When a guy who can't tell Jacob from Edward joins a theater of screaming tween girls...
Fans react as actors arrive for the British premiere of 'The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn' at Westfield in east London (Toby Melville / Reuters)
Late last night, I stumbled out of a movie theater in a daze, and not just because it was after 2 a.m. I had just spent the past two hours of my life immersed in a strange world of pale-eyed vampires, CGI wolf packs, and conservative sexual mores. And I did it all while surrounded by glitter-bedecked, cat-calling fan girls.
I had just survived the midnight screening of the latest entry in the Twilight franchise: Breaking Dawn: Part 1.
Let's take a step back. It's safe to say that Twilight—a paranormal romance film series based on young adult novels by author Stephenie Meyer—is something of a phenomenon. At a time when Hollywood is desperate for hits, Twilight is essentially a license to print money. The previous film, Eclipse, earned the third-highest opening-day gross of all time. As a film franchise, Twilight has earned nearly two billion dollars at the global box office—and that's with two movies left to go. Among certain subsets of the population, Twilight lies somewhere between an obsession and a religion.
With all that in mind, I have a critical confession to make: I have somehow managed to avoid virtually any exposure to the Twilight franchise. I've never cracked the cover of any of the books, or seen a minute of any of the movies. Of course, I know the basics—a vampire and a werewolf fight for the love of a teenage girl (I'm informed that the werewolf is technically a shapeshifter, though a wolf is the only shape he ever shifts into). But on the whole, my knowledge of Twilight was remarkably unsullied. I was a tabula rasa upon which Edward Cullen could leave his toothy mark.
It was in that spirit that I decided to catapult myself directly into the heart of the Twilight franchise with a midnight screening of the fourth and latest entry in the franchise, Breaking Dawn: Part 1. Could a non-Twihard crack the appeal of the franchise—and, perhaps, even enjoy it—by attending the Twilight event of the year? I swallowed my pride, gathered up my garlic and holy water, and entered the theater.
The first obstacle, inevitably, was the massive line of Twihards waiting in line—and my own queasiness about questioning them. (I brought my reporter's pad and my girlfriend in an attempt to feel slightly less creepy about interviewing preteen girls at midnight. Neither helped much.) When I copped to being a Twi-soft, my interviewees were eager to sell me on the franchise; I heard passionate sales pitches from numerous members of Team Edward, and one meek member of Team Jacob (she was quickly shouted down). The theater had set up a life-sized cardboard standee of Edward that earned dozens of pictures and a comparable number of kisses. Several Twihards pored over dog-eared copies of the book, as if conducting a last-minute cram session before a major exam. The men's room was conspicuously empty.
As for the theater employees? Markedly less enthusiastic. Late Twihards were generally unhappy with the spots remaining in the already-packed theater, and the theater dispatched an usher who had the thankless job of finding them new seats. A brief squabble erupted outside a theater when one Twihard—clad in a homemade "Edward loves Bella" t-shirt that replaced Bella's name with her own—accused another of cutting in line. A seasoned employee behind the concession stand told me that Harry Potter has been even worse. He wore a tie that said "I'd rather be golfing," and clearly meant it.
As we took our seats and prepared for Dawn to break at midnight, I could feel the audience's excitement growing, and the feeling became sort of contagious. I thought, there must be a reason that so many people obsess over this, right? I may not be a preteen girl, but vampires and werewolves are pretty awesome, right? Maybe this won't be so bad. That optimism lasted for about 15 seconds, when it became clear that I was way out of my element pretty much immediately. Title card? Applause! Edward on screen? Ow-ow! Jacob takes his shirt off? Wooooooooo!
With three films' worth of story to catch up on, I fully expected to be lost, but as it turns out, Breaking Dawn: Part 1's story is incredibly simple. The Cliff's Notes version, for anyone who wants to save 117 minutes: Girl (Bella) marries vampire (Edward), gets pregnant and gives birth to a baby vampire, and then becomes a vampire herself. This is surrounded by three dozen supporting characters that the film never bothers to reintroduce, but since none of them have any impact on the plot, it doesn't really matter.
Breaking Dawn: Part 1 's defining feature is its long, pointless montages, which invariably feature a glowering Edward, a glowering Bella, or a glowering Jacob. It gave me a lot of time to contemplate the rules of this world. There's a lot of angst about whether or not Bella should become a vampire. But why not become a vampire? It looks pretty awesome. You get to be super fast, super strong, and super sexy. In fact, you're basically Superman, if Superman occasionally had to drink elk blood. And for all the debate about Team Edward versus Team Jacob, I was left with a different question: How can anyone be Team Anyone? Edward is dour, unpleasant, and monotone; Jacob is whiny, petulant, and arrogant. Then again, Bella & friends live in Forks, Washington; when the population is less than 4,000, you'll take what you can get.
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There's a sort of interesting (but ultimately half-baked) metaphor buried somewhere in Breaking Dawn: Part 1—something about how the loss of virginity is accompanied by a loss of innocence. The conversation Edward and Bella have before their first time is believably awkward, and his fears about hurting her would be just as applicable to a non-vampire who's having sex with his new wife for the first time. Unfortunately, Edward's worst fears are realized. Like Dracula's Lucy before her, Bella is violently punished for her sexual appetite: She immediately gets pregnant with a darling little vampire baby who threatens to tear her apart from the inside. A sharper movie might make this some kind of commentary about the travails of young marriage. But this is a movie that opens with an 18-year-old marrying a 110-year-old and closes with a 17-year-old falling in love with a baby, so that's probably expecting too much.
I was alternately bored and disturbed by Breaking Dawn: Part 1, but of course, I'm not exactly the target audience (nor are critics in general, who have collectively saddled Breaking Dawn: Part 1 with 27% positive reviews). The Twihards enthusiastically responded to the film's strange cocktail of conservative sexual values and birth-horror. The fan service was constant, and the fans obviously felt served. Taylor Lautner takes off his shirt, for reasons that are entirely unclear, within the first three seconds that he's onscreen, but he doesn't really need a reason—because taking off his shirt is why he was cast in the first place. I found the long Edward-Bella wedding scene and the even longer honeymoon scene almost indescribably dull, but based on the swoony sighs all around me, I was the only one.
For all the reviews of Breaking Dawn: Part 1 I've heard so far, the most telling was one that I overheard from a preteen girl as she walked out of the theater. As she gushed "that was the best movie ever," into her cell phone, I was reminded of the times I dragged my parents to the Star Wars rereleases—"the best movies ever"—when I was a child. Having seen Breaking Dawn: Part 1, I definitely don't get it, and I suspect I never will. But Twilight is for her, not for me.