The movie version of [movie id="369195"]“Twilight”[/movie] is a considerable improvement over the windy bestseller on which it’s based. The first half of Stephenie Meyer’s vampire romance is a heaving sea of puppy-love gush. After a couple hundred pages of plucky Bella Swan and her super-cute bloodsucker boyfriend, Edward Cullen, endlessly expressing their mutual adoration (“His beauty lit up the kitchen,” “Just give me a minute to restart my heart”), I was sure I felt a coma coming on. Fortunately, Meyer does get down to narrative action in the second half, and it’s not bad, as these things go. But it’s a long book, and a long slog.
To convert this woozy tale into a movie, screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (who also works on the excellent “Dexter” TV series) wisely approached the novel with a machete, whacking out several acres of god-awful lovebird jabber and moving the cool stuff — mainly a trio of vicious Canadian vampire interlopers — to the fore. This allowed the director, Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen”), and her editor, Nancy Richardson, to step in and give the story a desperately needed kick in its saggy pants. Unfortunately, all the snappy pacing and swooping camera movement in the world can’t finesse the novel’s sillier conceits; and bringing some of them into the light only makes them seem a lot sillier.
The movie, like the book, has the approximate structure of a 1950s rock-a-teen B-movie, the kind in which a good girl falls for the leader of a bad motorcycle gang to the horror of her family and friends, who just don’t understand how sweet he really is. Here, the good girl is Bella ([movieperson id="262629"]Kristen Stewart[/movieperson]), who’s moved to the rainy little town of Forks, Washington, to live with her divorced dad, Charlie ([movieperson id="202925"]Billy Burke[/movieperson]), the local police chief. In the cafeteria at her new high school one day, she sees a table full of weird siblings who all look like they’ve had their faces pushed into a flour bin. These are the Cullens, and one of them, the strange-but-yummy Edward ([movieperson id="365131"]Robert Pattinson[/movieperson]), is staring at Bella from beneath his big, gel-stiffened pompadour with a look of wild alarm. What is his problem?
Bella and Edward butt heads for about a minute before he saves her life a few times with some very mysterious abilities; then she starts looking at him in a new way. Adding up his endearing oddities — extreme goth-guy pallor, serious hypothermia — she realizes that he’s a vampire. But she doesn’t care. “I’m not afraid of you,” she tells him. “I’m only afraid of losing you.” Before long, they’re off to the woods, where they coo in the trees and nuzzle in the grass amid fat, dewy mushrooms and dreamy acoustic-guitar noodlings on the soundtrack. Edward takes Bella home, out in the middle of nowhere, to meet the family. His dad ([movieperson id="182254"]Peter Facinelli[/movieperson]) has a sort of dead-Liberace vibe, but he’s real nice, and with the exception of one sister, Rosalie ([movieperson id="315691"]Nikki Reed[/movieperson]), who has an obvious anger-management problem, the whole clan is very … well, warm isn’t the word, but they like Bella a lot. Her dad isn’t quite so enthusiastic, but hey — kids: what’re you gonna do? He gives his okay for Edward to take Bella to the prom. They have a swell time. But then the Canadian vampires swoop back in and try to wreck everything. They’re still trying at the movie’s fadeout, which is the producers’ gentle way of saying “sequel.”
The phenomenal popularity of “Twilight,” the novel, is no mystery. It doesn’t simply update the vampire genre for the modern teen market — Lord knows, that’s been done. What it does is strip vampires of their murky erotic threat and present them as chaste, untroubling love objects for young teen girls. (Bella and Edward are supposed to be 17, but they don’t act that way: Bella’s never even had a date.) There’s not a whisper of sex in the book, and none in the movie — which is problematic. Pattinson, such an appealing presence in the Harry Potter films, has been directed here to smolder in such an outlandishly sultry manner that you wonder why he never displays any carnal interest in Bella. Is he gay? (That might have been interesting, actually.) And it doesn’t help that he and his vampire brothers have been so heavily caked with face powder and overloaded with hair product that they look like a troupe of unusually fey mimes. (At the screening I attended, the young girls in the audience erupted in squeals of delight when Pattinson’s name came up in the opening credits, but downshifted into what sounded like uneasy giggles when he put in his first actual appearance.)
It’s the pretty Stewart who holds the movie together, bracing the largely passive character of Bella with glimmers of spirit and determination. She’s solidly matched by Reed (who cowrote and starred in “Thirteen”) and by Ashley Greene, who plays Edward’s other sister, the clairvoyant Alice, as a cheery punkette. And I kind of wish the movie had more of Jackson Rathbone, who plays Edward’s brother, Jasper, with a weird, demented intensity.
Certain elements of “Twilight” were doomed to fail on film. Vampire baseball, for instance, was already a tough sell in the novel; here, with all its leaping and zooming around, it looks like a special-ed Quidditch match. And one of Meyer’s more curious inventions — vampires who don’t shrivel in the sun, but sparkle instead — is a bizarre thing to actually see. When Edward soaks up some rays and goes all glittery, he looks like he just stumbled home from an all-night rave.
These attempted additions to the vampire canon seem all the more lusterless in light of the many genre staples that have been cast aside: no coffins, no bat transformations or crucifix panics, no silver-phobia. There’s a very brief dream scene in which we see Edward bent over Bella’s neck and then rising up with the traditional rivulet of blood running down his chin. It’s a fleeting reminder of how much dumb fun is missing from this oddly neutered neo-horror movie, and how little is being offered in its place. In “Twilight,” the only characters drained dry are the vampires themselves.
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