old who literally sweeps an alienated teen off her feet in the film adapted from the first book in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (a sequel has already been greenlit.) I guess they make good bad boys and girls for fantasies about forbidden love.

Director Catherine Hardwicke should have been an inspired choice to adapt this one, since her first two films – Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown – were buzzing with anarchic teen energy and angst. Unfortunately, Twilight follows in the plodding footsteps of her only previous misfire, the monotone Nativity Story, which plays like an earnest History Channel reenactment.

Twilight’s Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is a self-described “suffer-in-silence type” who has just moved into her dad’s house in tiny Forks, Washington. Moving from sunny Phoenix to the perpetually overcast Northwest and from her mother’s nurturing warmth to the chill of her dad’s reserve, she’s braced to suffer through a few months while Mom and her new stepfather find a new town to settle in. Then she meets Edward Cullen (tall, dark ‘n brooding Robert Pattinson), a picturesquely pallid hunk, and falls like a rock.

Edward lives with a vampire “family” (Nikki Reed, who wrote and costarred in Thirteen, plays his “sister” Rosalie) cobbled together by the town doctor, a closeted vampire who acts as the family’s father. The area’s Quileute Indians know the Cullens’ secret, but they’re bound by an ancient tribal oath not to tell “the palefaces.” So it’s up to Bella to figure it out on her own – which takes up about half the movie’s running time.

Since everyone in the theater already knows Edward’s secret, waiting for her to catch on gets a little tedious. And even when she finally wises up and we get to the romance, with Edward scaling trees and flying up hillsides as she clings to his back, like Superman taking Lois Lane for a spin, it’s not as exhilarating as it should be, since Stewart and Pattinson don’t generate a calorie of heat.

The barely repressed heat of the vampire-meets-girl love story that is reportedy much of the book's appeal got lost somewhere on the way to the screen. When Edward urges Bella to leave him for her own good she mewls like a grounded teenager, not a spurned lover. And when he leans slowly in to kiss her, Pattinson seemed less like an ardent suitor fighting to control strong impulses than a kid afraid he might do something wrong. Then again, I don’t think even Cary Grant could have pulled off lines like “You’re like a drug to me – like my own personal brand of heroin.”

Edward’s family resists the urge to feed on humans, restricting themselves to other animals, but a trio of old-school vampires in the neighborhood has no such compunctions. Munching down on the locals, they make life difficult for the would-be-respectable Cullens – and one of them zones in on Bella when she starts hanging out with Edward.

But not even a warp-speed vampire chase scene or the lingering “will he or won’t he?” that gives a certain je ne sais quoi to Bella and Edward’s romance keeps this movie from feeling stagey and inert. It’s partly the actors’ lack of chemistry. It’s partly the book’s wooden prose, which has been preserved in Bella’s voiceover (“Death is peaceful. Life is harder,” she informs us) and in unwieldy chunks of expository dialogue. It’s also the airless, overdetermined feel of the thing.

Maybe trying to boil more than 600 pages into two hours made some exposition unavoidable, but Melissa Rosenberg’s screenplay includes almost no small talk without subtext, no little bits of business that tell you something about a character or their world without propelling the plot forward.

A few shards of Hardwicke’s empathy for teenagers shine through the haze. As in her other movies, adults are generally benign but irrelevant, either too clueless or too busy to notice what their kids are up to. The director has fun with the fact that even Bella’s dad is no help at all, though he’s the chief of police and therefore in charge of investigating all the vampire killings (he thinks they’re animal attacks.) In fact, Bella winds up protecting him, in a novel twist on a dynamic that’s all too familiar to children of divorce.

There are also some mildly funny bits, though I wasn’t always sure if they were intentional. Did Hardwicke want us to laugh when Bella enters the biology classroom she shares with Edward for the first time and locks eyes with him? If not, she shouldn’t have had her stop in front of a fan that made her hair blow like a model’s in a fashion shoot.

But really, who cares what I think about this one? All that matters is whether it works for the teenage girls it’s aimed at.

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