2008-11-21 (General release)

“I’ve never given much thought to how I would die, but dying in the place of someone I love seems like a good way to go.” As the aptly named Bella (Kristen Stewart) imagines this most romantic of fates, the opening frames of the much-anticipated Twilight offer a speedy tour through misty woods, pausing as it spots a young deer. Startled, the animal bolts, hurling itself over branches and crashing through dry leaves. Maybe Bella has a notion of perfect sacrifice, but this pretty little Bambi doesn’t look even mildly comforted by the prospect of imminent violent death.

No matter. Fantasy rules in Twilight, fantasy simultaneously delicate and ravishing, chaste and utterly bloody. Based on the first of four swoony novels by Stephenie Meyer, Bella’s story begins when she moves from sunny Phoenix to rainy small-town Washington. She means to give her mother (Sarah Clarke) time to go on the road with her husband (Matt Bushell as a minor league baseball player who appears mostly in backgrounds, most wonderfully during a phone call between mother and daughter so his smack-smacking batting practice provides rhythmic accompaniment for his wife’s worries for Bella’s wellbeing). It’s a decent gesture by an adolescent girl, a sign that she’s not wholly self-involved, plus it gives her a chance to bond with her well-intentioned dad, Charlie (Billy Burke) and encounter the usual traumas associated with a new high school, including taunts for the beat red pickup truck Charlie gives her and look-at-the-new-kid stares.

The one encounter that rattles Bella instantly is with Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). As she sits with her new, diversely offbeat friends Eric (Justin Chon) and Angela (Christian Serratos), he enters the cafeteria in slow-motion, the cutting camera emulating their gazes at one another. Edward is accompanied by his brothers and sisters, all legendary among their classmates for their pale skin, extra-gel hairstyles, and oh yes, their odd couplings. Since they’re all “adopted,” the explanation goes, it’s sort of okay that they’re sleeping together but still, they’re perverse and enthralling, according to adorable gossip Jessica (Anna Kendrick). As she listens to this narration, Bella locks eyes with Edward, entranced. In biology class, his look at her is punctuated with a cute trick: she pauses before a fan, her hair blowing slo-mo as in a shampoo commercial. But the cut back to Edward shows him close to gagging: as he explains eventually, her scent evokes such desire in him that he is physically pained.

Their ensuing flirtations are downright painful. He denies his strangeness until Bella’s internet research leads her to the correct answer: her object of affection is a vampire. As the film slips into Buffy Retread territory, she confronts him, he confesses his own total infatuation with her, and then shows off his powers with a bit of heady flying over treetops and speedy sprinting up mountainsides.

And yet… their context being high school, the couple-to-be is bound for trouble. First, Bella must decipher Edward’s ineffable weirdness: no matter how appealing his infinite pain, pretty grimacing, and super-strength and super-speed, he brings considerable baggage. In addition to objections from his sister Rosalie (Nikki Reed, cowriter and costar of director Catherine Hardwicke’s first feature, 13) that Edward is dating a potential food source, he and his family have an enduring enmity with other vampires who are not “vegetarian” like Edward and his family, who suck only woodland creature blood, not human. (Here the significance of that frightened deer at film’s start shifts from metaphor to literal lunch.)

This edict is handed down by vampire patriarch Carlisle (Peter Facinelli), a doctor who has turned his family members one by one over the centuries, at least one, glimpsed in melodramatic flashback, a patient who was dying of a dread disease. It’s a backstory that imbues Edward and his clan with a combination of melancholy and discipline, and secures their contrast with the human-eating vampires, most immediately a band of three that includes the surly “tracker” James (Cam Gigandet). The ensuing contest over who has rights to the irresistibly-scented Bella leads to a series of chase scenes and smackdowns, full of snarling and biting and limb-rending, conducted as Bella observes with a mix of wonder and horror. Her boyfriend’s a scary monster, but he’s her scary monster, and means to protect her humanness (read: virginity) rather than savage her, whatever the potency of their mutual attraction (or her expressed desire to turn vampiric, so that she might be his “forever”).

As conventional as all this consternation may be, Twilight introduces at least one “issue” to be elaborated in the inevitable sequels, namely, Jacob (Taylor Lautner). A Native American who attends high school on “the res” (and so misses out on the campus romancing), Jacob develops his own crush on Bella while resenting Edward (his tribe, descended from wolves, has an abiding hostility toward vampires).

Jacob makes visible the race distinctions and conflicts between humans and vampires. While Bella is almost as pale as Edward and his family (their particular vampire rules allow them to go out in daylight, but not bright sun, which turns their skin all glisteny and gold-glittery), Jacob and his dad Billy (Gil Birmingham) are decidedly dark. This grants Jacob his own sort of “exotic” status in this very white Pacific Northwest town (which includes the usual tokens of diversity in Bella’s classmates and the black woman who runs the diner, plus, a Rasta-sort-of vampire on James’ team), even if Bella and her franchise are already committed to the whiter-than-white Edward.

RATING 4 / 10