Friday, September 10, 2021

Stabbed in the Heart: The Twilight Saga (2008-2012)

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in Twilight (2008).

I confess: I too used to shit freely on Twilight (2008). What started changing my mind is the excellent work of its two leads, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, in their work after Twilight, though never again together after their breakup. This, and not my internalized misogyny against media embraced by teenage girls, is the angle from which I have approached these films, based on the four novels by Stephenie Meyer. And they're fascinating.

17-year-old Bella Swan (Stewart) moves in with her single dad in Forks, WA, where she meets vampire Edward Cullen (Pattinson), turned in 1918 when he was 17. She also reunites with childhood friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), a member of a Native American tribe whose members phase into werewolves in proportion to the number of nearby vampires – they are enemies. But Bella falls in love with both. Twilight sets up everything but the werewolf bit; New Moon (2009) finishes the job; Eclipse (2010) ties up a loose thread; Breaking Dawn, Part 1 (2011) turns Bella herself into a vampire at 18, and mother to a human-vampire hybrid in the same stroke; and Breaking Dawn, Part 2 (2012) is frankly extraneous, though it does hold the key line to my interpretation of the saga.

You would think that a plot about the progression of a romantic relationship wouldn't be susceptible to spoilers, but this plot contains exactly one spoilable moment across five films. And I'm going to spoil it in the next paragraph.

In the climactic battle in the last film, when two good vampires (Charlie Bewley and Billy Wagenseller) attack Marcus (Christopher Heyerdahl), one of the triumvirate rulers of the vampire world known as the Volturi, Marcus doesn't put up a defense. Instead, he embraces their attack, muttering, "Finally," and duly dies. He doesn't actually die, because the battle turns out to be a prophetic vision by Alice Cullen (Ashley Greene), but the scene reminds us that immortality is a curse. The meaning of one's life doesn't derive from its length.

As to where the meaning of life does derive from, I find convincing the rigorously argued ethical paradigm of French philosopher Alain Badiou. He believes that people find meaning in at most four domains: science, art, politics, and love. These should be understood as formalisms, not as concrete instances: by science he means a new paradigm, by politics a new means of collective organization, and so on. By love, he means not the specific person, but the fact of falling in love itself. He formalizes the commonplace notion that people fall in love for no particular reason other than kismet. In fact, for him, if you can pinpoint exactly what your relationship is founded on, then it's only a simulacrum of love, not the real thing.

This perfectly describes the relationship of Bella and Edward, and of Stewart and Pattinson, too. Apparently the roots of the actors' relationship were planted at their first meeting, when Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke conducted a chemistry test by having them kiss in her home on her bed. Stewart was electrified.

Charlie Bewley and Ashley Greene in The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009).

Bella and Edward lack even that. When she first shows up mid-semester at Forks Senior High, she smells so appetizing to Edward that his attempts to keep himself in check make her think she repulses him. The Cullens are "vegetarians" who only hunt animals. Her annoyance at him, his playing coy to hide his vampirehood, and his strenuous efforts not to devour her all somehow transmogrify into mutual romantic attraction. It's inexplicable. It's love.

It's also why the films are filled with romantic stares, which the Honest Trailers YouTube series mercilessly mocks. Lovers' discourse is sweet nothings, and foolish to everyone else. Staring into each other's eyes is the most immediate means of communicating a true love founded on nothing. The second-best way, romantic one-liners, pops up throughout the saga not infrequently; rather than risk sentimentality, Stewart and Pattinson quite smartly keep these lines (and most other lines of deeply felt romanticism) to a monotone, refraining from imposing an interpretation in order to allow the audience to develop their own. To them, "You're the best thing that's happened to me in a hundred years" is just a fact.

Nor are they overly reverent to the source material that writer Melissa Rosenberg (of all five films) sticks to so religiously. When Edward says the key line, "And so the lion fell in love with the lamb," a line Meyer insisted be put in because fans have tattooed it onto their bodies, Pattinson gives an ironic smirk. The line is already self-mocking, but when coupled with Pattinson's infamous contempt for the source material, the smirk seems double-edged. For her part, Stewart is a very, very intelligent actor. She has to tone it down a bit after an early scene in Twilight where her father (Billy Burke) leaves her bedroom abruptly at the end of a conversation. She gives a facial shrug that feels completely out of place, as if to say, Well, what can you do? That's what the script says. Across five films, the only scene where I found her acting false – what Mila Kunis would characterize as catching her in the middle of acting – is  the first bedroom scene of Breaking Dawn, Part 1, where her routine sweet nothings really do feel routine. In every other scene, no matter how fantastical the lines, no matter how silly the situation, she always convinced me that she was deep in the thick of it, right there in the trenches.

Everyone else apart from these two is less than three-dimensional. Some, though, are memorable despite lacking a dimension, such as Carlisle (Peter Facinelli), head of the Cullens, and especially Aro (Michael Sheen), head of the Volturi. Sheen plays his part as if he's in a Dracula stage musical, and his overblown camp is a sheer delight. His secret? He loves the books. Ashley Greene also gives a lively if stereotypical performance as chipper clairvoyant older sister Alice, a 19-year-old flapper in 1920 when she was turned. And Billy Burke slips right into his role as the worried yet resigned father of a teenage girl going through some inordinately complicated stuff.

On the flip side, Taylor Lautner gives a one-note performance of what we would now call incel energy. The best I can say is that he acts exactly as immature as we would expect from a 16-year-old boy (when first cast) playing 17-year-old Jacob. Everyone else is just kind of ... there, sometimes not even that; I was constantly forgetting the name of Esme (Elizabeth Reaser), Carlisle's mate (as vampires call their spouse). One actor who surprisingly doesn’t leave a strong impression is Anna Kendrick, playing not-as-clever-as-she-thinks valedictorian Jessica. Of Bella's four human classmates, she has the most lines, but Academy Award winner Kendrick doesn't display the wow factor. Maybe it took working with George Clooney to learn how to play for the camera.

Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart in The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009).

Some of the characterization is hampered by Meyer's original writing, which notoriously makes key characters seem sexist and manipulative. The plot, too, has more holes than plot. Why do the Cullens (except Carlisle and Esme) bother to pretend they're high-schoolers and surround themselves daily with delicious temptations? Why don't they live on the opposite side of town, away from werewolf territory? When they play baseball, why does everyone else go at vampire speed except the runners? How does Alice travel through sunny Italy at the climax of New Moon when vampires sparkle under direct sunlight? When, in Breaking Dawn, Part 2, she leaves a note on the back of the ripped-out title page of The Merchant of Venice, how is Bella the only person to think to flip through the rest of the book?

No matter. The emotional core of the films is strong and consistent, and because the love is built on nothing, it's impervious to logic. The best parts of the saga track this emotional core, and the worst parts deviate from it, as I’ll break down below. But first, my somewhat idiosyncratic ranking:

  1. Twilight
  2. Breaking Dawn, Part 1
  3. New Moon
  4. Eclipse
  5. Breaking Dawn, Part 2

The first film grounds everything, and does a fine job of world-building; even the climactic fight scene is fully integrated into the emotional core, something that can't be said for the other films with fights in them. The most romantic parts of the film are when Bella and Edward stay up late at night doing nothing but chatting, and the film replaces their words with the score, because the point is the intimate act of conversation itself. Hardwicke has a fondness for canted camera angles, and even when there's no good reason, it reminds us that Bella's world has been set on its head, by both the romantic and the fantastical. As shot by cinematographer Elliot Davis, the overcast Pacific Northwest takes on an even gloomier blue-green hue, making the vampires paler and Bella's ruddy cheeks ruddier. Bella's wardrobe (costumes designed by Wendy Chuck) is unassuming in a way that foreshadows Stewart's more mature fashion tastes, which combine style with nonchalance. And the score by Carter Burwell is only matched by that of the last two films.

If it weren't for Twilight's first-movie advantage, Breaking Dawn, Part 1 would take the top spot, because its plot is also entirely to do with Bella and Edward's romance, beginning with their marriage and ending with the birth of their child, Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy). (The name is so absurd that even Twihards have taken to calling her any other arbitrary multisyllabic noun that begins with r.) The wedding ceremony is beautiful, and a shot from Bella's point of view walking down the aisle effectively conveys her nervousness at not just the married life but the undead/immortal vampire life, which requires her to leave behind everyone human. I confess to shedding a tear when Jacob bids her farewell and we don't know whether he'll be able to overcome his murderous tendencies regarding vampires when it comes to Bella. The honeymoon is romantic and sexy as all get-out, even if Bella can't quite get the toothpaste onto her toothbrush (odd that they didn't do another take, despite reshooting the whole honeymoon scene before wrapping production to avoid an R rating from the MPAA). As opposed to the usual male-gaze rom-com honeymoon, they actually do things other than have sex, once again reaffirming the film’s commitment to the relationship itself, not just the swooning. During Bella's pregnancy, the visual effects that emaciate her as her hybrid baby drains her of nutrition are stark and convincing; Roger Ebert complains that no pregnant woman actually rubs her belly as often as Bella does, but it's clear that her special-effects belly is so big she has nowhere else to put her hands. And the ending – the ending is a sublime inspiration from director Bill Condon. Edward ripping Renesmee out of the womb with his teeth, presented from Bella's semi-conscious perspective, is a terrifying feat of effects, cinematography (Guillermo Navarro) and editing (Virginia Katz), directly followed by Edward’s stabbing Bella in the non-beating heart with a huge needle full of his vampire venom, thereby triggering an atavistic quick-cut special-effects flashback montage sequence unfurled in reverse order that not only recounts the major plot points of the saga but goes all the way back to Bella's (presumed) first memory. It’s an incredibly effective way to conjure how true love changes you at your very core, and Burwell's strings-based score here is nothing short of transformative and magical.

New Moon, directed inventively by Chris Weitz, has been called boring by people who can't stand the plot; I can see why, since most of it is Bella moping around after Edward breaks up with her for their own good. But the complainers ignore the fact that his absence is what allows her relationship with Jacob to develop. After the lightning strike of Bella and Edward, it's nice to see a more gradual and human romance blossom, even if we know that it's doomed from the start. Jacob's a nice kid, but like hormonal boys everywhere, he can't stomach the idea that his crush just needs a friend right now. On her part, Bella actually does need a close friend right now, even if he's ardently in love with her. That makes for a toxic relationship on both sides, one that's not resolved till the end of Eclipse. Bella's moping takes the form of risky behavior, because every time, Edward appears in her mind to warn her against it. This gives us the film’s action elements: motorcycles, cliff diving, and some werewolf fights. Absent our main vampire, the color palette of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe is warmer than in Twilight, and the climactic scene in Italy, where Bella rushes to stop Edward’s suicide à la Romeo and Juliet, is a wealth of color: blue sky, yellow sun on stone, red cloaks of religious pilgrims, Bella's dark green shirt. We get to meet the Volturi, including Aro and his right-hand sadist – an ice-cold bit part played by Dakota Fanning to nightmarish perfection.

Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010).

David Slade's Eclipse is saddled with the unenviable job of filming what's essentially a detour of a plot, and my interest waned along with the film’s decreased focus on the character relationships. Of three bad vampires who attack Bella in Twilight, the one left (Bryce Dallas Howard, replacing Rachelle Lefevre from the first two films) is out for, um, blood. She's building an army of newborn vampires, so the Cullens and the werewolves team up to protect Bella. Watching Jacob navigate his animosity toward the Cullens is somewhat amusing, and he and Edward get a heart-to-heart just before the climax in a tent on a mountaintop in the middle of a blizzard, with a shirtless Jacob holding Bella to keep her warm. This scene has the best Lautner performance of the saga, but Pattinson easily outshines the poor guy. The big fight just reveals how poorly designed werewolves are for killing vampires; they can catch them with no problem, but actually biting off the head of one seems to take a bit more work. The minor Cullens get rote backstory flashbacks, and Dakota Fanning makes two appearances. Everything else about this film is forgettable.

Finally we come to the nadir of the saga. Filmed back to back with the first part, Breaking Dawn, Part 2 is built around the same boring premise as Eclipse of gathering forces for a climactic showdown. The Volturi get wind of Renesmee, and assuming she's a banned immortal child, who are uncontrollable forever, they come to Forks to destroy the Cullens. Explaining why they can't just resolve this with a long phone call, Carlisle says that Aro is using this as pretext to accrue more power to himself. So the Cullens gather a showcase of vampire friends from around the world to show them that Renesmee is a mortal hybrid who can be controlled, and to prepare to fight. As in the 2009 Nicolas Cage vehicle Knowing, the fight only happens in Alice's prophetic vision. I have no problem with this, despite the bad taste it left in my mouth, but I do have a problem with what happens before and after. Finding Renesmee mortal, Aro pivots to fear of the unknown as pretext for battle, delivering a hammy flight of rhetoric to his army to that effect. At this point, Alice brings out another hybrid (JD Pardo) deus ex machina style, this one from deep in the Amazon rain forest and fully grown, to prove that there's no danger. Then she shows Aro her vision of his defeat and death in battle, after which he delivers yet another hammy flight of rhetoric to his army, beginning, "My friends, there is no threat here." I don't know about you, but one equally effective speech on the heels of another supporting opposite positions would make me lose trust in the leadership. Anyway, there are worse things than fake-outs and dei ex machina in this film. Renesmee grows supernaturally fast, and her earlier, preadolescent actors (Eliza Faria and Rachel St. Gelais) have Foy's face CGI'd onto them, which is a really creepy way to convey Renesmee's full sentience from before birth. Stewart has to shout in fury the ridiculous line, "You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?!," which she does as well as anyone can, I guess. And Bella's vampire running somehow looks worse than the others', maybe because we have grown used to seeing her move around naturally and not running in place on a gym mat in front of a green screen. At least Stewart looks better with red vampire eyes than with human brown ones. However, the most unforgivable sin is that the film finally gives in to sentimentalism with its closing montage, when Bella figures out how to share her memories with Edward, basically repeating the ending montage of Part 1 but in chronological order this time. In Part 1 it serves a purpose; here it's just a maudlin coda. I did, though, like the touch of showing in the closing photo credits the exact places where Bella's, Edward's, and Jacob's names initially appear in the first book – it gives a sense of having finished a grand literary journey or, dare I say, a saga.

The Twilight Saga may not join the Criterion Collection anytime soon, but its undeniable power lies in its commitment to the emotional core of Bella and Edward's romance. The main deadweight on that relationship, ironically, is Meyer's story. In that sense, Twilight itself is a better love story than Twilight. Go figure.

CJ Sheu has a PhD in contemporary American fiction from National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.   

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