June 14, 2015 Leave a comment
I’m a fan of the Twilight series. So much so that I felt compelled to write an article defending the series in feminist terms. A few years further removed now, the past few weeks I’ve rewatched the whole series. Reviews of each part are below but the basic takeaway is that the series held up, probably even improved for me the second time around. New bits of nuance or thematic detail jumped out at me and now I’m not just defending it from criticism of being bad from a feminist standpoint, I actually maintain that the Twilight series, and Bella as its central character, are great works of feminism. From start to finish, this is a story about what Bella desires, though it requires battling through perils of adolescent/male understandings of love or romance that negate her agency. Ultimately it is about maturing to where sex can be a bond of equals, approached enthusiastically. It is also a story about finding power in the feminine, in nurturing and community. All good things in my opinion.
While I stood by parts 2-5 on initial viewing, I actually hated this first entry the first time around, watched after reading the first book (which I was only so-so on, but saw value in that it fittingly is written with the impact of a teenage girl’s diary). In rewatching it, I’d say it rises closer to the level of the book, leaving it the worst in the series, but watchable.
One thing to keep in mind is that Twilight was, at the time, somewhat of an indie film (or maybe mindie, to use the music term), trying to make a blockbuster type film for $35 million. It was the film that made Summit a major player (ultimately to be acquired by Lionsgate). This low budget shows at times, in the make-up, which gives the vampires a false paleness that is more distracting than alluring, and in the effects. I still think they probably were hamstrung by the book being much more internal to Bella than the subsequent volumes, but I also don’t think this was an idea adaptation. I’d have cut something like the baseball scene.
Still, I think one thing that helped the film in returning to it is at this point the rest of the series has built goodwill for the characters and many of the actors. Anna Kendrick has only a small role here, but in typical fashion she does as much as she can with it. Michael Welch is maybe a bit insufferable as Mike Newton, but now I’m watching it after seeing him in a major role in Boy Meets Girl, one of my favorites so far this year. While I’d long sensed the way the film was dramatizing the adolescent approach to romance, imbued with existential importance and subsequent capacity for emotional destruction and abuse, this viewing made me feel how Bella’s relationship with her divorced parents fits in to Bella’s identity struggle.
So yeah, not particularly good, but I’m happy that it is no longer a qualification I have to add when expressing my appreciation for the series as a whole.
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)
A fun thing related to my original experience with New Moon, to which I gave a solid review, is that same day I reviewed 8 1/2, which I detest. The juxtaposition of hating a cinema classic and strongly liking part of a dismissed genre film, was a amusement to some, and probably represents my nature as well as anything. Following Twilight a few days ago, New Moon also played stronger the second time around.
An early shot, a dream sequence, shows Bella seeing her grandmother across a field. Out comes Edward and she goes to introduce them before realizing it is actually an older version of her. Within the story it makes sense she would be worried about what happens when she grows old, with Edward staying the same age, but on the level of the series metaphor about adolescent relationship, it is more about the fear of growing apart, knowing that high school relationships rarely last. A second thing that stood out for me this time in particular is the way both Edward and Jacob speak about protecting Bella, often by getting away from her and her feelings. Yes, she is clumsy in the film, which provides cover for the statements but what is actually being done is the film is condemning the men for trying to protect Bella from her sexuality and her sexual agency. They are forces of traditional belief that many have ascribed to the author and the book as a whole, but their beliefs are revealed to be a harmful force for both the men and Bella.
If it is kicked up a notch thematically (and starts to set the stage for the main conflict of the next film, and that ultimately sold me on the series), the filmmaking also is loads better. There are still a few moments of weird make-up, and Lautner isn’t the most natural, but on the whole it is quite effective. The introduction of some supporting cast members like Michael Sheen also contributes a lot to the general enjoyment. This one really opens up the fantasy of the series a lot more than the first one.
P.S. And the seemingly much maligned “Bella sits in a chair for four months” shot seems to me a perfect encapsulation of depression.
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)
It’s possible this rewatch nudged modestly down in my esteem, but that’s because I esteemed it rather a lot the first time around. As a piece of filmmaking, they finally have sanded all the rough edges like the make-up, preferring a more natural look. The acting and chemistry between actors really starts to click as well, even Lautner. Billy Burke of course is kind of the consistent presence where acting concerns. The worried father is a bit of a cliche, but he gives it the humor and compassion it needs as the non-supernatural element of the story.
One thing that really shows this entry growing up is how it broadens the world, through use of flashbacks related to a few of the other characters. Suddenly the rest of the Cullen family starts to have personalities of their own. One thing I noticed here is how the back stories of Jasper and Rosalie speak to their respective relationships now, and along with Esme and Carlisle, present some really sturdy adult relationships as models for Bella. This is after all the entry where it really has to mature.
The reason I perhaps cooled a little with the film is it does lose from the book a bit of the intensity of the love triangle and its emotionally abusive aspects that resonated at the time. Edward is still overbearingly possessive and Jacob still uses emotional manipulation, each in their adolescent venture to “win the girl.” But maybe easing it a bit makes it easier to not need an “abandon both of them” ending. Ultimately, the important aspect of this story, is that Bella is central. This isn’t a book about two men battling for Bella, it is a story of Bella narrowing things down to two, and ultimately making a choice. Perspective can be a powerful thing.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I (2011)
On first viewing, this rivaled Eclipse for the top spot in the series. In some respects it should be the best of them because it has a neat body horror thing going for it that brings in a bit of genre intrigue into the romantic drama (more than the vampire/werewolf part that is). I’m not sure how much of a spoiler the main plot thing is here, which makes it harder to talk about than the previous entries but I feel like the need for a PG-13 rating to cater to the masses keeps it from excelling in the genre. I did appreciate more this time the way the series use of death as metaphor is reimagined as a new threat to Edward.
It meanders a bit more than it probably needs to, and there is one truly terrible scene with the wolf pack that needed to be cut, but mostly it is strong work, just delivering less on its potential.
Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II (2012)
My first experience with Breaking Dawn Part II was a positive one, though perhaps feeling like a passing fancy since it does focus a bit more heavily on the action and less on the relationships, after all, their relationship is on firm footing at this point, now they just have to protect it. This watching it occurred to me that it is fair to think of this film as a superhero film. While select vampires having special talents had been established from the beginning, this entry opens the world wide to show a true diversity of vampires, with a broad range of talents. Suddenly they feel a lot like the X-Men.
When the Volturi emerge as a clear and dominant threat, playing the role of an overbearing/authoritarian government, Carlisle draws from a network that at least to some degree represents the more humane subset of vampires (though not all are “vegetarians” like the Cullens). So what you have is a battle of good mutants versus bad mutants over the future of their species. This conflict is familiar as it divides Professor X from Magneto and it separates Dumbledore from Voldemort. Aro (Michael Sheen), the leader of the Volturi, at one point gives a whole speech about the dangers for vampires in modern society and like many a leader in history, uses fear for safety to gin up support for violence against an out group or a threat to his power. This understanding suddenly leant a bit more heft to the film.
The contrast with most of the superhero movies is important though. This isn’t some threat to the whole of humanity, set in a metropolis with largely invulnerable forces colliding off each other causing great wreckage and probably great death, with little consideration. This takes place in a forest clearing where the threat is only to those who choose to be there, and they all face a very real threat. While there are some larger stakes, it still is mostly a personal battle. Given my exhaustion with the conventional comic book franchises at this point, it all felt very refreshing.
Arguably up to this point, the series has been anticlimactic as an action series. I built threats in for tension building, but was mostly about the relationship dynamics. Here, the climax is pretty epic. Some might complain about the resolution being a cop-out, but it actually works very well thematically with how the series has been built and the movie’s deviations from the book have actually vastly improved it. Ultimately this does feel like the most complete entry in the series and it took me a bit by surprise in ending up as my favorite.
Oh, and it is impressive how separate they make the two parts feel. If they hadn’t named them part 1 and 2, and I hadn’t known they came from one book, I never would guess it. It feels organically like two stories of a series, not two halves. This may be the best example of book splitting so far.
In recap, my revised ranking:
1. Breaking Dawn P2: A-
2. Eclipse: A-
3. Breaking Dawn P1: B+
4. New Moon: B+
5. Twilight: C+