Vampires and the poor human beings who love them have been a hot onscreen item this season, as evidenced by HBO’s lurid hit series “True Blood” and the marvelous Swedish import “Let the Right One In.” For less discriminating palates, there’s the much-anticipated “Twilight,” a disappointingly anemic tale of forbidden love that should satiate the pre-converted but will bewilder and underwhelm viewers who haven’t devoured Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling juvie chick-lit franchise. Built-in femme fanbase will lend this Summit Entertainment release some serious B.O. bite, with Robert Pattinson’s turn as an undead heartthrob keeping repeat biz at a steady pump.
Having shown a real feel for the perilous social and emotional terrain of adolescent girlhood in her 2003 debut, “Thirteen,” Catherine Hardwicke seemed as good a director as any to steer this maiden adaptation of Meyer’s junior-Anne-Rice phenomenon. (Three more novels — “New Moon,” “Eclipse” and “Breaking Dawn” — have been released since “Twilight’s” publication in 2005, and the movie is nothing if not a prelude to future bigscreen sequels.)
But even with angsty rock songs, lurching camerawork and emo-ish voiceover at her disposal, Hardwicke can’t get inside the head of her young protagonist, Isabella “Bella” Swan (Kristen Stewart); consequently, Bella’s decision to get hot and heavy with a hot-and-hungry vampire, far from seeming like an act of mad, transgressive passion, comes across as merely stupid and ill-considered. The result is a supernatural romance in which the supernatural and romantic elements feel rushed, unformed and insufficiently motivated, leaving audiences with little to do but shrug and focus on the eye-candy.
Which is what Bella does when she first meets the brooding, intoxicatingly handsome Edward Cullen (Pattinson) at her new high school in Forks, Wash. Bella, a moody, intelligent teen who’s just moved from Phoenix to live with her police-chief dad (Billy Burke), is an outsider in this dreary little Pacific Northwest town. So are Edward and his four equally striking (if unnaturally pallid) siblings, who keep to themselves, go on regular camping trips and have an odd habit of never eating.
Bella finds herself utterly transfixed by Edward. (Judging by the screaming tweens in the audience at the screening caught, she’s not alone.) Yet devoid of the novel’s first-person narration, the chain of events laid out in Melissa Rosenberg’s screenplay — Edward’s initial and inexplicable hostility toward Bella, his habit of rescuing her from contrived endangerment scenarios, their playfully barbed flirtation, his revelation of his identity as a self-controlled but still-lethal bloodsucker and, finally, their mutual surrender to their feelings — proceeds with none of the inner logic necessary even for a tale of the fantastic.
Admittedly, it’s a relief that Rosenberg dispenses with Meyer’s often embarrassingly overripe prose (“His hair was dripping wet, disheveled … his dazzling face was friendly, open, a slight smile on his flawless lips”), and pic’s selective rewriting of the rules of vampire lore (no coffins, no garlic, no fatal aversion to sunlight) does hold interest. There’s a fleeting moment when the two leads — standing together in a secluded glade, their bodies circled by the camera — come close to capturing the tale’s lush, swooning romanticism.
Stewart (seen recently and most impressively in “Into the Wild”) makes Bella earthy, appealing and slightly withdrawn, and British thesp Pattinson (who registered poignantly as the ill-fated Cedric Diggory in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”) is every inch the deadly dreamboat. But as helmed by Hardwicke, the actors’ early, awkward interactions feel particularly forced, and the script gives Stewart virtually nothing with which to convince the audience of her transcendent love for a guy who’d just as soon drink her blood as jump her bones.
Burke steals a few scenes as Bella’s quietly dependable dad, as does the reliably sharp-witted Anna Kendrick as Bella’s busybody friend, Jessica. Questionable casting of some of Bella’s other classmates may rile purists, though Hardwicke and Rosenberg generate some laughs from the high school setting. Pic duly introduces Jacob (Taylor Lautner), a Native American youth who looks to rival Edward for Bella’s affections in future outings.
In an unwise departure from the book, pic dispels rather than increases the tension by showing random vampire attacks by a sinister trio (Cam Gigandet, Rachelle Lefevre, Edi Gathegi), headed toward a showdown with Edward and his brood. Chase-thriller endgame seems to sputter to a halt when it’s barely begun.
Visual effects, used to convey the vampires’ superhuman strength, agility and resistance to gravity, are a mixed bag. Shot in moody, washed-out tones by Hardwicke’s regular lenser, Elliot Davis, pic makes the most of its Oregon locations .