Marathon Man: A 'Twilight' Virgin Watches the Saga for the First Time (Updated with 'Breaking Dawn, Part 1')

Marathon Man: A 'Twilight' Virgin Watches the Saga for the First Time (Updated with 'Breaking Dawn, Part 1')

Nov 18, 2011

I'll admit it: I was the guy who made fun of Twilight and its fanbase without having ever seen a minute of the films or read a page of the books. Yeah, I'm that guy and yes, I understand it's the equivalent of a jock slamming me into a locker for liking Star Trek even though he's never laid eyes upon it himself (not that I've ever been slammed into a locker -- I'm too cool for that). Still, it's always hard to be outside of a phenomenon and when the phenomenon in question is something as popular as the tale of Bella Swan and her various supernatural courtships, you've got to formulate an opinion. If you don't have an opinion, you can't participate in the conversation.

So I made up my mind without a shred of actual experience to back it up: Twilight was stupid and its fans had bad taste and so on and etcetera.

With the penultimate film, Breaking Dawn Part One, hitting theaters this week, I decided it was time to put my money where my mouth was. It was time to sit down and watch these things in one sitting, to make the final judgment on a series I had always mocked from afar. As I always do with my marathons, I decided to break my observations on each film into a few categories. This time around, the categories were Team Edward/Team Jacob (which of Bella's potential suitors is better for her), Hot Supernatural Action (stray observations on various scenes and plot developments), Director Roulette (what each film's director brings to the table) and How Badly Do I Want to Kill Myself/How Pleasantly Surprised Am I (which speaks for itself).



Twilight (2008)

Hot Supernatural Action

High schooler Bella Swan moves to the Pacific Northwest and gets involved in all kinds of Hot Supernatural Action, as Pacific Northwesterners are wont to do. She's in town for about three days and then BAM! She's making out with vampires and such. Of course, these are nice vampires who live on animal blood, go to high school despite their advanced ages and spend their free time playing baseball in the woods, because that's what vampires do, you see. Eventually, Bella's cuddling with her super-chaste undead beau is interrupted when the film decides it wants to have a plot in the last thirty minutes and introduces a trio of evil vampires who think Bella smells super tasty. Will the Cullen clan protect this indecisive young woman who has captured one of their own's (unbeating) heart? Well, there are few more movies in this series.

Team Edward/Team Jacob 

There's something terribly wrong with the relationship between Bella and Edward Cullen. She's a 17-7ear-old girl who has no idea what she wants to do with her life and he's an old man in a boy's body who watches her while she sleeps and loves her so much that he's convinced he's going to kill her and drink her delicious blood. I get that Bella would be attracted to this mysterious, brooding stranger who sparkles in the sunlight like David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase, but there's something undeniably -- for the lack of the better phrase -- rapey about him. By contrast, Jacob is the good natured Native American kid who shows up whenever Bella is in desperate need of exposition. At this juncture, he's the bland choice, but he's also the choice that won't murder you in your sleep. Point to Team Jacob.

Director Roulette 

Catherine Hardwicke, she of Thirteen fame, proves a good choice for a film that's mostly the perils and joys of teenage love. Although I would never call Twilight gritty, she provides the film with enough of a rough edge to counterbalance the silliness of the narrative (Sparkly vampires? Bwahahaha!). There's little about her direction that proves remarkable, but it's a solid, albeit obviously low budgeted affair. Most importantly though, Hardwicke sets a precedent that will prove important to the series as a whole: she keeps the film completely and totally humorless. Stone faced. More on this in a moment.

How Badly Do I Want to Kill Myself/How Pleasantly Surprised Am I 

Okay, Twihards…let's be honest with ourselves. Twilight is camp. It's dumb, preposterous, and entirely unaware of how people interact and how healthy relationships function. It's melodramatic to the breaking point. It never cracks a smile, not even when it takes an extended break to showcase the baseball prowess of the damned. It has no self awareness. It never winks. And you know what? It's all the better for it…and I kind of dig it. If you're going to make a soapy romance that asks the audience to accept situations and scenes this ridiculous, you better do it with a straight face. Twilight doesn't know it's silly. Twilight doesn't know that Edward is a terrifying stalker. Twilight is only concerned with enveloping you in its big stupid tidal wave of weird forbidden romance, logic be damned! Anyone who argues that Twilight is legitimately great is out of their minds, but as a guilty pleasure fully intended to appeal to our base desires and fantasies? I get it. I totally get it. Color me pleasantly surprised.

 

New Moon (2009)

Hot Supernatural Action 

What happens when you slice open your hand at a birthday party where all of the guests are bloodsucking fiends? Well, first one of your newfound undead friends will try to drink you to death and your undead boyfriend will save your life, but then he'll break up with you and flee the country, leaving you completely helpless since your only defining character trait is whatever guy happens to be in your life. After moping for a few months because you're incapable of making any kind of decision for yourself, you fall in love with your childhood friend, who turns out to be a werewolf, which may be a metaphor for something, but it probably isn't. Then your former beau thinks you're dead and tries to kill himself out of guilt. Of course, it's up to another character to buy you a plane ticket and drive you to his rescue because heaven forbid you actually choose to make a decision regarding any predicament in your life.

Team Edward/Team Jacob 

In order to discuss the Jacob or Edward dilemma, it's important to take a close look at Bella Swan, quite possibly one of the most indecisive and nondescript characters in modern fiction (at least in the films). If you remove the werewolf and the vampire battling for her affections from the equation, what are you left with? Nothing. Bella is a blank slate, a surrogate for the audience who spends three months moping when her man is gone and doesn't do anything until other characters force her to accompany them to the action. This series begins with Edward and Bella falling in love, but the rest of the films are us observing the fallout of her one conscious choice: everyone talks about her and fights over her and argues about what's best for her, while Bella stands idly by, letting everyone in her life make decisions for her. Bella is either very stupid or very cruel, watching others bend over backwards for her without lifting a hand. Now, on to the guys! Edward breaks up with Bella and breaks her heart, but he continues to intervene in her life via a psychic connection, "protecting her," but actually acting as salt in her emotional wounds. He shatters her heart and then he refuses to let her move on. What a jerk. The kindly, handy Jacob is the better of the two at first, helping Bella get out of her slump and providing a shoulder to cry on. However, by the end of the film, he's an angry beast of a potential boyfriend, running around the woods half naked and appearing out of nowhere to inform Bella how she's not doing things right. Still, Jacob's angry passion is preferable to Edward's terrifying combination of neglect and stalker obsession. Point to Team Jacob, yet again.

Director Roulette 

With a new director on board, the second Twilight film gets a facelift. Gone are the slightly rough edges and blue, icy colors of the first film. Chris Weitz shoots New Moon like a more traditional drama, filled with warm lighting, earth tones and just enough soft focus to qualify as hokey. Despite the numerous cosmetic changes and a significantly larger budget, New Moon ultimately feels lazy, like something Weitz tossed off as quickly and easily as he could. The film is lifeless and without pace, the special effects are dull and the rear projection behind characters as they drive looks like something out of 1960. There are takes that look shoddy from a technical and performance level, so much so that you have to wonder why Weitz didn't ask everyone to reset for one more try.

How Badly Do I Want to Kill Myself/How Pleasantly Surprised Am I 

Opinions may vary on the first Twilight, but I think everyone is in agreement about one thing: it looked and felt like a real movie. New Moon, on the other hand, looks and feels like a couple episodes of a CW TV series strung together. Twilight was hammy and silly, but it went places and featured characters who actually, you know, did things. New Moon is almost hilariously stagnant, 130 minutes of brooding and glowering looks and really terrible werewolf CGI. Still, the film is not without its goofy charms, which can be best summed up by Jacob and his gang of werewolf buddies, all of whom wander around the woods only wearing jorts, all the better to show off their chiseled abs and pecs. It's eye candy for the ladies (and some men, of course) in the audience, the people who don't care that the werewolves look like crap; the real special effect is Taylor Lautner's personal trainer. In the same way that I rush to the cinema to see Iron Man punch bad guys into the stratosphere, the fans of the Twilight films line up to see attractive men engage in a ludicrous emotional battle of wills to win the hand of the woman so nondescript that anyone can be her. New Moon is a blockbuster soap opera that doubles as a fantasy wish fulfillment for people who're turned on by the concept of forbidden romance. And you know what? That's fine. I just wish New Moon wasn't so slow and boring and badly made and miserable to endure.


Eclipse (2010)

Hot Supernatural Action

What's this? Things are happening? Kind of? Sort of? A small army of vampires led by a villainess who has a bone to pick with Bella and Edward are on their way to the town of Forks and since Bella is incapable of defending herself, it falls to the local vampire and werewolf clans to risk their lives to defend her. The rest of the film is a combination of things we've seen before (Jacob and Edward bicker at each other while Bella acts indecisive and toys with everyone's emotions) and things we haven't seen before (Holy crap! A pretty badass vampire/werewolf throwdown complete with smashed heads and brutal de-limbings!). We also learn the backstory of man of the other vampire characters and realize that each and every one of them is more interesting than our trio of selfish, lovestruck moron heroes.

Team Edward/Team Jacob 

Surely, I'm not the only one who thinks that Robert Pattinson looks like herpes warmed over. C'mon, the guy looks gross. If you're a reasonably intelligent woman above the age of 18 and you want to explain the appeal of this man to me, please go ahead. Taylor Lautner may have the emotional range of a block of wood, but I get it: the man's body is the kind of thing that makes my Film Writer Flab™ swirl and ripple with guilt. Pattinson has the face of a '70s character actor, the kind of guy who always gets shot in the face around the hour mark. How can ladies be swooning over this guy when Michael Fassbender is floating about, radiating masculinity like a huge sex lantern? Anyway, the Jacob/Edward rivalry heats up in the third non-adventure of Bella Swan and the two of them are forced to team up to protect her from a threat that's been building since the first film. That means that both rivals share the screen for much of the film. It also means that both look like increasingly poor choices for a boyfriend. Both of them constantly talk about what's best for Bella, talk about whom she loves and what she wants, all without consulting her. In fact, they usually have these discussions while Bella is in the room. If Bella was smart -- and I've decided by this point that she is not -- she'd leave both of these losers in the dust. Alas, Bella must choose between the sexy werewolf and the apparently sexy vampire and in the interest of this article, so must I. Point to Team Jacob. Just because he has my name…although its his gym membership that has truly earned that point.

Director Roulette

David Slade, the man behind the twisted thriller Hard Candy and the bloody vampire horror film 30 Days of Night may seem like an odd match for a Twilight film, but he's got something that the previous directors in this series didn't: complete and total control of his craft. For the first time, a Twilight film looks better than bad or merely competent -- Eclipse is often gorgeously shot and the extended action sequences (a first for a series usually concerned with nothing much happening at all) are impressive, with the visual effects far better integrated into the environments. Slade realizes that vampires and werewolves, even the friendly, sexy kinds, are still monsters, and he treats large segments of Eclipse as straight-up horror cinema. Directing the most technically competent Twilight film may seem like a small honor, but Slade does it with gusto.

How Badly Do I Want to Kill Myself/How Pleasantly Surprised Am I

Okay. This is how you do it, people. Eclipse is no less melodramatic or campy than its predecessors, but it is expertly made, quickly paced and filled with enough action and excitement to disguise the fact that its protagonist still doesn't do much of anything and spends the entire film watching the cast make every decision for her. I'm hesitant to call Eclipse a good movie (if anything, this entire series is emerging as a guilty pleasure that I will personally bury deep within my psyche and only pull out when absolutely necessary), but it's a totally watchable hunk of cheese. In fact, the moments of cheese in Eclipse may be the best in the entire series. I like to think that Slade knew exactly what kind of movie he was making here and played it to the hilt, resulting in scenes of such glorious over-the-top, jaw dropping wackiness that they have to be seen to be believed. There's a lengthy Edward and Jacob confrontation (it's the one in the tent, if you're curious) that starts off silly, gets awkward, gets hilarious, goes on too long and then goes on so long that it gets even funnier, otherwise known as the "Sideshow Bob and the Rakes" rule of comedy. Granted, I don't think I was supposed to be giggling throughout this supposedly intense sequence, but oh, I sure was. High drama this silly (yet played so seriously!) is a rare and wonderful commodity. Thank you, Eclipse. This is the soapy cocktail that all other paranormal romances should aspire to.
 

Breaking Dawn, Part One (2011)

Hot Supernatural Action

SPOILERS! SKIP TO THE NEXT SECTION IF SUCH THINGS BUG YOU

In so many ways, Breaking Dawn, Part One is a remake of The Deer Hunter. The first half of the movie is a seemingly endless wedding sequence and the second half is all about horrible things happening horribly to people who can barely comprehend just how badly they're screwed. That wedding is between Bella and her creepy boyfriend Edward. Those horrible things happening horribly include vampire/human sex so brutal that beds are crushed flat (bringing Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex to mind), the creation of a fast growing vampire baby whose womb kicks can break bones, a full-blown Werewolf vs. Vampire war over this vampire baby and, finally, somehow, a full-grown werewolf falling in love with said vampire baby. A surprising number of things happen in the second half of this film (after a first half that is typical for the series in that nothing much happens), but little tops the concept of a werewolf falling in love with a baby. Except for the scene where the werewolves have a group meeting and their psychic, English-language communications are dubbed over their growling. And the scene where Edward performs a cesarian section on his dying wife with his teeth. Have I mentioned that this movie is nuts?

Team Edward/Team Jacob

This is the one where Bella and Edward tie the knot, but that does nothing to alleviate the rivalry between the two men in Bella's life. In fact, Jacob shows up to Bella's wedding and does his best to ruin her day because, you know, Edward is going to totally make her into a vampire and ruin her life. He's right, but crashing a woman's wedding and acting like a drama queen is just not cool, man. Like in Eclipse, Edward and Jacob are forced to team up to defend Bella, but their interactions are more hateful than usual this time around. With Bella dying thanks to his spawn totally wrecking her frail human body, Edward asks Jacob to kill him if Bella dies. Jacob refuses, not because he's a good guy, but because he'd want Edward to live with the crushing guilt. In the Twilight saga, spite is the name of the game. Glorious, painful spite. Both of these guys are awful.

Director Roulette

Bill Condon, more than any other director involved in this series, knows exactly what kind of movie he's making here. This is not only the silliest film in the series, it's one of the silliest films I've ever seen, a collection of scenes so bizarre, off-putting and melodramatic that it has to be seen to be believed. Just direct your attention to the Hot Supernatural Action section if you don't believe me. To put it bluntly: this sh*t is nuts. Condon's direction is Douglas Sirk by way of David Cronenberg; big, shameless camp pushed through a thoroughly disgusting, morally depraved filter. Still, in true Twilight fashion, the film still plays it all as a straight, open-hearted romance. I'm glad I don't have to write a full review of this movie because I literally have no idea what to make of it. For better or for worse, Condon has crafted a film too stupid to live, too weird to ignore and too fascinating to not see and not talk about.

How Badly Do I Want to Kill Myself/How Pleasantly Surprised Am I

This was my first Twilight film seen in a theater and I cannot recommend this experience enough. The enthusiasm people have for this series is so infectious that it's easy to get swept up in it all, even though you're well aware of just how dumb all of it is. When Jacob rips off his shirt thirty seconds into the film, the (mostly female) audience erupted into cheers. When Jacob and Bella discussed the future of her child, a nearby audience member openly wept while I giggled like a sadistic madman. Never mind the increasingly creepy things going on in this series (a werewolf falling in love with a baby; Bella demanding that Edward have sex with her even though he's wrecking her body and literally destroying the bedroom). To the fans, this is bold, beautiful and epic. I've not hidden my belief that all of this is stupid, creepy and thoroughly uncinematic, but it's rare to see a film hold an audience in such a strong thrall. I'm pretty sure that watching these films alone would've been a mind-crushing experience, but seeing the first three amongst friends (with plenty of snark in the air) and seeing Breaking Dawn, Part One amongst devotees made all of this worth it. Now I have to see the last one.


Marathon Wrap-Up

Team Edward or Team Jacob: To be perfectly honest, I'm Team Bella-Should-Find-A-Nice-Human-Boy-And-Move-Somewhere-South, but that's not going to happen. By default, Team Jacob wins because he has the most points.

Best Moment of Hot Supernatural Action: Oh, that tent scene in Eclipse. Oh, my. It's a scene that I can honestly imagine becoming legendary for all of the wrong reasons, but it's the kind of wacky that can only be achieved when every part involved is specifically not trying to be wacky. It's something special.

Worst Moment of Hot Supernatural Action: Anytime Edward psychically interfered with Bella's life after breaking up with her and leaving the country in New Moon made me feel icky. Being a creepy stalker is one thing, but wrecking her life and refusing to let her move on is a special brand of cruel.

Best Director: David Slade, who brings style, action and momentum to Eclipse.

Worst Director: Chris Weitz, who probably had a cushy chair and enjoyed his paycheck for New Moon.

Suicide vs. Pleasant Surprise: After six straight hours in the Twilight universe, my mental health is fine and I haven't caught myself reaching for any razor blades or sleeping pills. This series may not be my exact cup of tea (you know, because I laughed at it a whole bunch), but I was pleasantly surprised by how easily all of it went down. I'll gladly watch the final two films now. No problem. However, I still reserve the right to make fun of you die hard fans. Now, I can do it with specific references!

Marathon Ranking:

1. Breaking Dawn, Part 1
2. Eclipse
3. Twilight
4. New Moon

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