Twilight Was Savaged By Critics — But Did It Deserve All That Hate?

According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's new series, Writing Critics' Wrongs, our woman movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
It takes an hour and fifteen minutes for anyone to kiss in Twilight, but the buildup is worth the wait. In the minutes prior to the fateful moment, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is talking on the phone to her mom about the boy that’s making the small foggy town of Forks, WA, feel like home, when he unexpectedly shows up in her bedroom. She hangs up, and turns her attention to Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the vampire with frigid skin and burning eyes, who confesses that yes, he came in through the window, and yes, he’s been doing that for the last couple of months. But that’s not the point. He’s come to try something: a kiss.
Stewart and Pattinson have explosive chemistry here. The lead-up to the kiss is full of breathy sighs and quivering lips, the two inching closer, then pulling back, then coming closer still, as Edward tries to suss out whether he can control the overwhelming urge to drink Bella’s blood long enough to kiss her. But what sets Twilight apart is the intensity with which Bella reciprocates his very tentative smooch. In the end, she kisses him, deepening the embrace, pulling him closer until he panics and springs back, leaving her amid the covers, quizzical and full of self-doubt. It’s a scene that countless teenage girls have experienced for themselves (minus the blood-sucking factor): Lusting after a boy who is very bad for you until you’re left staring at your bare toes in bed, wondering what the hell you did wrong. Ten years after its release, Twilight stands as a powerful, darkly stylish depiction of teen female desire. So, why do I remember it otherwise?
That might have something to do with film’s overwhelmingly poor reviews, most of them written by men, which largely dismissed Twilight as fodder for the girly masses. At The Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt wrote: “Twilight already has such a buzz that you sense all we really need to do is stand back to let hordes of teenage girls rush into theaters to exalt in this romance between a human girl and a vampire boy.” (He ended the review with a hope that we would look back on this film as the worst one in the franchise, which lol.) Roger Ebert called it “tepid,” and wrote “Twilight will mesmerize its target audience, 16-year-old girls and their grandmothers.”
In his review for Variety, Justin Chang dismissed the film as “disappointingly anemic,” adding that given her critically acclaimed debut feature, Thirteen, Catherine Hardwicke “seemed as good a director as any to steer this maiden adaptation of Meyer’s junior-Anne-Rice phenomenon.”
Some women also took issue with the film, albeit for different reasons. At the New York Times, Manohla Dargis criticized its pro-abstinence message, calling it a “deeply sincere, outright goofy vampire romance for the hot-not-to-trot abstinence set.” But even she poked fun at the movie’s demographic, noting that Edward’s fangless appeal (pun intended) “may make him catnip to anyone with OJD (obsessive Jonas Brothers disorder).”
In the decade since its release, Catherine Hardwicke’s adaptation of the first installment in Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling trilogy has become a familiar joke, despite (or perhaps because of) being unequivocally ingrained in popular culture. Any passing reference brings up silly memories of sparkly vampires, and werewolf love triangles — the kind of thing that should stay dead and buried alongside bubble skirts, Kanye’s shutter shades, and other tired late aughts memorabilia. But while parts of it are undeniably goofy, Twilight’s legacy is not. The film raked in $69.5 million during its opening weekend, shattering records for the biggest opening for a film directed by a woman, and also for a film about a woman — specifically her interior life — a title it would hold until 2017, when Patti Jenkins and Wonder Woman swooped in to pick up the mantle. Overall, Twilight made $192,769,854 domestically, the seventh highest grossing film of that year, behind box office tsunamis like The Dark Knight, WALL-E, and Iron Man. (It beat 007, outranking Quantum of Solace by $24 million.)
The Twilight Saga has become such a phenomenon that it’s easy to forget its humble beginnings. Hardwicke shot the film in 44 days on a $37 million budget. (For comparison, its sequel, 2009’s New Moon, had a $50 million budget. By the time Breaking Dawn: Part 2 came around in 2012, it had more than doubled, to $120 million. Both were directed by men) It was Hollywood throwing a low-budget bone at teenage girls, but expectations were also low. “Why do you think I got the job?” Hardwicke told The Daily Beast in October. “Why do you think they hired a female director? If they thought it was going to be a big blockbuster, they wouldn’t have ever even hired me, because no woman had ever been hired to do something in the blockbuster category.”
It was, for all intents and purposes, an indie movie. But then it became a Thing — and suddenly, Hardwicke was no longer considered the right person to helm a humongous studio franchise. That’s a real shame, given how terrible the sequels, directed by Chris Weitz (New Moon), David Slade (Eclipse), and Bill Condon (Breaking Dawn, parts 1 and 2), turned out to be.
Compared to the rest of the Saga, Twilight is downright weird. It’s strangely quiet, and visually vibrant, full of lush, wet, green forest. Dramatic scenes of Bella reading about vampires are cut with gothic black and white erotic daydreams of Edward bending over her like Dracula, her vivid red blood dripping out of his mouth. And aside from one confrontation towards the end, it’s not really an action movie. Like Thirteen, Hardwicke’s debut feature from 2003 starring Evan
Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed (who also appears in Twilight), the film takes teen emotions seriously, portraying them without judgement. That approach is perhaps what threw off so many of the film’s critics, so quick to look down on the intended audience. The result is a film that can veer too sharply into earnestness, but very convincingly portrays a teenage girl’s struggle to reconcile the tornado of hormones roiling within her.
Twilight opens with Bella Swan’s move from Phoenix, AZ, to rain-soaked Forks, where her dad, Charlie (Billy Burke), is local police chief. The first couple of days go as expected: First day of a new school means tentative awkward overtures to potential friends (one of them is played by a young Anna Kendrick), while at home, Bella and Charlie learn to live with one another. She reconnects with childhood playmate Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who, as a Native American, goes to school on the Quileute reservation. All in all, her life is just fine.
But everything changes when she’s paired with Edward as a biology lab partner. Smoldering and gorgeous, he treats her like utter shit. This is understandably confusing for Bella. She’s nice enough — what’s this asshole’s problem? It takes a while for her to figure it out. When a car goes sliding out of control in the school parking lot, careening towards Bella, Edward intervenes, running to her at lightning speed and stopping the vehicle with his hands, setting off alarm bells. That, combined with Jacob’s recounting of an old tribal legend about “The Cold Ones,” convinces Bella that the beautiful boy she has a crush on is dead — or technically, undead.
She takes it surprisingly well, confronting Edward in a now-famous scene in the woods, where he likewise reveals that he’s only been avoiding her because she is “his own personal brand of heroin.” He wants to eat her, but also he loves her. Is there any more succinct explanation of teenage boys’ attitudes? It turns out Edward is a good vampire; he and his family only survive on animal blood, removing the moral impediment of dating a monster who feeds off other humans. And so, their romance blossoms.
Unlike the books and following film installments, which would come under critical scrutiny for their conservative messaging on pre-marital sex and abortion, as well as Bella’s passivity, Hardwicke doesn’t shy away from the dark nature of Bella and Edward’s romance. Theirs is a deranged, teen interpretation of love that should not last past high school, and yet, in this case, might go on forever. Bella’s insistence that she can’t live without Edward is absurd, but it is what it feels like to be 17 and convinced that the person you’re dating is the love of your life. (Their abstinence also makes a lot more sense in the first film, when they’ve just met, than it would in later installments.)
In fact, Twilight’s biggest problem is its source material. Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg and Hardwicke had to compromise some of their vision to fit in with Meyer’s wishes, including a push for more diversity among the main characters. Hardwicke has said she wanted to cast a Japanese actress to play Alice, Edward’s clairvoyant sister, but the role eventually went to Ashley Greene once Meyer reportedly made it clear that she had envisioned the Cullens as white (and with the exception of Alice, blonde).
And yet, the film is still surprisingly diverse. Hardwicke cast Kenyan-American actor Edi Gathegi as villain vampire Laurent, while Justin Chon and Christian Marie Serratos, who play Bella’s friends Eric and Angela, are Americans of Korean and Italian-Mexican descent, respectively. The director also insisted that most Native American actors be cast as most of the members of the Quileute tribe. (Though Lautner has claimed to have distant Native American ancestry, his casting would get pushback from Native American activist groups as the franchise rolled out, and he became a more prominent character.)
As for Bella, Rosenberg’s script gives her a little more to work with than Meyer’s overwrought prose, in which she spends most of her time mooning over Edward. Her character doesn’t have as much agency as we might now expect from a female lead — things happen to Bella, she rarely makes things happen — but the very act of having a female-focused blockbuster set the stage for the future.
If nothing else, Hardwicke should get more credit for casting Stewart and Pattinson, two actors whose talent has since transcended their initial teen-heartthrob status. They tackle their roles with intensity but also humor, bringing life to characters that could have stayed two-dimensional. As Bella, Stewart is both brash and vulnerable, unafraid of speaking her mind but also terrified of being hurt by the guy she loves. In the books, Bella has a tiresome habit of falling down everywhere, furthering the sense that she can’t possibly take care of herself. But Stewart dispenses with that notion, turning her character’s extreme clumsiness into an inside joke, a failing that makes her human rather than helpless. What’s more, she looks like a teenage girl, from her horrifically 2008 henleys and bootcut jeans all the way down to her chunky, sensible snow boots.
Likewise, Pattinson makes wet noodle Edward feel like a soul in torment. He plays Edward as a high school girl’s fantasy: impossibly cool, always on the verge of a smirk — but also deeply sensitive (he plays the piano!), his grin a mask for his insecurities. His toxic need to protect Bella, lifted from the books, is still troublesome, but far less present than it would come to be in following installments. Together, they make a striking pair, and their convincing attraction to each other softens the absurdity of their obsessive codependency. (Their ensuing off-screen relationship is a classic on set romance chicken and the egg conundrum: Was it the cause, or the effect, coincidence or brilliant marketing ploy?)
The Twilight Saga went on to gain in popularity and box office clout. But rather than a teenage girl’s story told by a woman, audiences would see a narrative filtered through the perspectives of men. Twilight wasn’t perfect, but it deserves credit for launching a spree of female-focused franchises based on Y.A. books, such as The Hunger Games, The Mortal Instruments, and Divergent (although those were all directed by men). There was a revolutionary aspect to it, one that we wouldn’t experience again until a decade later, when Diana Prince (a.k.a. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman) leapt across No Man’s Land. That was a much more explicitly empowering moment than Bella’s lust, but one would likely not have existed without the other.
“Twilight” is available on Vudu, YouTube, Amazon Prime, iTunes and Google Play.

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