I think it really just comes down to one inescapable fact: I hate Bella Swan.
I suspect my real problems lie with Stephenie Meyer and Melissa Rosenberg, the novelist and screenwriter responsible for “The Twilight Saga,” and, by extension, Bella Swan. But it does not change how completely I hate Bella Swan.
Bella Swan, for those of you fortunate enough not to be “Twilight” savvy at this point, is the main character in “The Twilight Saga.” Kristen Stewart has become a superstar playing the character, although I’d argue we have yet to see any proof that her fanbase will follow her after the franchise is done. She is the teenage girl who finds herself torn between her affections for Jacob (Taylor Lautner), a Native American werewolf, and Edward (Robert Pattinson), a sparkly vampire. She is a rotten, rotten person as written, and the fact that the entire series just serves as an extension of her desires and goals has managed now to make me feel like a bad person just for sitting in the theater and watching her.
I never reviewed the first “Twilight” film. I didn’t see it in any sort of timely manner. I did, however, review “New Moon” last year, and here’s what I wrote about that film:
So if you’re a “Twilight” fan and you already know you’re going to go see “New Moon” this weekend 76 times, then don’t bother reading the rest of this review. You know more about the characters and what you like about this series than I’ll ever know, and my take on things probably isn’t going to please you. I’ll give the series another shot next year, and we’ll talk again then.
Here we are. It’s next year, and it’s a new director, with David Slade stepping in for Chris Weitz, and I decided to walk in hoping for the same basic parts combined in a new way. I liked Slade’s last vampire film, “30 Days Of Night,” and even though it had some script issues, I thought it worked visually, and Danny Huston made a great creepy central presence. I hoped that he would pare the film down of all the silly telenovela tomfoolery and make something more propulsive. And for the last week or so, I’ve been hearing that this was the best of the bunch, so I think I even walked in with a bit of optimism.
Nope. Uh-uh. Don’t believe it.
Sure, this film is staged with more energy than the previous one, but it is just as dramatically inert, and it is filled with just as many infuriating character decisions and just as much disturbing psychosexual subtext as “New Moon.” And even more maddening, if you were to take the first scene of the film and the last scene of the film and set them side by side, cutting everything in between, there is no difference in where Edward and Bella find themselves. The entire film is just marking time between the second and the fourth films. There is no progression in the story, no progression in the characters, and nothing of import occurs. It is two hours of characters standing around so an audience can look at them, to no particular end.
“But, but, but, but, but Edward proposes! And Bella says yes!”
Here’s where I have a problem. I don’t care if they get married or not, because in this film, “get married” is just code for “now we can do it.” Their marriage isn’t about building something together or creating a family. Their marriage isn’t about time they’ve spent together and time they want to spend together. It’s all hormonal. It’s all impulse. Bella Swan is defined as a character purely by who she wants to sleep with, and I don’t care if she actually consummates the act or not. This movie is driven from start to finish by the real estate between her legs, and if that sounds blunt or harsh, good. I want it to sound ugly, because I think it is ugly. Deeply ugly. She’s the weakest, most dependent lead in a film that I can imagine. There is nothing interesting about Bella aside from her desire for these two boys. It is a narcissistic teenage fantasy taken to a disturbing depth. Nothing in the world of these movies matters beyond the resolution of whether or not Bella is going to bone Edward. And when. And how. And whether she’s going to bone Jacob as well.
There is talk of love, but there is nothing like love in these movies. These are not stories about love. They are stories about infatuation, temporary teenage madness. And, hey, man… I may be ancient at this point, but I remember what it’s like when you’re a teenager and everything feels so important, and I’ve seen films that get that frenzy just right and they still manage to feature real character work and stories that are interesting and actual events. You can make a great movie about the rush of teenage love. You can use it as a backdrop for all sorts of stories. But for that to be the thing that holds us as an audience, we have to believe that there’s something behind it. I have yet to see anything in any of these movies that would connect these characters beyond narrative convenience.
Bella doesn’t love these men because of things they have done together. Instead, everything they do together is because they “love” Bella. It’s a pissing contest. And both of the guys are just as poorly defined and as grotesque as Bella in what they represent. Edward is her “dream man,” and as depicted in the films, he’s basically a control freak who treats her like an object to possess. He lies to her. He manipulates her. He is unable to tolerate her interacting with anyone else. Ladies… if you have a chance to marry a man who acts like Edward while you’re dating, do it. And then you can look forward to broken bones and mysterious bruises and a slow and methodical separation from friends and family until you exist only for him. Which is obviously what you’re looking for, right? Ooooh, romantic.
Or if Edward’s love isn’t the right kind for you, then maybe you can get lucky and earn yourself a Jacob. A guy who is hot enough that he knows you will love him, and if you don’t, then it’s just a matter of time. After all, look at his abs. He doesn’t offer anything more substantial than Edward in terms of emotion or support, but he does have those abs. He’s also got body heat, so obviously he is a better choice for Bella. He has one scene where he actually tells her that he has not imprinted on her as a mate, as is the way with his kind, but that doesn’t matter. We’re still supposed to believe that this is important, that this struggle over this pathetic, empty dishrag means something.
I love women. I love all sorts of women. And because I love real women, actual flesh and blood human being that happen to have a slightly different arrangement of chromosomes than I do, I despise these movies. I hate them for what they offer up as a value system. I hate them because there are girls who mistake their own chemical response to the male leads in the movie as an actual affection for the story that’s being told. They invest on the surface level, and in the meantime, there is this poisonous cancer, this vile insidious message that’s being sold to them underneath. I hate these movies because they tell girls that this is their value in the world. Who you bang defines you. You are worth your vagina and nothing more. You are who your man is. That is all.
And, yes… it matters. It matters precisely because these are giant blockbusters that will be seen by many, many people. It matters because much of the target audience is young and has very little experience with sussing out the subtext of what they’re watching. We teach audiences to just sit and passively let experiences happen to them. Don’t think about what you’re watching… not really. We do not teach our students to really process the media they watch, and so when I see something as philosophically corrupt as this, and as sneaky about it, it angers me. It is true that this is slicker than the last film, but if anything, that bothers me more, because now people will think even less about what they’re actually seeing. There’s more action in this film than in “New Moon,” but I think Meyer’s lousy handle on horror tropes makes it all terribly uninteresting. Big phony CGI werewolves bounce around a meadow while sparkly vampires throw football tackles at each other and break like marble. That’s the big action scene. That’s what the entire film builds to, and it’s pretty much over as soon as it begins. And it’s all diversion anyway, since the real climax of the film consists of Bryce Dallas Howard wrasslin’ with Robert Pattinson in the snow a bit. Because she’s mad that he took away the dude who bones her. Another woman defined in this film entirely by who her man is or was. And what weapon does she use to try to build her vampire army?
If you guessed “her vagina,” you are right. She manipulates a younger vampire by telling him how much she loves him, and based on what we see in the films, there’s no difference between her “love” and the “love” that supposedly unites Bella and Edward or Bella and Jacob. It’s all self-serving. It’s all superficial.
When the face of ultimate evil is represented by the bland visage of Dakota Fanning, something has gone terribly wrong. She is hilariously miscast here, and I don’t understand the mythology of this world at all. I know we met the Volturi in the last film, and they were represented by Michael Sheen and a bunch of folks dressed like The Human League. They gave Edward and Bella a command to do… something… and then they walked around in slow-motion. There’s more of that in this film, and they stand on the sidelines and watch things for most of the movie, then show up after the fight and kill a little girl. And then they leave. Another perfect example of the dynamic plotting and sensational storytelling that has made Stephenie Meyer the hero of emotionally stunted people everywhere.
If there was anything about Bella that was noteworthy, I would ease up on this point, but there’s not. She has no skills, no talents, no interests. She doesn’t have any goals in life. She doesn’t seem to attend school. She doesn’t seem to have any plan for the future. She is a blank. You cannot tell me a story about a blank and ask me to invest in what I’m watching. You have to try. Kristen Stewart has gotten looser and more natural over the course of the series, but she’s still not playing a character. She’s just a slightly less annoying collection of tics and bad decisions here.
I want to make special mention of the most ridiculous scene in any of the three films so far, a sequence involving a tent, a snowstorm, and the worst three-way of all time. It is supposed to be a simmering moment of romantic and sexual tension that pays off all the build-up in the series so far, and instead, it serves as a demonstration of just how little the stakes of the series matter. Like everything else in the film, it’s a conversation that goes nowhere, that resolves nothing, and that plays out as hollow tension with no purpose.
The film’s special effects are positively state of the art for 1995, and the film’s music supervisor obviously has some famous people’s phone numbers.
I find myself in an interesting position as we face down the prospect of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,” because I like and respect Bill Condon as a filmmaker. I think he’s got good taste. I think he’s made really strong films so far as a director. I think he’s worth paying attention to, and I think he’s got a real taste for genre material that he hasn’t really indulged since he went mainstream. He’s a smart guy, a writer first, and I think he knows how to shape difficult material for the screen. And yet, I truly believe that “Twilight” is worthless as source material. I do not believe there is a filmmaker alive who could manage the impossible feat of creating a faithful adaptation of Meyer’s book and also making a good movie. Going into the home stretch, I think this is one of the worst blockbuster franchises of all time, inept from start to finish, and getting worse as they go. There will come a time when we look back on these films and wonder what sort of mob insanity drove their success, and we will laugh and shake our heads and pretend they were never really that popular.
There will be a lot of people seeing these movies this weekend, and nothing I say will change that. But I dare you, as you sit there watching, to really think about what you’re looking at. Don’t just let this garbage slide across your corneas. Don’t just let the parade of pretty faces go by.
Please… if you’ve found your way here, and if you’re reading these words… then I have faith in you. You’re better than “The Twilight Saga.” We all are.
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