I did not see the first “Twilight” in the theater. I wasn’t actively against it, but I also recognized early on that it most likely was not made for me. And I don’t operate under the illusion that all films must please me in order to justify their existence. I did eventually catch up with it, and I thought it was an entirely harmless teen romance/angst film that worked primarily because there was a tangible tension between the two leads. I thought it was visually dull with some laughable imagery, but again… harmless. I didn’t weigh in on it because I didn’t feel strongly enough about it one way or another, and I didn’t see it in a timely enough manner for my opinion to make any difference to anyone.
Over this first year at HitFix, I’ve watched the way Greg Ellwood has done his best to serve the “Twilight” community, one of many web writers who has absolutely treated that crowd with respect and who goes out of his way to gather every tidbit of information that he can pass along to them. Yes, it means traffic for the site, but in watching his engagements with them and in dealing with them in passing at Comic-Con or in e-mail or on the site or on Twitter, I’ve always found them to be polite and friendly and enthusiastic in all the best ways. Bitter fanboys can rail about the “Twilight” fans all they want, but I’ll take a bunch of screaming girls who just want to like what they like over a bunch of miserable boys who hate everything and nitpick the movies that were made expressly to service their whims and fetishes. At least the screaming girls are having fun.
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.
If you’re like me, though, someone looking in at this phenomenon from the outside, then read on, because I definitely had a reaction to the film tonight. Probably not the one the filmmakers were hoping for, but a reaction nonetheless.
“The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” from the title down to the closing credits, personifies the major problem with franchise filmmaking these days, and it’s the difference between the ones that get it right and the ones that get it wrong.
“The Twilight Saga: New Moon” plays like a 130 minute trailer for a movie called “The Twilight Saga: New Moon”.
When franchise filmmaking works, it works because it’s a TV episode that makes us want to see what happens next. It works because of energy and chemistry and a sort of connection with the audience. It’s certainly not easy. The first two “Harry Potter” movies are solid, sturdy, and sort of boring. They’re not bad films, but they’re certainly not great films. They did, however, feel like films. They were long, they rambled, but there was always a sense that the films had to be truly grand. When you see the movie, it’s the fulfillment of a promise that the trailer makes, and a movie like this one just plays like a trailer all the way through. It’s all promise, all build-up, all tease, and because of how clumsy the world-building is, it’s not a promise I particularly care to see fulfilled. Break the promise. Fine by me.
And honestly… I think this movie is about as far from being “romantic” as it’s possible for a movie to be, and I am deeply skeeved out that what played as a silly abstinence fable the first time around has now turned sour, and the “love” that drives “New Moon” is no love at all. Instead, this is a movie about obsession, and unless you find stalking and restraining orders sexy, you may not find much to invest in here. Obviously, the entire plot of the film is a device to give Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) a reason to have to choose between two potential suitors. There is, of course, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the sun-sparkly vampire with the butterscotch eyes and the cheekbones you could cut yourself on. He’s the boyfriend who will never get older, never change, never get fat. But he’s dangerous. He has to restrain himself because what he really wants is to bite (nee penatrate) her, and the moment he does, this perfect love of theirs gets messy. That’s the primary tension in most of the vampire fiction that could be classified as “romantic,” and it’s certainly not a new idea. Her second could-be boyfriend is Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), and as it turns out, Jacob’s got some supernatural secrets of his own that manifest in this film, just as his relationship with Bella starts to heat up.
Typing all that out, I’m more aware than ever how much the “Twilight” series and “True Blood” are treading incredibly similar ground, but the approach each of them takes to the material and the ideas is radically different. The major difference is the way “True Blood” indulges the carnal, wallowing in the blood and the sexuality, fully aware of the metaphor and embracing it with a wink and a splatter. I’ve read Stephenie Meyer talk about how she doesn’t really read any vampire fiction and how she doesn’t know horror at all and how she doesn’t really think of these books as belonging in the tradition of the genre. She’s right. She seems so completely afraid of embracing the tropes of vampires and werewolves that she renders all the “monsters” in her work completely toothless, and these films, aimed as they are at an audience totally uninterested in the supernatural side of things, defang the characters even further.
At the start of the film, Bella is just turning 18, and on the night of her birthday, she goes to a small impromptu party at the home of Edward, where the rest of his vampire family are also waiting. As she opens a present, Bella gets a paper cut on her finger, and the smell of blood almost sends one member of the family into a blood frenzy. Edward has to fight him, and then decides that based on that incident, the Cullens need to leave town, he needs to leave Bella and never see her again, and their entire relationship is a mistake. I’m not surprised he can turn it off like a light switch, since the first film never establishes any reason for them to be drawn to each other beyond the fact that they’re the two leads in the movie. When love isn’t earned and it isn’t based on anything beyond a surface, that’s not love. It’s attraction. It’s interest. Or, when it’s taken to the extreme it is here, it’s mental illness.
What else can you call it after you sit through an hour of Bella moping around in near-catatonia because of Edward leaving? She decides that the only way she can see Edward’s face is by putting her life in danger, and so the film tries to set up a few examples of that, but even these are so benign, so pedestrian, that they fall flat as “thrills.” Bella is, as established by these films, almost wholly unlikable on every level. She’s selfish. Sullen. She has no interest in anyone else unless it’s this sort of lightning-flash-all-or-nothing romantic interest. The entire character feels like it’s underwritten so completely almost on purpose, like doing that will leave room for the target audience of teenage girls to project themselves into the fantasy without any messy character development to get in the way.
“That IS the point!” I can already hear some of you yelling at me that I don’t get it, that I’m not the audience because this is for girls, and not for boys, and that I can’t possibly understand the romance of being torn between two idealized lovers. And on one level, you’re right. I don’t relate to Bella here, and I can’t put myself in her shoes, because I don’t think Bella deserves either one of these people. Not the way she’s presented in these films. Edward isn’t much stronger as a character because he only seems to exist as a reaction to her, but Jacob steps forward in this movie, and for a little while, he emerges as a genuine personality. That automatically makes him more interesting than anyone else around him, and Taylor Lautner probably has a real career ahead of him after these films are done.
The thing is, when I projected myself into a fantasy as a young film fan, or even today, part of that is because the character who I identify with is an actual CHARACTER. They embody something I identify with, something I want to be, something I’m afraid I am. They don’t have to be good people… hell, most days I don’t think I’m a particularly good person. But they do have to be interesting and they do have to have some sort of inner life to them. Bella Swan is one of the most inert protagonists in any film I’ve seen this year, and Kristen Stewart, who is a strong young actor who has given many performances I like, including a great one earlier this year in “Adventureland,” collapses into self-parody here thanks to the material. And because the character is such a narcissistic jerk, it actually makes Stewart come across as essentially unlikable here. This is a movie in which we’re asked to actually empathize with this choice of hers, but what empathy can I offer? This lump, this empty vessel, just absorbs all of this energy that’s directed at her as if it is her god-given right. Of COURSE two men are fighting over her… why wouldn’t they? She’s Bella Swan. That’s all the reason there needs to be. Bella doesn’t need to do anything to justify all of that energy, and she gives absolutely nothing back to either of them. Sure, Edward may tell her, “I can’t imagine living in a world without you,” and all the girls in the theater sigh, imagining some razor-cheeked slow-eyed guy saying that to them, but the film doesn’t earn that. A world without the Bella Swan we see in this film would be absolutely no different. She does nothing. She thinks nothing. She contributes nothing. She is a stone skipping across the surface of life, leaving the slightest of ripples and nothing more.
Everyone in this film treats their prospective romantic partners as objects to be owned, not as people to be dealt with as equals. Love… genuine love… is hard work, and it requires constant attention. It requires communication. It requires that people give and do for one another, that there be some parity, and that each partner contributes something to the relationship. I’ve been in situations where I was genuinely torn between two people, and the reason was because they each offered things that I needed in my life. They each offered affection and attraction and the basics, of course, but beyond that, they were people who made my life richer simply by being part of it. They were people who lived whole lives on their own, who were not just accessories that I could add to my world, and in “New Moon,” there’s none of that. The script by Melissa Rosenberg is simplistic pap, and since I haven’t read the books, I have to point some of the blame at the person doing the adaptation. Yes, she was hired to translate the books to film, but that doesn’t relieve her of the responsibility of giving these actors something to play, of writing words worth saying, dialogue that doesn’t turn to coal on the tongue. It is a truly dreadful script, and I am genuinely uncomfortable with the idea that anyone could find any of the behavior from any of these people “romantic” in any way. If this is romance, neuter me and count me out.
Late in the film, the narrative takes a detour to Italy to include the Volturi, who are established as a sort of royal authority in the vampire world. Michael Sheen appears as Aro, the head of the Volturi, while Dakota Fanning makes a brief appearance as Jane, a powerful minion to Aro. For the ten minutes or so that the film is in Italy, there’s an actual pulse to what we’re watching. Don’t get me wrong… it’s still wretched, and the paucity of imagination that Meyer displays in creating her world is on full display here… but at least Sheen and Fanning and the rest of the Volturi seem to be determined to play things their way. The film lurches into high camp while they’re onscreen, with Sheen in particular gnawing on the scenery a bit. Then, just as quickly as they were introduced, they’re gone, and the film returns to the Pacific Northwest for more angst and an ending so abrupt that they might just as well punch you in the face and steal $10 from you on your way out the door.
Ultimately, the film commits the biggest sin any film can commit: it’s boring. It’s poorly structured, there’s little or no tension to the film’s “drama,” and even the big moments like Bella racing to Italy to stop Edward’s suicide or Graham Greene facing a vampire attack in the woods only to be saved by a werewolf are so poorly staged and so oddly cut that there is no energy to any of them. Javier Aguirresarobe’s work as cinematographer is okay, but considering what a cultural phenomenon this series is, there are no iconic images, nothing that visually defines the “Twilight” series. Aguirresarobe has shot films like “The Sea Inside” and “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” and he’s definitely a guy with a great, elegant visual signature, but this film underutilizes him almost as criminally as it misuses the fantastic Alexandre Desplat. Again… there’s nothing about his score that seems to brand the “Twilight” series. Walking away from the film, the audience will remember the non-stop barrage of pop songs, but they’ll be hard-pressed to identify a note of the score, and considering it’s Desplat, that seems positively negligent.
Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz have had a difficult year at the movies, and both of them are limping away from their respective vampire films worse for the wear. It’s a shame, too. I know Chris a little bit… not well, but enough to know that he’s a smart, passionate guy who wants to make great films. And he isn’t just interested in blockbusters, either. This is the guy who starred in “Chuck and Buck,” after all. And when he did try his hand at a blockbuster-type film, it was “The Golden Compass,” based on a series of books that are overloaded with heady ideas about the nature of the soul and the origins of human behavior. With talking polar bears. His film “About A Boy” demonstrates a keen understanding of the gulf between men and women, and the definition of mature relationships, and for the same person to make “New Moon” who made “About A Boy” seems impossible to me.
As I read the press notes for “New Moon” before sitting down to write this review, I realized that much of what I dislike about this film and, presumably, the franchise as a whole all stems from Stephenie Meyer, who I think has a simple, naive, childish view of the world. I think her definition of “love” is awful, empty, and destructive. I think she has no knack for writing characters, instead leaning on types. She wants to subvert these monsters, these cultural ideas that have been around for hundreds of years, and turn them into something with all the heft and substance of a bodice-ripper with Fabio on the cover. Sure… I can see why those books exist, and the itch they scratch for certain readers. But I’ve never had a Harlequin fan try to convince me that those books were anything more than ridiculous candy, meant to distract, selling nonsense to a willing audience. “New Moon” and all things “Twilight” take up a preposterous amount of cultural real estate these days, and so I went to the movie tonight ready to treat the movie seriously, ready to judge it as a film, on its own merits. What I saw was lazy, and worse than that, bad storytelling on all fronts. And unimportant. If this sort of thing fills some particular need for you, great… enjoy it. But don’t sell me shit and call it toothpaste, because as soon as it hits my mouth, I’ll know the truth.
“New Moon” is for the hardcore, the already-indoctrinated, and no one else. It is a creative dead end, and a near-total failure as a movie. And it opens on ten billion screens on Friday, where it will earn twice our National Debt by Monday morning. You asked for it… you got it.
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