I always try to avoid preconceived notions and keep an open mind when preparing to review a movie. I don't read early reviews or test-screening reactions. If possible, I even try not to watch trailers and TV spots. Of course, in the case of Twilight, avoiding the media blitz surrounding the release has been a relative impossibility. Heading into a recent screening, I was at least aware that it might not exactly be my cup of tea.
But Catherine Hardwicke is a solid director (we'll forgive The Nativity Story) with a knack for edgy tales of troubled youth (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown) and pulling strong performances from young talent. If anyone was going to faithfully translate the novel to screen and deliver a work that could please audiences beyond the fan base, Hardwicke was the director to do it.
For the uninitiated such as myself, a brief plot description: Twilight is the story of a teenage girl named Bella (Kristen Stewart) who moves from Phoenix, Arizona, to Forks, Washington, to live with her dad while her mom travels with her new husband, a minor league baseball player. She makes friends quickly, but finds herself drawn to the pale, attractive social outcasts of the school, the Cullen family. They travel together, avoid socialization, and don't come to school on sunny days. When Bella is nearly killed by a fellow student whose van slides out of control, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) comes out of nowhere to stop the car and save her life.
Bella keeps quiet about the circumstances of her rescue, but she knows Edward has a secret and isn't about to stop pestering him until she gets an answer. Edward tries to avoid Bella, but finds himself inescapably drawn to her at the same time. As their romance unfolds, the complications of a human-vampire romance prove dangerous for Edward, Bella, and those who are closest to them.
The vampire genre is amongst the most overplayed genres in the history of cinema. Thankfully, Meyer's vampires have a very different set of rules. A few highlights include their lack of fangs, ability to subsist on animal blood (a dietary choice making them "vegetarian" vampires), and the fact that they can go out in the sunlight, although the natural light causes their skin to sparkle like diamonds. As Meyer herself has admitted, the vampires of her world share a closer connection to superheroes than classic vampire lore. They possess super strength, telepathy, and a vertical leap that puts Michael Jordan to shame.
These differences create a freshness that differentiates Twilight from the scores of vampire tales past. Coupled with a strong cast of talented up-and-comers and Hardwicke's nimble pacing, Twilight is a surprising success on screen. The trickiest aspect is setting up the rules of this world and introducing such a large cast of characters without getting bogged down too deeply in setup. These early scenes are where Twilight does drag a bit, and even creep into corny territory. The Cullen family intro, a slow-motion sequence comparable to an '80s Revlon commercial, is somewhat laughable. But Hardwicke trudges through these early necessities and into the meat of the story relatively unscathed.
The anchor of Twilight is the nuanced, understated performance of Kristen Stewart. At only 18, the actress possesses an uncommon maturity. It's easy to see why any teenage girl would be attracted to the gorgeous Edward, but Stewart's intelligence infuses the romance with a humanistic touch that deepens the predictable surface attraction. Beyond just playing Bella again, Stewart is a very promising actress I expect to see great things from in the future.
Pattinson, who underwent arguably the greatest scorn from fans upon the announcement of his casting, is also quite good. Playing a character described in such flattering detail by Meyer, Pattinson is able to shift beyond surface attributes and give the necessary credibility to a character that is, in fact, more than 100 years old. He sells the angst without being too showy and occasionally peppers in some humor to lighten the film's dark mood. Added to that is a spot-on American accent so good that you might never guess Pattinson is a Brit.
Together, Stewart and Pattinson have a chemistry that builds as the story unfolds. Whether or not they are exactly as readers pictured them on the page, they appear deeply invested in the characters and their romance together. Suffice to say, fans' pulses should quicken by the time the two finally step in for the long-awaited lip lock.
For a movie budgeted at less than $40 million, Hardwicke gets some nice bang for her buck. The green-screen effects as Edward leaps from tree to tree with the trusting Bella clutching to his back have some minor glitches, but by that point I found myself invested enough in the story not to mind. The baseball sequence is particularly cool, if only a bit too short.
Twilight is a success in almost every sense of the word. It's certainly no masterpiece, but it condenses a lot into an entertaining 122 minutes and sets the stage nicely for the next movie. Considering what Hardwicke was able to achieve with the limitations of budget coupled with the challenges of setting up the world and introducing so many characters, the potential for the likely sequels is strong. While I can't say I'm going to run out and read the series, I am looking forward to the next Twilight adventure on screen.