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Non-Review Review: Twilight – Breaking Dawn, Part I

Twilight tends to generate a great deal of controversy on the internet, which is something I’ve never really understood. After all, all aspects of fandom – movies, television, comic books, video games – tend to suffer from a mainstream prejudice, so it seems strange that Twilight should attract such a harsh response from fans of other niche culture. In fact, I’d subscribe to the argument that Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part I is just like any other major franchise film, like The Expendables or Transformers III. The only major difference is that it’s aimed at the female demographic rather than a male one. Keep in mind this isn’t a defense (it has many of the same weaknesses as those two films), but rather an observation – it’s something I’ve always found strange.

To have and to hold...

I can understand (and, to a large extent, agree with) the arguments that Twilight is a very sexist franchise, with poor defenseless Bella caught between two hulking hunks, unable to even decide between them. (Here, for instance, she promises to name a son after both of them, which is just being recklessly indecisive.) These arguments are valid, but they’re no more valid than those arguments that criticise Michael Bay’s decision to turn Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley into little more than props to keep his male audience entertained between explosions, or those that observe the possessive “I fought for her, now I own her” mentality of Jason Statham’s character in The Expendables.

And yet Twilight seems to get singled out for attack and criticism on all sides. I want to believe that this isn’t solely because it’s a film made for women, and this is some sort of geeky misogyny rearing its ugly head. After all, I look at all the posts criticising female fans for “ruining” Comic Con by coming out to support something they love, and wonder if the nerdy rage might have been better directed at some of the other activities at these conventions that scare women away. Shouldn’t we be more inclusive? Anyway, that’s a tangent for another day. This is just something I’ve found quite interesting about the way the internet seems to treat Twilight and its fans, as opposed to fans of Star Trek or Pokemon or even James Bond. The latter of which has just as many gender issues.

Who's playing whom?

So, what of the film? If you want to look at it as a major franchise directed at stereotypical women, as opposed to the franchises typically aimed at stereotypical men, it ticks all the boxes. It substitutes lingering shots of objectified females with lingering shots of Taylor Lautner’s admittedly impressive washboard abs. It replaces gigantic explosions with whispers of sweet nothings (“no measure of time spent with you would be enough, but we’ll start with forever”). Instead of ridiculous and improbable set pieces featuring car chases or ticking bombs, there’s gratuitous amounts of angst thrown in – it seems that Edward is incapable of leaving a room without sulking, and that at least one person in any room at a given moment must look dejected.

To be entirely honest, the fans loved it. Personally, I got the sense that the series wasn’t taking itself as seriously as it used to, which is – I suppose – something. There are any number of sequences where the film seems to pause and wink at the audience, acknowledging the ridiculously staged melodrama and somewhat awkwardly orchestrated plot. Highlights include Jacob, everybody’s favourite moody werewolf, getting bitten by the love bug and literally dropping to his knees when he finally finds his true love. I won’t spoil the scene, but it belongs on a reel for the ages. Another sees what can only be described as “a vampire c-section.” At one point, Edward is whipping up a blood smoothie for his beloved, and finds a pile of discarded and empty bags of blood in the bin. The look of frustration on Robert Pattison’s face makes it all worthwhile.

Dawn of the undead?

That said, things do go a little bit too far at times. There’s a very weird conference scene between a pack of badly-illustrated CGI wolves, where they talk in slightly-deeper-than-usual human voices. It looks like one of those dubs you see on a cheap Disney Channel movie, or like a very poor man’s version of Homeward Bound. I have to admit, I’m surprised Summit haven’t been able to improve the special effects on the series, as it’s a pretty major moneyspinner. Instead, the wolves still look like they’ve been ported over from a videogame.

The best parts of the film seem to be in on the joke, acknowledging that this is the very guiltiest of guilty pleasures. Although the lead trio haven’t grown more comfortable in their roles over time, with Lautner being trulyterrible, members of the supporting cast seem aware that this is pure cheese. Anna Kendrick isn’t in the movie nearly enough, as she seems to disappear after the wedding. That’s a shame, because a lot of movies could use more Anna Kendrick. Peter Facinelli also puts in a solid turn as Edward’s surrogate father, playing Carlisle as a vampire who has decided to swap out his thirst for blood with a hunger for scenery. Even when the guy has like one line in a scene, you remember him. Unfortunately not too many other actors leave an impression.

Til undeath do us part?

The fundamental problem with Twilight as a whole, and with this film in particular, is that fact that it’s confused as to its genre. Of course, the box office returns would suggest that I’m the one who is confused, but I look at the basic ingredients of the film, and I see the components that add up to a “reproductive horror” rather than a “romantic epic.” In many ways, Twilight feels like an “anti-romance” that has been written, directed and acted as a bona fides romantic film, added to a very real and surreal disconnect that the movie never really gets past.

I mean, no matter how you cut it, there is no way to argue that Bella and Edward have “true love.” At best, he’s a centuries-old sexual predator who has stalked a teenage girl who is infinitely younger and less experienced than him. In fact, this movie hints that its second romantic lead, Jacob, is doing something quite similar.Even after they are married, Edward is creepily possessive, watching her sleep and standing outside the window while she has a “private”conversation (that he arranged).

Does this look like a happy husband?

Here, we discover that Edward and Bella cannot have sex without seriously hurting her. Literally, “he hurts her because he loves her.” And, like far too many victims of domestic abuse, she fobs it off. “Can’t you see how happy I am?” she asks as she literally begs for more. She covers the bruises with long sleeves and hides away from her father to avoid revealing the naughty and destructive stuff herself and her new husband have been up to. It’s worth noting that she doesn’t seem to think it worth her while to follow up with her mother.

Anyway, Edward manages to get Bella pregnant. And the thing is just as much a predator as he is. It eats away at her from the inside, draining her. It’s that primal fear of motherhood, of the vicious child – the same basic fear we see in horror films like Rosemary’s Baby or Alien or The Fly or even We Need to Talk About Kevin. It taps into the fear, irrational of course, that we may somehow produce a monster as our legacy to the world. This is all good stuff, in theory – it’s horrific and it’s juicy, and it has the makings of a horrific thriller. Imagine what David Lynch, David Cronenberg, John Landis or even Roger Cormon could do with that basic set-up. It would put a pulpy twist on the most basic of fears.

Oh, mummy!

However, the problem arises because the film doesn’t see any of this as horrific. The way that Edward brutalises Bella on their wedding night is played for laughs, as the cleaning staff discover a bedroom literally torn apart in their passion, while the film consciously downplays the bruising to Bella herself. Edward is never called by anyone on his possessive behaviour, and indeed is repeatedly vindicated by the way that others react to him and Bella. “Let’s not monopolise the bride,” one wedding guest remarks – he’s not concerned about keeping the couple from their guests, but the wife from her husband. Edward seems to vet his wife’s medical information, giving her doctor the all-clear to give her pretty basic information, “It’s all right, Carlisle, tell her what you told me.”

Indeed, when Bella gets pregnant, all the conversation seems to focus around Edward, rather than Bella herself. Despite the fact that the maid think’s he is a demon, the maid doesn’t try to converse with Bella (even through a different language, she barely acknowledges here). When Jacob discovers she’s pregnant, he stops paying attention to Bella and immediately focuses on Edward, “You did this!” Um, Jacob, I think there were two people involved. “You destroyed her!” Eh… possessive, much? I don’t think ‘destroyed’is a verb to use in this context for a human being, rather than property.

Kiss me, deadly...

In fact, the film seems to put all the weight on Bella’s responsibility as a mother. Her mother, at the wedding, insists that she pass on an heirloom to her daughter… and her daughter’s daughter. “Get busy making babies” couldn’t be a more awkward subtext if they tried. And, on “the big night”, it’s Bella who has to put the effort in to “getting ready” for the lovemaking. Edward just sort of saunters off to do his own thing while she grooms herself and shaves and picks out undergarments. It seems like the movie would suggest it’s her “job” to put in the groundwork for this baby-making activity.

And then there’s the weak-willed justifications Bella seems to offer for all the crummy things her husband does. When he confesses to her that he has killed in cold blood, but only suspected murderers (because, you know, they’re not as tasty if they’re convicted), she leaps to his defense, “You probably saved more lives than you took.” See, even when he’s drinking blood, he’s a hero to her! It’s also fascinating that, while Edward goes off on a “stag” night with the lads, Bella remains at home, as chaste as ever in her high tower. No fun for her until afterthe wedding, apparently!

Watered down vampires?

I can’t help but feel the problem at the heart of all this is a fundamental misunderstanding about vampires, on the part of Stephanie Meyers. Again, she’s laughing all the way to the bank, so what do I know? However, vampires have always stood for the destructive parts of our collective sexuality. While Bram Stoker’s Dracula seems pretty tame today, there were moments in there that would make any decent-minded Victorian-era reader blush. Stephen King, in his highly-recommended Danse Macabre, described this grotesque and perverse sexuality embodied by vampires as “the ultimate zipless f**k.” Vampires are about dark and carnal passions, depravity and excess, those urges and tastes no decent human being would indulge without being exiled and ostracised. They’re that sexual urge pushed too far. They are the affectionate love bite that draws blood.

There are hints of this to be found here. The creepy pseudo-incestuous vibe inside the Cullen household, where the siblings have very clearly paired off (or desired to pair off), creates an unsettling sense that something is quite wrong. However, the problem is that Meyer doesn’t acknowledge anything else as wrong or grotesque. Edward’s obsession with controlling Bella is destructive, as is the way he links sex and violence, brutalising her while having “the best night” of his impressive lifespan. There’s satisfaction, but it’s wrong. However, Meyer’s saga seems to suggest that the satisfaction is enough – as if to argue there’s absolutely nothing objectivelywrong about any of this.

Time for reflection?

So, despite the creepy incestuous children, the Cullen household is decidedly normal and mundane. There’s nothing profane or occult about it. There’s even an old crucifix lying about. The family can’t help but seem like genial WASPs. Hell, despite being undead creatures of the night, they make sure that there’s some form of minister at their ceremony, and that he’s holding what looks like a bible. The film doesn’t even seem to acknowledge the inherent conflict between these elements – the suggestion that there’s an unwholesome subtext beneath this well-practiced veneer of taste and sophistication.

And so the film sees absolutely nothing wrong with everybody except Bella having long and pondorous discussions about Bella’s reproductive rights. When Bella decides to sleep with her boyfriend on her honeymoon, her ex-boyfriend angrily declares, “You can’t be serious!” Hell, Bella is such a passive figure that she seems to have a minimal involvement in planning her own wedding. “Now go home and get lots of beauty sleep,” Edward’s sister tells her, “that’s an order!”

Aisle be there...

I can’t help but think that the cast and crew are consciously playing up the homoerotic tension between Edward and Jacob. I’ve never seen a love triangle that was so disinterested in the “point of intersection” – with Bella seeming like a trivial figure at times. Hell, Jacob seems more fixated on Edward than on Bella. Asked what will happen if she dies, he replies, “At least I’ll get to do something I’ve always wanted.” And we cut to a quick fantasy about Jacob wrapping his mouth around Edward’s juicy head –

Erm, that came out wrong.

When Edward asks Jacob to talk Bella out of having the baby, Jacob ponders what happens if Bella dies. Their eyes meet across the forest, as I wonder why they couldn’t just have this “secret” conversation in the kitchen. “Then you’ll get what you always wanted,” Edward says. He pauses just long enough for the audience’s imagination to kick into overdrive. Then he clarifies, “You can kill me.” Later on, as Bella approaches death, and Jacob looks to be called on his bluff, he declares that he won’t kill Edward. He uses the old “you’ll suffer more this way” excuse, but you can tell he was just looking for an “out”, while struggling with his conflicted feelings.

Wooden...

In many ways, the tension bubbling between Jacob and Edward feels far more natural and more fitting than any romance involving Bella – at least Edward and Jacob treat each other as equals, and both seem confused about their weird desires. I’m not even kidding here, I do genuinely believe that it’s a legitimate interpretation of the movie, and perhaps the strongest one there is.

Director Bill Condon does the best he can with the material, and he tries to direct the hell out of the melodrama. It does seem that he has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek at times, and it helps.  He has also shrewdly realised that he hasn’t been handed three of the strongest leads in the world, so you can feel him trying to compensate a bit. Unfortunately, this means lots of whirling cameras, and an overwhelming soundtrack which screams “feel [insert emotion here]”as if he can’t trust his actors to deliver. And, to be honest, maybe it’s a good call. There are nice touches. Condon shoots Edward’s honeymoon retreat with all the style and grace of a vintage Bond film. And I have to admire some of the special effects used to illustrate Bella’s transformation as the fetus eats away at her on the inside.

Putting the franchise to bed...

Fans of the series will eat it up. Those dragged along can, if in the right mindset, find elements to enjoy scattered among a movie that just doesn’t really come together. It never truly feels as outrageous or as pulpy as it should – in fact, it feels like it hasn’t though too much about its contents, instead accepting the assertion that it’s a romantic story at face value. If Stephen King described vampires as “the ultimate zipless f**k”, then this movie is “the ultimate wet kiss on the cheek.”

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10 Responses

  1. You have a valid point about how the genre community treats fans of this series. They get as much degradation as Trekkies did in the ’70’s before it became cool to be a geek. I have never read any of the “Twilight” books or seen the movies because I am somewhat repelled by this material and also question those who are rabid fans of it. Mostly it’s the fact that it took two iconic horror monsters and turned it into sentimental melodrama that seemed to be aimed at 13-year-old girls. Not meaning to demean 13-year-old girls, but their shallowness is very different than boy-centric shallowness that most of our entertainment caters to. As a male, I’m drawn to the testosterone-fueled science fiction action adventures that Hollywood does very well rather than the romanticized mush that “Twilight” appears to be.

    • No, I agree with you to a large extent. This isn’t even good mindless entertainment for girls, just as Transformers isn’t even good mindless entertainment for boys. I will tear both examples apart, but I just find it fascinating that Transformers (for example) never seems to come in with the same rabid hatred as Twilight.

      Live and let live, I suppose. When I am asked to discuss the film, or have reason to discuss the film, I’ll talk about why it isn’t good mindless entertainment, but I do find some of the more dismissive critiques from mainstream critics to be quite frustrating. Let’s actually talk about why these aren’t good films, instead of just assuming that they aren’t.

      • Ironically, I have more disgust for the Transformers movies than I do for the Twilight movies. However, I find the “Twi-hards” to be highly irritating, while fans of Transformers know not to take it any more seriously than enjoying watching things go boom.

      • You’d be surprised – I remember the blowback Ebert got for his negative review of Transformers, which led him to make more negative remarks, which led to a nuclear reaction of sorts. The same thing happened when Edelstein decided to diverge from the popular opinion on The Dark Knight – I have my own opinion of his writing, which I have issues with (they’re the same issues as with Armond White, only much less severe), but the reaction of the fanboys was just insane. I think any fandom has its extreme elements. I think Twilight suffers because they don’t look like we expect nerdy fanatics to look like.

  2. I don’t think people are wrong to criticize Twilight, but I agree that some seem to be criticizing it for the wrong reasons. It’s not a terrible franchise because it’s aimed at girls and women over forty; nor because it’s romantic; nor because of how it dilutes its genre roots; etc etc. Rather, it’s bad because of what it says about Meyer’s worldview and particularly her perception of teenage girls (and, to a lesser extent, boys), which you touch on in your review here; it’s bad because it’s incompetently written and poorly acted. Nothing more, really, and I don’t think anyone needs anything more than that. Bella and Edward aren’t even characters; they’re just gallimaufries of the various traits Meyers chooses to imbue them with when it’s convenient to do so.

    The consensus I see forming on this is that Condon and his cinematographer make the film look great and work on a base level but can’t overcome the substandard material they’re saddled with. Sounds about right. I know my wife and I will watch all of these one day with a Twilight-themed drinking game (when Bella looks longingly at Edward or vice versa, drink!) on hand and 9-1-1 pre-dialed just as a precaution. I’ll probably right about it once I do, if I’m still conscious of course.

    • I don’t think they’re wrong either – but I do think that they focus on the wrong reasons, and that the same complaints about those films are present and all but ignored in other forms of entertainment. I don’t find it acceptable here, but I find it interesting that it seems a non-issue elsewhere.

      But yes, they are not good films. And there are very serious issues that need to be discussed about how the series portrays… well, everyone. But I just don’t understand the near rapid level of internet hatedom that doesn’t exist for analoguously crap films.

      And as for the drinking game, it’s only lethal if you mix in shots while Bella does a pretentious narration, or take a double-hit if Bella is sleeping while being watched.

  3. I make it a point to not make fun of the series simply because I don’t have to watch them and I don’t. Fair review of it Darren, I can’t think of many critics capable of that.

    • Thanks Fitz. That means a lot. I was honestly cautious to attend the preview screening, because I didn’t want to just write up 800 words of bitching and whining, but rather try to see what’s wrong with with a franchise so many people argue is broken (an accessment I can’t help but agree with).

  4. I had no idea Transformers was held in higher regard than Twilight. I was under the impression both were equally horrible. The difference is, of course, that Transformers was based on something that was actually OK and could’ve developed into something good if it had been treated as anything other than a cash-cow, whereas Twilight was awful to begin with, and while the films are an improvement, it wasn’t nearly enough.

    Basically, as one comment above said, “It’s bad because it’s incompetently written and poorly acted. Nothing more.”

    • That’s fair. It’s also got some unpleasant sexist undertones and a whole mess of screwed up subtext.

      I don’t know if they’re critically held in higher esteem, but I get the sense that Transformers is more likely to be treated with respect. I mean, half the negative reviews out there for this film are just sort of “sparkly vampires” and “gay subtext”, which are fascinating aspects of the films (I’m not being sarcastic – ironically, Meyers writes a more convincing closeted gay flirtation than a straight romance).

      People seem more likely to discuss the flaws in the Transformers films as legitimate problems deserving a serious discussion – Bay’s too fond of cuts, the CGI is confusing, the machismo is vaguely sickening – while Twilight doesn’t even get the “respect” of decent criticism. At least that I’ve seen. I don’t know if I’m making sense or rambling.

      And I think it’s a lot more socially acceptable for anybody to confess to liking Transformers or The Expendables (even in an ironic fashion) than it is to admit to liking Twilight.

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