[27 March 2013]
If there’s an ironclad rule in cinema, it’s the law of diminishing returns. Storylines grow stale. The films based on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels prove the rule.
The first film, Twilight (2008) was better than expected, largely due to the breakout performances of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. The two charismatic leads rose above the material they were given. As a result, Bella and Edward became the most popular onscreen couple of the last decade. But the series grows weaker and sillier with each new installment, and we now have the final chapter, Breaking Dawn—Parts 1 and 2.
For those uninitiated into the Twilight universe, the novels are set in Forks, Washington and the films were primarily shot in the Pacific Northwest. So the series unfolds in Twin Peaks country—lushly green, a dreamy, rainy and isolated locale where one can easily imagine supernatural forces at work.
Stewart plays Bella, a high school girl from a broken home who lives with her father. Bella is hardly the ditzy cheerleader. She’s intelligent, melancholy, and darkly beautiful, like a young Sigourney Weaver. Stewart brings gravitas to the role, breathing life into this lonely young woman who carries the weight of a dysfunctional childhood like a millstone on her soul.
At school she meets Edward (Pattinson) and intuitively detects a kindred, lonely spirit. Pattinson smartly underplays Edward as an alluring outsider who shuns the trappings of high school popularity. Edward is a member of a vampire clan, a handsome loner with a fully mature moral nature. It’s curious that the immortal Edward lurks at a high school instead of a university. Nevertheless, the first film has a seductive, quirky charm.
But as the sequels rolled out over the last four years, it became clear that Meyer had run out of ideas. In the hands of a more talented writer like Anne Rice, the Twilight universe would’ve been a volatile blend of eroticism and horror. But Meyer instead took the series in the direction of a chaste Romeo and Juliet romance.
Early in the series, a second plot element is introduced: a local Native American tribe is a shape-shifting werewolf clan. This is a promising idea, but it’s ultimately wasted.
Throughout the course of five films, we learn little to nothing of the lycan tribe and their history, including their blood feud with Edward’s vampire clan. Jacob (Taylor Lautner) is a shape-shifter and Bella’s childhood friend. A predictable love triangle develops between Edward, Bella, and Jacob. Meyer’s fictional universe is a lot like J.K. Rowling’s: a vividly imagined world that’s crippled by dull characters and a lack of dramatic tension.
It’s instructive to examine the nature of this cultural juggernaut. The Twilight series is built around two supernatural elements: vampirism and lycanthropy. It’s not difficult to discern the sexual repression inherent in these two myths. The vampire seduces and then penetrates his victim. The werewolf is the beast that lurks within, a personification of the sexual id.
Now consider the Twilight triangle: Vampire→Bella←Werewolf. Since the entire series revolves around this curious triangle, we must look to the author to determine a purpose. One wonders about Meyer’s Mormon upbringing and how it’s manifested here. The Twilight series eventually becomes a tiresome exercise in sexual repression.
For those who champion wholesome entertainment, the Twilight series is a terrible example of that. The films are quite bloody and the finalé includes gruesome decapitations. The Twilight universe is ruled by a curious strain of American morality that can be described as “bloody puritan”. Decapitations = Yes, Premarital Sex = No.
By the time we get to Breaking Dawn—Part 1, Bella is trapped between the warring vampire and lycan clans. There have been numerous battles, yet nothing resonates—each and every conflict is interchangeable and forgettable. One might ask why these two clans are at war.
The overt reasons are contrived, but here’s the unstated casus belli: the alpha-male of the winning tribe gets to deflower Bella. Our heroine ultimately chooses Edward over Jacob and the first 30 minutes of Breaking Dawn—Part 1 is a wildly expensive wedding video. The film then quickly pivots to the endgame: sexual consummation followed by an unplanned pregnancy and the birth of a child.
In Breaking Dawn—Part 2, Bella has been turned into a full-fledged vampire but her daughter is only ‘half-vampire’. This curious child draws the ire of the ruling vampire clan, the Italian Volturi. An apocalyptic rumble follows between the decadent Volturi and the ‘Friends of Bella’—a collection of hipster vampires and grunge werewolves. If the plot sounds messy, that’s because it is messy.
One yearns to go back to the original Twilight, which in retrospect is a quiet gem in comparison to the bloated, grandiose Breaking Dawn finalé. The first film works because it’s small scale: lonely high school girl meets handsome but sensitive vampire. Throw in the undeniable chemistry between Stewart and Pattinson and you have a likable and successful film.
But with each additional installment, the series grows progressively worse. Note the exchange below, after Bella discovers that Jacob ‘imprinted’ on her daughter in order to protect her:
Bella: You’re making some wolfie claim on my daughter? She’s a baby!
Jacob: Remember three days ago—how you wanted me around? It was Nessie who wanted me there.
Bella: You nick-named my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster!
I don’t know how such dialog ever made it into Breaking Dawn—Part 2. I do know that it’s a shockingly bad film, which cannot be said of the original Twilight.
In the first four films, Bella’s well being is completely dependent on Edward and Jacob. Not surprisingly, the series has drawn the ire of feminists. Bella’s a hot waif at the mercy of two alpha-male suitors. Whenever Bella defies them, a near-death experience follows. The plotline formula: (a) Bella resists her male protectors; (b) An unprotected Bella is stalked by vampires or werewolves who want to tear her apart; (c) Bella is saved by Edward or Jacob.
There’s an erotic undercurrent of sadism at play here. It’s as if the raison d’être of the entire enterprise is to throw the chaste but delectable Bella into situations where she can be ravaged. Yet Bella always escapes with her virtue intact. This taps into the sexual yearnings and frustrations of millions of teenage girls who make up Twilight’s immense fan base. They desire the alluring Edward and the virile Jacob. Yet most of these teenage girls are conflicted by middle class morality with its double standard—female sexuality must be deterred. Meyer obviously adheres to that double standard and imposes it on the Twilight universe.
In Anne Rice’s universe, Bella would square the circle by bedding both Edward and Jacob. But Meyer’s repressed sexuality undermines the Twilight series. These films offer a repeating cycle of arbitrary plot contortions where female desire is subservient to male power.
In an interview given on Breaking Dawn—Part 2, Meyer refers to Bella’s heightened awareness as a vampire: “She can see and hear with amazing clarity”. One wishes that Meyer had that same sense of clarity.
The Blu-ray version of Breaking Dawn—Parts 1 and 2 offer a gorgeous video transfer with crystalline depths of color. The digital 5.1 audio track is sharp but underutilized. Extras include eight minutes of additional footage on the Breaking Dawn—Part 1, Extended Edition. On Breaking Dawn—Part 2 there’s a ‘making of’ feature and interviews with Meyer (who produced the film), as well as comments by the cast and crew.