By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008
It's easy to understand the intensely estrogenic, tween- and teen-centric fascination with "Twilight," Stephenie Meyer's first in a series of four best-selling novels about the romance between a high school girl and a vampire. At least it's easy judging by the movie based on the book, which opens, appropriately enough, just after midnight tonight.
The love between 17-year-old Bella Swan (played by Kristen Stewart) and her strangely pale lab partner, the immortal bloodsucker Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), is as chaste as the relationship between any adolescent girl and, say, her Joe Jonas poster. Gorgeous -- and, quite literally, shiny -- to look at, Edward is a consummate gentleman on the outside, a seething caldron of animal desire on the inside. "I've never wanted a human's blood so much in my life," he tells Bella, in the first of many nostril-flaringly sexy double-entendres. And yet he remains tantalizingly just out of reach.
Or so it seems.
That's because Edward, as part of a coven of self-proclaimed "vegetarian" vampires, refuses to drink human blood, surviving only on the far-less-satisfying woodland creatures that roam, at their peril, the fog-shrouded forests surrounding the picturesque Pacific Northwest town where he and Bella live. Edward knows that if things were to get too hot and heavy with Bella, it might end badly for her. "I can't ever lose control with you," he tells her in the film's one, exquisitely unrequited bedroom scene, which barely progresses beyond a kiss. What more could an underage girl want than to be adored, without any of the messy complications of an actual physical relationship?
Oh, and that town where Bella and Edward live? It's called Forks. The name of the sports teams at Bella and Edward's school? The Spartans.
That's just in case you missed the subtext of hunger and fasting as a metaphor for sex and abstinence. Yes, lust is the elephant in the room here, and it's what gives "Twilight" its decidedly grown-up bite, broadening its appeal beyond the demographic of Hot Topic shoppers.
That, and director Catherine Hardwicke's wry, self-referential sense of humor. It's most evident in a meet-the-parents scene in which Bella is invited by Edward to the Cullen house for dinner. "You've given us a chance to use the kitchen for the first time," cracks a smiling Carlisle Cullen (Peter Facinelli), the family patriarch and chief proponent of its abstinence-only philosophy. In a wonderfully ironic touch, he holds down a day job as an emergency room surgeon.
Other members of the clan are less welcoming, lending a delicious tension to the gathering. Only a family outing, in which Bella watches the Cullens play a kind of superhuman baseball, dashing through the woods like Sonic the Hedgehog and other preternaturally endowed cartoon characters, seems a goofy miscalculation in tone.
Of course, like any self-respecting vampire movie, "Twilight" is also pretty scary. A roving band of out-of-town vampires who don't observe the Cullens' dietary restrictions soon shows up. One of them, James (Cam Gigandet), becomes as obsessed with Bella as Edward is -- albeit for less starry-eyed reasons -- leading to the film's climactic and photogenic showdown in a darkened, mirror-lined ballet studio.
Now for the quibbles. On the level of special effects, "Twilight" is something of a disappointment. On-screen, for instance, the Cullen family's impossibly white skin looks less like natural -- even, er, unnatural -- pallor than like face paint. The vampires resemble a family of Edward Scissorhandses, without the scissors: all wild hair, slightly Goth-y clothing and clown-white pancake makeup. It's especially jarring in contrast to James and his vampire consort Victoria (Rachelle Lefevre), who look to be in the pink. Is that what drinking blood from deer and chipmunks does to you? My God, Edward, eat a hamburger.
I never quite bought Edward's extraordinary running, jumping and tree-climbing ability, either. Hardwick relies too much on motion blur, a cheat that looks oddly dated, given the F/X capabilities evident in, say, the "Spider-Man" movies. And the scene in which Edward reveals what his skin looks like -- like diamonds, according to Meyer -- is frustratingly vague. "This is what I really look like," he says, stepping out of the constant fog into a rare shaft of sunlight. What? Out of focus?
But these are minor complaints. On the whole, "Twilight" works as both love story and vampire story, thanks mainly to the performances of its principals. Pattinson and Stewart want to convince you that their characters are an undead freak and the girl who, against all logic, loves him. Yet they do it not by selling you on what makes Edward and Bella so different, but by finding their flesh-and-blood humanity.
It's enough to make even a grown man eager for the inevitable sequel.
Twilight (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence and a scene of sensuality.