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November 20, 2009

The guilty pleasures of sparkly vampirism

The Twilight series features a character named Jasper whose special vampire ability is mood manipulation, and I suspect the public relations team for New Moon deployed him to my screening. There really can be no other explanation for my enjoyment of this movie. It went indecently beyond what my cultivated sense of taste tells me is acceptable. Clearly I am a sham of an aesthete, unworthy of my badge of critical authority if I dare type the words “I liked a Twilight movie.” But my heart tells me otherwise. My heart tells me that for two hours, I was swept away by the phenomenon of Stephenie Meyer’s vampire romance.

The first film relied too heavily on its source material and seemed to utilize only bad takes in the editing room (maybe because there were never any good takes to work with), but this film thankfully improves—somewhat. Replacing Catherine Hardwicke, director Chris Weitz offers occasionally inspired moments of camerawork, and tries to bring a level of refinement to the series that was lacking in the first installment. The CGI and erratic fight scenes are a definite upgrade from “laughable and in need of work” to “actually pretty cool.” There was also more genuine humor this time around, compared to the onslaught of unintentionally funny dialogue (and acting) in Twilight. If nothing else, Weitz made a visually interesting film that isn’t absolutely horrible.

Following a minor paper cut accident turned potential vampire feast on Bella’s birthday, Edward and family disappear from Forks, Washington, leaving Bella in a state of mental torpor and with a case of overwrought nightmares. Cue Jacob’s entry. Although good friend and nice guy Mike Newton (Michael Welch) still has a thing for Bella, and an awkward but deftly handled movie theater outing between Bella, Mike, and Jacob follows, Bella still opts for the tough guy Jacob, though not without reluctance. New Moon celebrates Jacob Black, the jealous, possessive werewolf who won’t let anything get in the way of having Bella, even if he could hurt her in the process. You half expect him to dig a hole in his backyard and bury her like a bone.

It is Bella’s reluctance to give up Edward, though, that leads her to Italy to save him from the Volturi, a red-eyed, royal vampire clan that acts as the enforcer of vampire law. Nothing really happens in the plot that you don’t see coming from a mile away, and the tiresome romantic dynamics help the film shuffle to a conclusion. I just looked forward to Dakota Fanning’s appearance as Jane, and Michael Sheen’s role as Aro, both members of the Volturi.

Obviously, the source material remains burdensome, to say the least. The moments when the film draws upon Stephenie Meyer’s affected dialogue stand out more than the wig on Taylor Lautner’s head. With lines like “You give me everything just by breathing,” you wonder how Robert Pattinson got past the first syllable without grinning or vomiting. Of course, we in the audience grinned. It’s those poetic lines poured from Meyer’s heart that help make the Twilight movies such unintentional comedies. You can’t say things like that without sounding like you’re developing a hernia from trying so hard.

Forced seriousness is not the only eccentricity of the Twilight saga. You have to giggle at the squees and shrieks of 14-year-olds in the audience every time buff Lautner’s Jacob Black (of the Quiluete werewolf tribe) goes shirtless. Nevermind that the studio is hoping that the 17-year-old’s six-pack will sell movie tickets to gaggles of girls. Nevermind that adrenaline junky Bella Swann (Kristen Stewart) has a predilection for Jekyll and Hyde personalities whose monstrous inner natures are a metaphor for the rumblings of hormones: don’t get too close, you might get bitten (or pregnant).

These underlying layers are what make Bella’s love interests so inc redibly disturbing, and what sends an unhealthy message to impressionable girls. Forget Prince Charming, Edward Cullen and Jacob Black have redefined the unrealistic love object. Twilight glorified Edward, the stalker vampire who sneaks into Bella’s room to watch her sleep. In New Moon, he tells her emo sweet nothings like how he’ll kill himself if the world ever becomes a place without her in it. Sounds a lot like Romeo and Juliet, doesn’t it? You can bet that there’s probably a blatant reference or two to Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed lovers in the film.

I can’t completely vilify the film. I allowed myself a “girl’s night” with this movie. I saw it with girls. I felt like I celebrated the inanities of being a girl with this movie. I’m even eating Ben and Jerry’s as I write this. I left the theater with a grin and in high spirits. It was a romping good time, and I can’t condemn the film for that. But I will condemn Stephenie Meyer for dreaming up these unsettling, lovesick fantasies. And a helpful suggestion to much of the cast: act better.