November 24, 2008

Vampire Romance Flick Avoids Genre Pitfalls

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In the film Twilight, during an especially intense scene, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) tells the girl he loves, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), “You’re like a drug … like my own personal brand of heroin.” For many fans under the age of 20, his words could just as easily describe Twilight itself. The film’s emotional grip (not to mention Edward Cullen’s dreamy good looks) makes it impossible not to experience at least one instance of increased heart rate.
Based on a popular series of young adult novels by Stephanie Meyer and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, Twilight presents a darker vision than most movies aimed at teenage audience. The film opens on lush landscapes of green, an atmosphere suffused with longing. When high school senior Bella moves from sunny Phoenix to the gloomy forests of Forks, Washington, she makes new friends right away, but her eyes (and the camera) linger on Edward Cullen, her pale, dreamy lab partner. Edward’s initial unfriendliness masks a dark secret: He is a vampire. Bella pieces together the clues, but not before she and Edward have completely fallen for each other.
Hardwicke knows how to turn up the volume of a relationship. In Thirteen, she built an intense plot around the fragility of friendship. Twilight raises the stakes by replacing the rivalry that ensued in that movie with an equally overpowering romance.
Twilight is not typical bloodcurdling fare. Only one human falls victim to the vampire tribe, and we don’t even see the fangs sink in. Edward and the other Cullens choose not to satisfy their bloody cravings; they only hunt animals. (Dracula by way of PETA.) The enemy vampire posse, on the other hand, is out out for Bella’s blood.
Edward provides a fantasy figure for a young (or squeamish) audience. He has the seductive power of a traditional vampire, with a pale face and moody stare that radiate James Dean-esque sullen hotness, but without the Nosferatu-like bite. An attraction to him seems somehow forbidden and therefore more irresistible, even though the Cullen family couldn’t be more G-rated. A visit to the vampire clan reveals Edward’s mother stirring a pot of risotto and watching cooking shows, followed by a family baseball game, which is as normal and All-American as you can get — minus the mile-long home runs soaring into the woods. (FYI, the Cullens also have superhuman strength.)
Hardwicke deserves credit for raising the standards of a teen film, and a fantasy one at that. While most directors assume audiences will be content with cardboard adaptations that trade the vitality of the original for special-effects-laden sketches with unconvincing dialogue (see Harry Potter films) or generic romances with the same clichéd plots, Twilight provides an otherworldly experience that keeps its feet planted firmly in this one. The realism of the high school world keeps it from drifting too far into fantasy, while the darker realm of Bella and Edward’s relationship comes as a fresh counterpart to a typical romance. The moody aesthetic of the film, heavy on black eyeliner and rainy forests, also marks Twilight as atypical.
Watching the film is like exhaling slowly: pleasurable but emotionally draining, so that at the end you find yourself wanting to go outside for a breath of air and then watch the whole thing over again.