It must have been the mid-eighties – I was about 6 – and the family was on its annual holiday: me, my parents and, this time, one of my friends from school. I don’t think I had seen anything more scary than Starchaser: Legend of Orin back then and, when my parents were asleep, I sat up with my friend and we listened to an audio book he had brought with him on his walkman, headphones twisted backwards to face each one of us. We could barely hear the story, but that only added to the atmosphere, with the lights turned out on a cold Scottish night. The story, if I remember correctly, was about a group of sailors on a ship in a storm, some time ago obviously, and how they were dying one by one from some mysterious ‘plague’ that was depleting their ranks. It was the first taste of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that I had ever had, setting the tone for what I would expect from vampires from then on. After the Coppola adaptation of Stoker’s classic, the Tom Cruise version of Anne Rice’s alternative Interview with the Vampire, and the iconic, action-based Wesley Snipes franchise, Blade, and then all the imaginative post-millennium takes of the creatures of the night (Let the Right One In), studios should have figured out roughly what did and didn’t work cinematically when it came to the fantasy world of vampires. Then came Twilight.
17 year-old Bella’s mother is going travelling, so, in order to finish her education in a stable environment, she’s forced to leave Arizona to go and live with her estranged father, Charlie, in a small town in Washington. Initially quite nervous about joining a new school, Bella finds that she makes friends relatively easily, but is immediately drawn to a group of aloof students who all come from the same family – the Cullens. One particular boy catches her attention – the pale and mysterious Edward, who, after being inadvertently partnered up with Bella for a class experiment, runs out of the room, disgusted, and disappears for a few days. Of course, this only further intrigues the curious Bella, and when Edward saves her from being hit by an out-of-control car, she simply won’t leave him alone until he reveals to her his secret. How did he stop the car? Nobody’s that strong! Unless...
There’s nothing disastrously wrong with Twilight as a modern fantasy production. It’s got a reasonable budget, the direction will suffice, and the Washington location (with Oregon doubling for its neighbouring State) is something of an unusual setting, and often makes for quite a beautiful backdrop. But the trouble is that this is just a teen romance. And a pretty poor one at that. It may well be about a vampire clan living secretly within a human community but – in reality – the actual narrative merely follows the same tried and tested fish-out-of-water concept that’s been done in every teen drama from Fresh Prince to Dawson’s Creek to One Tree Hill.
As with all traditional (i.e. predictable) teen soaps, the fresh newbie girl is always drawn to the least friendly, most anti-social “bad boy” that she can find – here Edward – whose family (i.e. Clan) all dress symbolically in white whilst dining with the other, inferior, mere mortals. I guess acting massively aloof – to the point of being downright rude – is attractive to some girls, because Bella’s totally hooked. And the usual trauma ensues – Edward is increasingly mean to her (initially, totally without explanation) and she just finds it all the more enticing. But his one act of courage seals the deal, and afterwards, she won’t let him go.
“Edward, I’d rather DIE than stay away from you.”
This is all fine and good. Sure it’s romantic tripe. It’s fairytale silliness to the nth degree: massive hyperbole ‘in the name of love’. Yes, if you want proper, honest romance you have to look elsewhere – go see Pride and Prejudice, or Before Sunrise, or Garden State – because all you’ll get here is a teen version of the kind of romance depicted in the latest Jennifer Aniston / J-Lo flops. The kind of romance where a boy and a girl look longingly into each other’s eyes and declare their undying love for one another before turning away and saying that they can never be together. But that’s not such a big issue. I wouldn’t mind if it that’s all it purported to be. No, the trouble comes because they are going for something very different, introducing the added dimension of the strange, aloof family, the Cullens, being vampires. And that just doesn’t work for me.
Why? First of all, I’ve been brought up with bad vampires. But that doesn’t make me automatically resistant to change – I enjoyed the half-blood Blade, the modern day vampires-living-amongst-us in True Blood or even the ‘good’ vampire Angel, in both Buffy and his own personal spin-off series. But if you’re going to mess with decades-old fantasy lore, you’ve got to make sure the formula works (and I don’t just mean in terms of ticket sales). Classically, vampires are dark creatures of the night that prey relentlessly on their victims, draining their very lifeblood just to quench their insatiable thirst. They may be super-strong, with heightened senses – and ageless immortals to boot – but they do have their weaknesses: garlic, silver, crosses, wooden spikes through the heart.
“Are you afraid?”
“I’m only afraid of losing you.”
Not only does Twilight jettison almost all of those traditions, it converts the most damning of them – i.e. the reason why vampires will never be able to walk in daylight; never be able to see the sunrise ever again – into what I can only see as a ridiculous super-gift: direct sunlight now makes them sparkle. Seriously. The first words Bella utters when she sees Edward glittering in the sun’s rays are “you’re beautiful”. And that’s exactly what I’d expect – after all she probably thought he’d just raided her body glitter supply. What’s the problem? you ask. Too entrenched in your ideas of what a vampire should be, you say. Well, I think I’ve already shown that I’m not.
No, the trouble is that the very narrative progression hinges upon the concept that being a vampire is still bad. But why? They can clearly control their bloodlust if they want to. And that’s the only remaining downside. On the plus side – they’re immortal, all-but invincible, with super-speed, hearing and strength. Oh and they sparkle like diamonds in the sunlight. Sign me up. Seriously, I just don’t get why everybody isn’t a vampire. By the rules of Twilight, it’s a win-win scenario. Sure, there are bad vampires; serial killer vampires; angry vampires; nasty vampires etc. but you could say the same about humans. It’s a pretty big plot problem when there really is no reason left not to ‘turn’ the whole damn world. And it’s further exacerbated by the fact that Edward refuses to change Bella. Honestly, I can’t fathom why.
So my biggest problem with Twilight is that it takes the bite out of vampires – I guess in arguably the same way that Pretty Woman took the whore out of prostitutes. And maybe that’s why it appeals to so many people: it’s completely delusional fantasy purporting to reflect idealistic relationships.
“You’re like my own brand of heroin.”
And don’t even get me started on the acting. Kristen Stewart appeared to show promise in Adventureland, and took a relatively daring step with The Runaways, but Twilight brings out the absolute worst in her. She’s whining, erratic, and random – and her idea of acting is to stutter her words out uncomfortably. Opposite her Robert Pattinson’s Edward is just as bad – spending half the movie staring off into the distance like some younger version of David Caruso’s Horatio Caine from CSI: Miami (in fact, Twilight and CSI: Miami both have quite a lot in common – they are often so bad, so clichéd and over-acted, that they are actually entertaining for that very fact). You could almost understand why Bella is so backwards in her interpretation of love as at-first-sight-soul-mate-destiny etc. She is, after all, just 17. But Edward? What’s his excuse? He’s over a hundred years old! Pattinson takes all the worst clichés associated with goth emo kids and expands them into one big serving of teen angst. And boy, could they have done with some decent on-screen chemistry.
Actually, it’s the adults who are the most interesting characters – you could almost make a movie just about them. The dads are universally cool: Billy Burke as Bella’s dad Charlie, the town’s Chief of Police, who’s both caring and understanding of pretty-much all the ridiculous teen stuff she gets up to; and Peter Facinelli as Edward’s 300-year old ‘father’, who is the town’s physician, proves that vampires can both be good and save lives, without having to have that horrible tortured emo demeanour about them.
But generally they’re the only ones who survive this adaptation with their reputations intact – the rest are infected by the painful over-the-top melodrama of the whole affair; the very stuff they spout seals their fate.
“And so the lion fell in love with the lamb.”
“What a stupid lamb.”
“What a sick, masochistic lion.”
Still, as I said, Twilight isn’t a bad movie, it’s just not a very good one. I could say that there lies within it a good idea, but unfortunately that good idea wasn’t really writer Stephanie Meyer’s – she just took a bunch of tried-and-tested clichés from your average teen soap (most obviously Dawson’s Creek), and integrated them into what is essentially the plot to Underworld. It’s massively predictable, probably even to its intended tween audience. Admittedly, it is watchable. In fact it’s maybe even more than just watchable – it’s maybe actually pretty entertaining... but often for all the wrong reasons. And it’s never engaging – you really don’t care whether or not Bella and Edward get together. Hell, you don’t care if they both get hit by a truck – at least that blindside might have given this impotent vampire melodrama a little more bite.
Most people will be perfectly happy never to have discovered the Twilight Saga. You’re not missing anything. For those with a (mental) age of 12 out there, this must be your Bible, but it is of exponentially decreasing interest the farther in age you get from that. Those that do love the books will no doubt get that extra kick out of seeing the pages and pages of spewing teen angst adapted for the Big Screen. But what happens for those in-between, perhaps the partners of this world that are coaxed into enduring this melodramatic fantasy tosh? Best thing I can prescribe is a heavy dose of mockery. At least that way it’ll be entertaining. And don’t worry, it’s really not as painful as some would make out. In fact, you likely won’t feel a thing.