First day of school, first love, first vampire crush.
Did you know that...
The average human body contains 5 liters of blood.
Forget the hype. Forget the novel. Forget the number of copies sold and the dedicated fan base. Forget the box office take. Forget the controversial director. Forget everything. Everything except this moment:
Bella turns around at the sound of screeching tires, but it's too late. The terror spreads across her face as she watches the car spin out of control and move directly towards her. She can do nothing but stare as the car skids across the wet pavement. In mere seconds it will crush her and it'll all be over, before it really began. She closes her eyes and waits for the inevitable. There's a loud hollow thud of meat hitting metal...
...Then Bella slowly opens her eyes. She's still alive. She looks up, surprised and yet not. Her eyes meet Edward's deep, dark, determined stare. He's got one hand on the car, the other around Bella, and his entire body looms over her tiny frame, shielding her from harm. If her heart was still beating, it would have skipped a beat. Bella searches for the answers in his eyes, but finds nothing. Instead Edward slowly backs away and disappears as quickly as he materialized. Then the roar of the terrified crowd brings her back to reality. A reality that will never ever be the same.
First of all: Twilight is not a vampire movie. Though it's billed as a vampire love story, and though the relationship between a young girl and a vampire boy is at its core, this film, more than anything else, is simply a gushing fountain teen love. Here's how you can tell if Twilight is for you:
If you read the scene above and your first thought is "Hold on, did he stop the car with his hand? How is that even possible?" then this film is not for you, you should stop right now, turn around and just walk away. However, if your first thought is: "Why did he stop the car? Why does he look at her that way? What will happen when they meet again?", then consider yourself ready to surrender to the Twilight universe...
Our story begins as Bella, a shy, awkward, 17 year old girl, moves to the small town of Forks, Washington, to live with her father, even though she really doesn't want to. Bella's father is the Chief of Police, and as she arrives at her new school she unwillingly finds herself the center of attention - the exciting new girl in town. Her attention, though, is quickly drawn to the strange, secluded, pasty white Cullen kids, more specifically to the youngest boy Edward, a strikingly handsome young man, who seems to harbor a dark secret behind his chiseled good looks, as indeed do the rest of the Cullens.
Edward seems to take an instant dislike to Bella, much to her surprise, but soon his demeanor changes, and they start to get close. Edward cryptically warns her to stay away from him, for her own good, but refuses to explain exactly why. Soon that's a moot point, because they seem irrevocably drawn to each other.
Still, there's something strange about Edward. He's got pale white skin, he never eats, and he never shows up for school when the sun is shining. Bella doesn't put the pieces together until he saves her from being crushed by a truck, with a superhuman show of speed and strength. Then the ugly, yet fascinating truth dawns on her: Edward is a vampire, and for some reason she still finds him utterly irresistible. They begin to date. Edward even introduces Bella to his vampire family and carefully introduces her to the life his people must live to avoid detection.
Bella and Edward fall deeply in love, but little do they know their love will put everyone around them in mortal danger...
Taking a novel like Twilight, with it's massive devoted fanbase, and adapting it for the screen, must be a daunting task for anyone involved in the process.
Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels - four, at this time - have sold a combined 42 million copies worldwide. A solid achievement for a relatively young writer. It just goes to show that vampires hold an undying (pun intended) fascination with readers all over the globe. Currently several vampire book series can be found on the best seller lists. Anne Rice's Lestat novels, the Anita Blake adventures from Laurell K. Hamilton, or The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris, upon which the True Blood TV-series is based, or the works of Tanya Huff, which was turned into another TV-series, Blood Ties, just to mention a few.
The first Twilight novel (we'll just stick to the first of the series in this review) is different, though. Even though the vampire aspect is in the foreground of the story, it's never in a way that would justify lumping Meyer in with Rice, Hamilton and Harris. She seems to be on a different mission. It's almost as if the vampire aspect is merely a device to enhance the central premise, which is essentially a story about a teenage girl finding her first true love.
The novel is written in first person, from Bella's perspective, so of course the story is a slave to the curious, infatuated, confused teenage mind. The fact that we see everything from Bella's point of view is one of the reasons the book works so well, because it makes the story so dead simple. We get the full unfiltered experience of her emotional roller coaster ride every time she's close to Edward, and the book perfectly captures this sensation. It's also worth noting that since we experience everything through Bella's eyes, we never get any information that she doesn't have. So we're completely in her skin during this journey. The film manages to include some of Bella's thoughts from the book as a voice-over and that works very well. It's just enough to keep us up to date on Bella's frame of mind, and give us a little extra insight into her head, without disconnecting us from the reality of the film.
The stunningly simple story - this goes for both the book and the film - and the fact that we're dealing with a teenage romance is also Twilight's major flaw. Unless you're a teenage girl or a hopeless romantic, or both, it's very hard, if not impossible, to get into this story.
Just to underline the fact that this is a teenage love story more than it ever was a vampire movie, I noticed that I was never for a second worried that Bella's father, Charlie, was going to find out Edward was a vampire. It never crossed my mind. The only thing I worried about was whether he was going to find out Edward was sneaking into his daughter's bedroom!
Twilight is a bona fide breakout hit, but it was never a sure thing the way Harry Potter was. The books sold very well, but as we've established, they're targeting a very specific demographic, so would that instantly translate to a massive theatrical hit?
Summit Entertainment, the company behind the film franchise, needn't have worried, but when they began their journey into the Twilight universe, they did it very carefully. Instead of turning the novel into a full blown event film, to the tune of $100 million, the producers stayed true to the simple nature of the original story. Twilight the Movie emerged as a relative low-budget fare, with plenty of no-name actors in the cast, and an independent director at the helm.
That turned out to be a good decision.
Director Catherine Hardwicke might seem like a strange choice to helm the inaugural installment of a high profile film franchise, but if you think about the film as a low-budget teen love story, suddenly the choice makes a lot more sense. It's also worth noting that she's a woman, and I think this is one of those instances where a female director is an especially good idea.
Hardwicke keeps the story in check. She's not afraid to gaze deeply into the eyes of her characters, and she refuses to be drawn into a special effect extravaganza, or be bogged down by complicated vampire lore. This is first and foremost a teen love story, and the vampire stuff is more or less incidental. Hardwicke knows this, and she keeps her camera firmly aimed at the star-crossed couple throughout the film. Their intimate scenes are often shot without bravura, like you would shoot any independent movie, and because of this they feel real and honest. Even when the actors are asked to deliver borderline cheesy dialogue we hang on their every word, because they seem so sincere.
Hardwicke is not a particularly technically skilled director and she does come up short a few times. In all fairness I should point out that she does manage to turn the iconic vampire baseball scene into a visually impressive and energetic sequence, but most of the action scenes have a less than perfect rhythm, and often when Hardwicke tries to get a little over-elaborate with her camera she stumbles. But actually I find this to be part of the film's charm, and another reason why I never doubt its commitment to Bella and Edward, because everything else just seems to have the volume turned down.
I came late to the Twilight phenomenon, and I saw the film before I read the book, so I never had any preconceived notion of how the characters should look. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson were always my Bella and Edward and they are a perfect fit.
Pattinson effortlessly captures the tormented dashing hero Edward. Of course Stephenie Meyer has dealt him a winning hand in the source material: Edward's protective to the point of the absurd, faithful (a fact more prominent in the novel), good looking, gentle, respectful, good looking and good looking. Plus, with Edward no girl has to be torn between the nice, gentle guy you'd bring home to meet the folks, and the troublemaker you'd sneak out to meet after curfew. He's both, in one package. I'm not familiar with Pattinson's other work, but if Twilight and the Salvador Dalí film Little Ashes are anything to go by, he could bring us some very interesting experiences in the future.
As for Kristen Stewart, I'm much more familiar with her career. Actually I've kept an eye on her (in a non-creepy, non-stalkerish kind of way) since she was 12 and starred alongside Jodie Foster in Panic Room. Back then she already showed incredible potential, and growing up hasn't changed that fact. I was pleased when I discovered she was ready to embrace a mainstream film franchise. I would not have predicted that, based on her previous choices.
In contrast to Pattinson, who doesn't have to concern himself too much with the real world, Stewart is the one who must ground this far-fetched love story in reality. It's up to her to sell us the idea that this young girl could fall in love with a monster, who could kill her in a moment of distraction. And she does. Stewart has a wonderful ability to speak every line, almost no matter how trivial it is, with an incredible sense of sincerity. Her intensity, her utter conviction in every moment lifts their scenes up to a magical level. Pattinson and Stewart have a strange, but undeniable chemistry that transcends all the vampire "nonsense".
Twilight has also managed to include itself in the canon of memorable teen scenes with some classic moments: From Bella and Edward's first encounter, to that exhilarating walk across the schoolyard after they've officially become "a thing", but their finest hour and the film's best scene is the breathtaking first kiss. More than any other moment in the film, any piece of dialogue, or any stolen glance across the room this captures the underlying, unfulfilled sexual tension of their relationship. Just moving the scene from the forest setting of the book to a teenage girl's bedroom - a forbidden dungeon if ever there was one - would have done the trick, but the film also makes sure Bella isn't even fully dressed, and thus totally exposed (within the PG13 parameters of the film) to Edward. The kiss starts slow and cautious, with Pattinson's casual delivery of the line "I just wanna try one thing", but then exploding in passion, with Stewart's total surrender to the moment Bella has been waiting for, for quite some time.
Every girl I've spoken to about the film has mentioned this scene with a dreamy look in her eyes. Take a moment to pity all boys and men who have to follow this in the real world.
Let me briefly cover a few problems in the film.
Any film adaptation of a book will inevitably be forced to reduce, combine or eliminate story elements to accommodate an acceptable running time. The middle section of Twilight has been cleverly condensed and long sequences where Edward and Bella get to know each other have been transformed into a few keys scenes. They cover the material from the book very well, but because they eliminate that slow, cautious courtship, and because of the simple fact that everything just happen that much faster they end up feeling a bit rushed. I felt this the first time I saw the film, before I ever read the book and knew what was missing. Perhaps it's just because I enjoyed this part of the story the most, and wished it would last forever.
The film also inherits the biggest narrative problem of the novel. About two-thirds into the story another group of vampires arrive on the scene. From that point on we lose some of the focus on Bella and Edward, and consequently the film doesn't work nearly as well as it did earlier. At this point several forced or gimmicky plot points also interfere with the flow of the film, which is a bit of a shame. I won't go into the details about this to avoid spoilers, but to fans of the book let me just say this: Videotape.
Finally, the low-budget origin of the film betray the filmmakers on a few occasions. While I applaud Hardwicke's decision to stay away from CGI as much a possible, some of the "vampire moments" - like Edward running through the forest, or the baseball game's aerial acrobatics - are a little too rough and end up being unintentionally funny.
However, these problems only add to my fascination with the film and the Twilight universe as a whole. If that isn't a testament to how well the film works, when it works, I don't know what is.
I've rationed my viewings of Twilight, so I don't accidentally watch it every day of the week. All this in the face of constant teasing from my co-workers and friends, but I don't care. I love watching this film, plain and simple.
As much as I like it, I'll admit that Twilight is not for everyone. There are some people who will never ever get into this film and nothing will change that fact. They are not part of the target audience, they don't understand the attraction, and they're never going to. I think it's because they're missing that little piece of the soul that let's you fall in love for the first time. It's not even a question of age or gender, some people just don't have it. Or they had it and let it shrivel up and die.
For the rest of us, who can appreciate a simple, pure, sweet love story, Twilight is an almost perfect film experience. Sometimes you can sit through an entire movie just waiting for one magical moment. With Twilight, you get more than a handful. It's a film so utterly dedicated to the young couple at the center of the story that it's almost heartbreaking. How can you not give in?
Just close your eyes and hold on tight, Spider-monkey.
NOTE: A special thanks to Anne Petersen for her assistance. Check out her website for Blood Ties, the vampire TV-series, by clicking the image below.