Friday, March 27, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Twilight (2008)

Do you know the only time when a cliche isn't really a cliche?

The first time you encounter it.

When -- because of a viewer (or reader's....) relative youth, inexperience, or lack of knowledge base -- a story that is actually old and familiar is miraculously rendered new and fresh. It's a perception thing, I suppose you might conclude.

That's a relevant fact to consider when reviewing the film Twilight (2008), essentially a vampire-human Harlequin romance based on the best-selling books by Stephanie Meyer and designed -- nearly exclusively it appears -- for the specific age demographic of 13-16 year olds.

I'm about twenty-five years past that impressionable target audience, I should add for honesty's sake. This movie wasn't made for me.

But hey, I'm young at heart..

Anyway, given the deliberate youth-skewing approach, Twilight is no Let The Right One In, a haunting 2008 vampire tale concerning wasted youth, stolen lives and alienated adolescence. That (great) film boasts...nuance, subtlety, and a recognition of life's vicissitudes and defeats. By contrast, the James Dean-type undead characters of Twilight are really just...Abercrombie and Fitch-style, angsty poseurs.

Of course, Twilight isn't trying to be Let The Right One In either. That point requires clarity too.

My point is merely that if you haven't watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and specifically the Angel years from 1997-1999), if you haven't read the works of Anne Rice, and if you haven't seen Dark Shadows, Near Dark, Fright Night, The Lost Boys or Let The Right One In, Twilight may indeed seem new and fresh to you. I suppose, given that degree of "youth" (I was going to write "ignorance..."), it might even seem revelatory.

On the other hand, however, If you're old enough or curious enough to remember those productions (and no doubt countless others...), Twilight feels sort of old hat...and unnecessarily lugubrious. The romance isn't that affecting; the scares aren't that scary, and the characters are pretty callow and dreary. The pace is slow, the special effects are bad, and the narrative is but a long wind-up for the inevitable sequel. Even the look of the film is derivative: it cribs the visual palette from The Ring (2002), all foreboding fog and steely Washington State silvers.

Here's the thing, Star Wars came out in 1977, but was a pastiche of 1930s space adventures re-purposing an "old" story (Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, etc....) in a modern fashion (with breakthrough special effects and a 1970s vibe). Raiders of the Lost Ark accomplished the same miracle in 1981, taking 1930s "cliffhanger" tropes and re-purposing them for a more realistic time. I could even discuss the romantic Titanic (1997), which re-told a story - essentially - that had last been dramatized in 1958's A Night to Remember, but did so with the state-of-the art effects.

And Buffy? Well, Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer was nothing less than a watershed re-crafting of an entire genre, presenting the ultimate evolution of the "final girl" horror film archetype and defining high school as a Hell of monsters and ghouls.

In all these instances, that which had been old, familiar and cliched was rendered new (or at least new-seeming...) under the auspices of updated special effects, a fresh perspective or world view, and nostalgia, among other factors. I mean, I was no spring chicken when I watched Buffy (I was in my late twenties and early thirties when it aired...) but it wowed me with its audacity and the life it injected into old vampire chestnuts.

But if you'll pardon the pun, what new territory does Twilight...stake out? In what fresh way does Twilight tell its watered-down Romeo and Juliet tale? How does it add meaningfully to a century of vampire stories?

Human-vampire romances were the bread-and-butter of Moonlight from just a year ago, so that's not the new ground. I don't even have to reach back to Near Dark in 1987 to see that.

So does Twilight tell us something new about the very nature of vampires themselves? Not really. In fact, the narrative and universe here is highly reminiscent of Skinwalkers from 2007 (my review here.) In both cases, monsters (whether vampire or werewolf) must defend a human from a gang of evil monsters (whether vampire or werewolf); and in both cases the good monsters (whether vampire or werewolf) must control their "frenzy" and "urges" when in the presence of humans (their primary food group). Both films involve a family unit of "monsters" that must reckon with human beings and stick to their core "good" values in the face of adversity.

I guess I should get to specifics. Twilight is the story of young, extraordinarily-pale Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart of The Messengers). She has left behind Phoenix to live in tiny Forks, Washington, with her father Charlie, the local police chief. On the first day "at a new school," she encounters Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), a smoldering teen idol who looks like the unholy love child of The Cure's Robert Smith.

Long story short (though it takes the movie fifty long and gooey minutes to get to this point...): he's a vampire and he's hot for Bella...perhaps because they use the same brand of make-up. Slowly, Edward introduces Bella to his family, a de-fanged bunch of "assimilated" vampires who don't kill humans and who think of themselves as "vegetarians." The daddy vampire is the local doctor, actually. And because vampires who play together, stay together, the Cullen clan often enjoys a family game of baseball - the American pastime -- on the weekends.

Unfortunately, a trio of non-vegetarian vampires blow into town and want to make a meal of Bella. The Cullens muster their considerable resources to stop the bad vampires, all just in time for the senior prom...which Edward and Bella attend together...

Twilight is so solemn about inconsequential things that it's silly, but again, that may be a viewpoint that comes only with age and a wide viewing experience. For me, the central romance isn't particularly affecting because it doesn't seem all that star-crossed or tragic. Instead of pointing out the ways in which Bella and Edward would eventually be separated by their natural differences (a direction which might give the story some sense of gravitas), the movie goes out of its way to make their romance seem like something well within the bounds of our normal experiences. I mean, Edward can go out in the sun (his skin looks like glittery diamonds...) without burning up; he can also control his appetites (drinking blood is apparently like quitting smoking in this universe...), and he attends high school. The vampires are so assimilated in our culture, in fact, that they come off as nothing but another ethnic group. So what's the fuss about? Is Edward "dead?" Well, if he is, he's having a good time. He's got a great house, and a terrific CD collection, after all...

The fuss should have been about the fact that if Bella chooses to share Edward's world, she would cut off future options. The ability to have children, perhaps (though the movie glosses over this eventuality.) But by making Edward's world so appealing, Twilight had me thinking we should all be vampires! It's kind of selfish for the Cullens not to turn everyone, isn't it? Wouldn't you like to be immortal...and hot? With a great CD stash? I bet Edward has a kickin' MySpace page.

Again, Twilight wasn't made for me and I know that. Is it a terrible film? No, not really. In fairness, it's about a C+ perhaps. In terms of 2008 movies I've reviewed on the blog lately, it's much better than Righteous Kill or the remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth, for instance. But here's the thing about Twilight that bothers me. Today's youth - today's sixteen year olds -- have some real built-in pop culture advantages that I didn't at that age. They have Netflix, the Internet, cable television, DVD collections and the like. Therefore they have the tools at their disposal that would help them see rather plainly that Twilight is derivative, dull and formulaic, not trendy, new and heartfelt.

It's one thing not to see a cliche because you're young and impressionable and haven't been around the block. It's another thing all together not to recognize a cliche because you're not looking hard enough; because you're incurious about that which has come before. Based on the film, I have to chalk up Twilight's popularity to just that: a lack of curiosity.


  1. I think that TWILIGHT seems to really have captured so much of the popular imagination/culture not because of the stereotypical story we've seen a zillion times but I think that its fans are drawn to the actors breathing life into these roles. It doesn't hurt that the filmmaker cast very charismatic/photogenic people in the various roles and I have to say they do a pretty good job with what they've go to work with, which, as you point out, ain't much, but they do it with enough conviction that someone certainly found it compelling, judging by the stellar box office returns and now the staggering DVD sales. The filmmakers must've done something right to garner such an enthusiastic and popular response.

  2. I tried to like this, I really did. I thought, based on its popularity, it must have some redeeming qualities. Going into it, Sarah and I new we would be comparing it to Buffy and Angel throughout, but we hoped to find something we can hold on to and say, ok, I liked that, I can appreciate what today's youth see in this film.

    We tried. Oh how we tried. But we failed. This was nothing more than a derivative mish mash of Buffy, Angel, The Vampire Chronicles, Party Of Five, Heroes, The Fast & The Furious, and America's Next Top (Pale) Model.

    Is it just me or was the whole film a series of poses and looks between the characters, desperately trying to reveal concealed emotions? I'm sure I saw Blue Steel and Le Tigre in there somewhere. And is there any doubt that Kristen Stewart went to the Jennifer Love Hewitt School Of Acting? Or was this another Party of Five spinoff with Kristen Stewart now playing the part of Sarah? Did I totally just miss that plot point?

    Seriously, watch a few minutes of Kristen Stewart on Twilight and then quickly put in a scene from Party of Five with Jennifer Love Hewitt. They're the same person!

    Oh well, at least the scenery was nice.

  3. Anonymous10:53 AM

    Using the name 'Abercrombie and Fitch' in a review partly based on differing expectations by differing age groups, and their relative experience, is hilarious, given A&F's origins. They weren't always a clothing company trying desperately to convince the young that wearing clothes with their logo is hip.