Dir. Catherine Hardwicke. Starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke
In the last six or seven years, the conversations about Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart have turned. We’ve gone from “These two can’t act worth a crap” to “These are two of our best actors under thirty-five.” The impetus for that first part, of course, is Twilight and its host of sequels which I could not order accurately if I tried. The second part includes movies like Good Time, Clouds of Sils Maria, High Life, Personal Shopper, Cosmopolis, Certain Women, and so on. I hadn’t touched anything Twilight since I read the novel as a challenge of sorts when I was in high school, and watching the movie for the first time was edifying. The problems with Twilight the movie are manifold, and honestly, it would probably be quicker to list what’s good about the movie than what’s bad about it. But it’s clear that the reason that movie is not good has nothing to do with Kristen Stewart or Robert Pattinson. Joe Gillis was right: “Audiences [and maybe some critics!] don’t know somebody writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.” Billy Wilder was kvetching a little, I suppose, but watching this movie I was amazed at how much heavy lifting Stewart and Pattinson were doing. Much is made of how clumsy and awkward Bella Swan is, because nominative determinism is only dead when we say so, and there are multiple lines of dialogue which Stewart has to attempt to play off. She can’t quite do it, but you may as well have asked the teenage Stewart to bench 400 pounds. It’s such a stupid idea, an unnecessary attempt to reach out to any number of clumsy young people in the audience who might “relate,” that it’s hard to put the blame on her for not making it seem like it’s fresh and funny. I vividly remember the conversation about how dumb (though that’s not the word people used back then) it was that vampires sparkled in sunlight. Somehow this came back to Pattinson as a performer, but also: it’s not his fault that vampires sparkle “like diamonds.” Twilight is a bad movie, but it falls well short of uniquely bad because Stewart and Pattinson have chemistry, an ability to perform destiny rather than inevitability There is something there between the two of them, a spark that is missing from any number of movies for teenagers I could mention.
Heck, let’s mention them. Offhand, they have better chemistry than: Daniel Radcliffe and anyone from Harry Potter (especially Bonnie Wright), Teller and Woodley in The Spectacular Now, Centineo and Marano in The Perfect Date, Barrymore and Vartan in Never Been Kissed, Steinfeld and Szeto in The Edge of Seventeen. And so on.
That spark that Stewart and Pattinson have is just straight lust. They act like two people who want to bang but know they aren’t supposed to. It’s not alluring, given that it’s wrapped up in a message about abstinence that even the Protestant high schoolers I
hung out with numbered among understood what was going on. All the same, I get why it worked for people. When she says that she wants to be made a vampire, that she wants to share some intimate moment with him where he sinks his teeth into her neck and makes her a new woman, as it were, and then he kisses her neck…I get it. It’s not for me in the same way that nightclubs and ricotta cheese aren’t for me, but I also get why people like nightclubs, ricotta cheese, and that shot of Pattinson’s mouth on Stewart’s neck. It’s obvious that in 2008, those two had the chops to be into one another, and the fact that any of that attraction can survive the screenplay is a credit to those two. To be clear, they are certainly better actors now than they were then, but they were never as bad as all the press and petty sarcasm made them seem.
(What is that bad, and what I really do not remember a lot of people talking about back then, is how profoundly creepy this movie is? Pattinson and Stewart have chemistry, yes, but he’s also over a hundred years old and she is a child. I know part of the deal here is that younger women look to older man for maturity, lol, but this is more than a little bit older! He has much of the experience and knowledge of an adult, and he’s really into…a high school kid? There’s a piece of wall art in the Cullen home which has all the mortarboards in many colors laid out in an attractive little pattern. We graduate a lot, Edward says, and that line, although it might be the best deadpan moment in the movie, is also the proof of how tremendously creepy this concept is even before we get to the abstinence allegory, which is its own hot mess.)
Almost everything else about the movie is, well, yeesh. Anna Kendrick is funny in a small role and Billy Burke is going for something as Bella’s dad. Charlie is the kind of man who wants his daughter back in his life, and I think to some extent the movie suggests that he feels some guilt in having been the parent who didn’t have much to do with raising her. He’s also the kind of man who wants his life to be essentially unchanged by having a teenage daughter in the house, sure that he will be able to pick up where he left off with her when she was little and win her over with trips to the diner and memories of the ’90s. It’s a role that a better actor would have been able to bring more to—I don’t think John Hawkes was on the table, but I can imagine John Hawkes making that character a genuinely interesting person—but Burke is good enough that those strands are evident in the movie. There aren’t any other performances that stand out in a good way. They range from nondescript, like what Peter Facinelli is doing as Carlisle, the head honcho of the Cullens, to cartoonish, like what Cam Gigandet is doing as rogue vampire James. Gigandet is playing that role like he’s got a sample of the same thirty seconds of cut-rate hair metal banging in the background for all of his scenes, and it is not making the impression he hopes he’s making. There are more people on the Gigandet end of the spectrum than the Facinelli middle, and that’s absolutely a choice that the movie made in the casting. It may not be fair to actively compare this movie to the Potter movies, different as they are in tone and subject matter, but the Potter movies went out of their way to cast legends of British stage and screen. The first movie alone is leaning on Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Julie Walters, and John Hurt in roles that are significant in one scene or several. There is not one person in the cast of Twilight you could say was a legend of anything in 2008, and it’s because they overwhelmingly appear to have picked people who would still look adequately hot when caked up with white makeup rather than people who would bring something to the performance.
The story is designed, incredibly enough, to get away from wondering when Edward will pop Bella’s balloon and to begin wondering whether some vampires who still drink human blood are going to try to kill Bella and her family. That alone would have been enough to sink the entire movie, first because there’s never any real threat to Bella’s safety, and second because there’s very little chemistry opportunity for the movie to showcase the one thing it had going for it. When Bella’s life is threatened by James, she’s still Lois Lane, but Edward has transformed from Clark Kent to Superman. In any event, because so many of the performances in a movie bursting with characters with names boil down to nothing, much of the rest of the movie is adrift. Maybe if the acting were better on the whole, the special effects wouldn’t have been as hilarious. They would have been funny, but watching people throw themselves into the sky or pretend to run very fast while keeping their torsos very still or hanging off trees like bats wearing Abercrombie is laugh out loud stuff. There is no chemistry between Pattinson and whatever else he’s got to do to act like he’s got super speed; even on a practical level, there’s no chemistry at all between Taylor Lautner and his wig. On the other hand, maybe the acting would have been better if so much of the movie’s dialogue wasn’t pure cringe. I think leaving out “What a stupid lamb/What a sick, masochistic lion” is the equivalent of leaving out “You’re a wizard, Harry,” (sorry that keeps happening), but on the other hand, you don’t have to include that line. It did not come down from the mountain inscribed on a tablet. This movie uses that structure of “short declarative statement”/”response of a short declarative statement with disagreement” over and over again, and it’s not that many steps removed from kids bickering in the back seat. Then again, maybe the dialogue would have been better if the camera work hadn’t been ludicrous. At that point where Edward takes Bella into the woods to have the vampire talk with her, there’s a minute long stretch where he’ll say something, and then there will be a cut and the camera will swirl around while Bella thinks of a response, and then she’ll say something else and the camera will swirl again. It’s the kind of cinematography that I suppose humans could accomplish, but it’s just as likely they strapped the camera to a fidgety schnauzer, or put it on the other end of a see-saw with a toddler bouncing it up and down. It’s not merely distracting but confusing as well, begging the question of why they couldn’t have just put the camera down for a second and let us see what was going on.