By Caelyn O’Reilly
“Twilight” (as a book series, film franchise, and cultural phenomenon) seems to have been undergoing a lot of critical re-evaluation in recent times, to the point where I’m not sure whether or not this article could even be considered a “hot take” but here goes.
The first “Twilight” movie is pretty great actually.
Yes, I wrote about “The Blob” as a feel-good movie and now I’m using my one Halloween-adjacent article to stan “Twilight”. I’m weird like that.
We are in something of an era of revisiting “Twilight” in more neutral-to-positive terms, as we come to understand that much of the backlash against the series was built on a general societal hatred for teenage girls and the media made for them. I’m embarrassed to say I was a part of that backlash, poking fun at my sister and mum for their enjoyment of the series despite never reading any of the books or watching the films. Though I had absolutely zero taste in media as a teen so I don’t know why I thought I could judge.
So, during ‘The Great Everyone Stay Indoors Time of 2020’, I finally got around to watching a few of those films. And I came away with the life-changing knowledge that I share with you now. The first “Twilight” movie is pretty good.
This isn’t some “so bad it’s good”, riff-fodder kind of enjoyment. I earnestly enjoy “Twilight” on its own terms as a melodramatic teen fantasy romance. The film opens with an ethereally mysterious and snappily edited scene of a deer running in a forest that establishes one of the film’s strongest characteristics out of the gate, it’s aesthetic. To put it casually, “Twilight” goes hard. Most of the Young Adult novel adaptations that this – and later “The Hunger Games” – would inspire are pretty visually conventional, even bland, to look at. This film is not that. It takes the earnest melodrama of its source material and leans all the way in. Most obvious is the all-consuming greyish-green tint of the film that remains until its final minutes after the main conflict has been resolved, returning to a warmer, naturalistic palette.
The film constantly creates memorable visuals and dialogue. The scenes of Bella going to her new school for the first time that are filled with the kind of awkwardness that’s easy to stumble upon by accident but difficult to create on purpose, the surprisingly effective cutaway vampire kill scenes, Bella and Edward’s conversations in the woods, I could go on. Not to mention the genuinely delightful baseball scene. Combine these with the colour palette and a rock-infused score and you have an aesthetic so emblematic of the late-2000s it could be put in a time capsule to represent the decade for future generations.
Kristen Stewart’s widely parodied performance contains the same uniquely aloof energy she would later bring to acclaimed indie fare. It’s not like she underwent some radical change in her acting style between them, it’s just the fact that it was in “Twilight” that led her to become the butt of douchey film bro jokes for years. She fully captures the wistful dreariness of a depressed, white teenager whose greatest struggle in life is moving to a new town.
Then there’s Robert Pattinson, whose shift to more “mature” material after this franchise was similarly framed by some as a surprising divergence rather than a natural and obvious extension of the ability he had already displayed in these films. His Edward is so visually iconic that there are dozens of knock-off designs that are all immediately recognisable as being based on him. (Anyone else remember Damien Dawn?). His performance embodies the odd, often adversarial but still strangely enthralling air that understandably draws Bella in.
Love them or loathe them, their performances fit so perfectly into this film that its almost unthinkable for anyone else to play these roles.
The romance between Bella and Edward is the movie’s core, the film’s appeal rests on it being engaging. That does seem to be a sticking point for many detractors, they just don’t enjoy the romance. And that’s fair, but I would like to argue in its favour. I’m not going to claim it’s a healthy relationship to be mirrored in reality, far from it, but so too is the case for many movie couples. The tension and conflict that makes for compelling cinema rarely translates into healthy relationship dynamics. Surprise surprise, the fantasy romance is a fantasy. The film’s much-mocked chastity and emphasis on dramatic, longing stares aids in creating a fairytale romance with a My Chemical Romance edge. Though I’m also of the opinion that the Padme/Anakin relationship in “Attack of the Clones” is so stilted it shoots the moon and becomes endearing so take that how you will.
The film has flaws (shocking, I know). It overuses wobbly handheld shots and the occasional scraps of narration from Bella feel like an awkward crutch. More importantly, the franchise’s appropriation of the real-life Quileute tribe for its fictional clan of werewolves has been genuinely harmful and speaks to a larger problem of white Americans exploiting Native culture for profit. And this should not be ignored by critics whether they’re ridiculing or praising “Twilight”.
This movie isn’t to everyone’s taste. But it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand like I once did. It has an intensely memorable aesthetic that could only be succinctly described as looking like “Twilight” (or perhaps Hot Topic chic) that had a defining impact on a generation of teenage girls. It outclasses most other sci-fi/fantasy YA adaptations before and since, and yes I’m including “Harry Potter” in that, by embracing the teenage melodrama wholeheartedly and without an ounce of shame. Catherine Hardwicke and her crew deserve far more credit than being reduced down to “sparkly vampire” jokes. Even if you dislike “Twilight”, it deserves to be approached on its own terms.