Most of the people flocking to Twilight this weekend won’t be seeing it through my eyes—the jaded, undead eyes of a fiftysomething male. The overwhelming majority of them will be young teenage girls. They belong to a captive audience of readers around the world who have bought 17 million copies of Stephenie Meyer’s novels, and who are now hopelessly smitten with Robert Pattinson, the smouldering hunk who plays Edward, its pale, rouge-lipped vampire hero.
I hadn’t read the book, so I came to the movie cold, as a viewer light years removed from its target audience. But although I found the film too long, too slow and too soft, I enjoyed myself. Twilight is not just a cult phenomenon; it’s a pretty good movie in its own right, even if it may not go far beyond its target audience. Girls are going to love it way more than anyone else, and the boys who get dragged along—or check it out expecting action-packed fantasy—may be bored senseless. But for such a conventional movie, Twilight is rather unusual. A rare example of a teenage chick flick that doesn’t surrender to the usual formula, it’s an unconditional romance from an unapologetically female viewpoint.
Twilight avoids or inverts all the tropes of a classic vampire movie. Its vampires are a close-knit family possessed by wholesome values. They’re a clan of “vegetarian” blood-suckers, who’ve vowed to feast only on animals, not people. And they don’t sleep in coffins. Edward and his undead dynasty occupies an architectural dream house, a mountaintop aerie that’s flooded with light and filled with art. Sunlight doesn’t make these chalk-faced carnivores recoil; it makes their skin shine like diamonds, like love.
Anyone looking for violent horror or lurid sex will be deeply disappointed. In a world where teenage girls are expected to be nonchalant about casual sex, Twilight allows them to submit to romance so old fashioned it dares to be corny. At each turn it offers a choice: giggle or swoon.
The action unfolds in a small town, amid the rain and fog of the Pacific Northwest, where a young, quite ordinary high-school student named Bella (Kristen Stewart) comes from Arizona to live with her dad, the local sheriff, while her mother takes a trip with her new beau. Bella, the new girl in school, is courted by a handsome, brooding, chivalrous freak named Edward (Pattinson). From their first exchange of glances, they are Romeo and Juliet divided by mortality. Edward comports himself like the deadpan ghost of James Dean. He’s seething with carnal desire, but because he’s a walking weapon (if his kiss sinks too deep it will be lethal), he’s forced to be a chaste model of sexual restraint. He’s every girl’s fantasy: sacrificing his lust for the higher pursuit of romantic love. He starts out as a stalker with style. He loves to watch Bella sleep. And once they’re finally an item, he’s happy just to hang out and talk, or hold her in his adoring gaze—or wrap her in his arms and fly to the upper branches of an old-growth forest to share the rhapsodic view.
Twilight is directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who has created a world that’s the polar opposite of the one she depicted in Thirteen, her sensational feature debut. That film was a raging realist drama about delinquent adolescent girls discovering sex, drugs and petty crime. This one offers a Harlequin-lite fantasy that any mother would approve. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Despite the flat-out romantic tone, Hardwicke leavens the narrative with a gentle sense of humour. For a movie about the undead, it’s incredibly un-noir. The supernatural action scenes, meanwhile, are elegant, spare and relatively bloodless. The plot is an exercise in delayed gratification, and it feeds on slow-drip dramatic irony: we know Edward is a vampire from the moment he appears, and we wait and wait for Bella to catch on, which takes about half the movie. Getting to their first exploratory kiss takes almost as long. Much of the film plays as giggly comedy, until the romance finally sinks its teeth. Even then, its bite wears braces.
Without descending into camp, Pattinson undercuts earnest intensity with a deft, self-conscious wit. And in contrast to the mythic scale of his character, Kristen Stewart plays Bella with plainspoken emotional realism. Pattinson may be the reason all the girls are flocking to see the movie, but they’re watching him through her eyes, and she carries the film with her performance. As Bella’s hapless father, a devoted dad who has no clue how to connect to his daughter, Billy Burke quietly steals one scene after another, making us smile each time with his deadpan minimalism. As for Edward’s vampire family, headed by Dr. Carlisle Cullen (Peter Facinelli), they all look wonderfully cute, which seems to be their mission in life.
We get just a taste of Edward’s intriguing foster family, including the siren-like Rosalie, who’s played by Nikki Reed, the writer and star of Hardwicke’s Thirteen. There are four Twilight novels, and this movie is setting up a franchise, so I assume we’re going to see a lot more of them. The villain, a grungy man-eating vampire played by Cam Gigandet, is uninspired. And the Benneton-like ethnic rainbow of Bella’s amiable classmates are stock characters who don’t have much to work with. But, as I said, this doesn’t feel like a complete movie so much as a franchise opener. Whether it will play beyond its ardent base and mature into a distaff answer to Harry Potter remains to be seen. And because its leading man is not an actual vampire, Edward, who never ages, will have a hard time remaining 17 while Bella and the others grow old.