The Twilight Saga – An Autopsy

April 23, 2013

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Easy is nice.  The world is difficult and indifferent, and as such there’s nothing wrong with opting for something easy when you can.  I get that.  I’m not against that.  But there’s “easy” and then there’s “easy”.  The Twilight Saga film franchise has, it turns out, been easy in a way that’s so unbelievably lazy and dull that I can’t imagine how a thinking human being can find it entertaining.  People talk a lot about liking films they can just “turn their brains off” and watch, but surely there are some basic elements of storytelling that require at least some semblance of a conflict to make it work, even if it is perfunctory or dumb or obvious.  I finally watched the final part of the series, Breaking Dawn Part 2, and I have come to the conclusion that nothing at all of interest happened in the 9 or so hours of time I spent watching them over the years.  Of the many, many problems that have plagued this $3 billion franchise, the worst is quite possibly that it plays like a young child’s imagining of a narrative for his toys.  My incredible, adorable nephew was once playing with some toy cars and figurines, and was explaining to me, “this truck has to get over here so he can see the cows!”  “That’s great”, I said, “but where’s the conflict? The truck just has to get over there to see the cows, and that’s it.”  He was all of five years old at the time, so what did I expect?  I should add I said it in a playful way and I’m sure he didn’t pick up on my criticism, so I didn’t rudely offend a child.  Still, there’s nothing to what he was trying to achieve, and that, in a nutshell, is what The Twilight Saga has turned out to be. 

Vampires are one of the richest inventions in the history of human literature.  It plays to some deep, dark desires that both horrify and intrigue.  The obvious sexual elements are mixed with the notion of immortality-as-a-curse, and the idea that our mortality makes us human is essential.  Twilight has always bucked the trend – and not in any interesting ways, it turns out – by making vampires at best a weak metaphor for horny males and at worst a simplistic ideal that solves all of humanity’s great questions.  Is it awful and lonely to live forever?  No!  It’s kind of great.  What if you fall in love with one, and you’re a mortal?  Well they’ll just turn you into a vampire and it’s awesome with no significant downside.  The disgustingly backwards morality and the anti-feminism of the series has been discussed to death, so I’m not going to dwell on those aspects here.  Instead, I want to highlight just how awful the storytelling is, and how the poor directors handed the job to make them into films has been a struggle against the source material.

David Slade, director of Eclipse, once talked about adding a line for Bella (Kristen Stewart) when she had to make a choice.  The line was, essentially, explaining that she wasn’t making a decision because of Jacob (Taylor Lautner) or Edward (Robert Pattinson), but she was making it for herself.  It doesn’t make any sense given everything we’ve seen, but even Slade realized that it was completely ludicrous how her entire life was based solely on men and nothing at all on her own agency.  Bill Condon, who directed the final two parts, has tried his hardest to inject absolutely anything of interest into his installments, and though I applaud the effort (especially the somewhat horrific birthing sequence), in the end it reveals just how terrible the source material is.  Outside of the opening of Eclipse – which features an absolutely fine sequence of actual suspense that is the only nod to the horror genre this series has ever bothered to include – the best sequence in the entire series is a big battle towards the end of Breaking Dawn Part 2, in which the Cullens and their allies (both vampires and werewolves) take on the Volturi in a go-for-broke battle that features as many bloodless beheadings as you can conceivably get away with in a PG-13 movie.  The key excitement to this sequence, however, is not really the choreographed spectacle of a big fight, but of the fact that major characters die left and right.  It’s the first time in any of the films that it felt like there were stakes (not literally, of course, because the wooden implements never surface in the series).  Extraordinarily, it the sequence turns out to be padding.  It’s a sad attempt at giving a climax to something that doesn’t actually climax.  It was all a vision, it turns out, and all the death and destruction never really happened.  Everyone continues on their way and lives happily ever after.  Everyone.  Condon and his screenwriter must have felt compelled to cap off the “saga” with something grandiose and exciting because the source material didn’t offer it.  Instead, after the vision, we’re given a deus ex machina of a half human/half vampire who explains that it’s all going to be fine.  All of this is not even touching on the fact that the reasons for the final confrontation make no sense at all.  The fear is that the daughter is a turned child, which is a crime because child vampires can’t be controlled, so a lengthy section of the film is devoted to the Cullens getting “witnesses” (i.e. friends of the family) to meet the child who can prove she’s half human/half vampire just by touching them.  Why did this need to happen?  Why couldn’t she have just touched the Volturi leader (Michael Sheen, eating it up splendidly) when he arrived?  I’m not generally one to get into the plot holes of films, but this was pretty glaring considering how much time it took to deal with it.

In the end, there’s no real conflict.  Jacob creepily imprints on an infant, and though we’re given a pretty solid scene of Bella’s reaction to the news, it is quickly brushed away and is, apparently, not creepy to anyone.  Bella has to become a vampire and give up her mortality, but that doesn’t mean giving up any aspect of her personality our soul.   She’s the same person only she has a lot of powers, is incredibly fast, and will live forever with her immortal husband.  Smart writers question the notion of immorality, but not Stephanie Meyer.  It’s no better than weak fan fiction, or the thoughts of a child, wanting to come up with the best way to fulfill the fantasy of an easy, beautiful life.  It was a bad sign when it turned out that vampires couldn’t be in the sun because it was lethal, but because they would shine like diamonds, but I was genuinely shocked at how much that thread of defanging went.  It’s as though the author felt guilty about being sexually aroused by Tom Cruise as Lestat in Interview with a Vampire and so set about to write a fantasy in which she could enjoy the romance and the sexuality without actually dealing with what she felt to be sins.

Credit where credit is due, however, and Breaking Dawn Part 2 is at least the most self-aware of the series, where there are actual jokes about the absurdity of the story – namely multiple jokes about just how stupid a name Renesmee is – and that’s a welcome jolt of humanity to a series that has strived so hard to squash any semblance of real emotion.  Also, and perhaps less excitingly but no less impressive, the series has perfected the art of combating absolute boredom by injecting just enough cringes for the audience that they can’t fall asleep easily.  It’s a snarky statement, sure, but I don’t think the fans can tell the difference.  They’ve clearly hit a stage where “easy” is not necessarily “boring”, and “easy” is all they can handle.  That easiness is the most disappointing thing for a discerning viewer.  Everyone involved had 9 hours/4 books to build a universe and create a mythology, and explore them for dramatic purposes, and they chose not to do it.  If there are no stakes, then all we’re left with is the drippiest and most obvious romance since every romantic comedy Katherine Heigl has been in, only without the pathetic stabs at humour.  Life is great because it’s hard, and because we have to overcome adversity and subsequently we feel better about it because we did.  The only difficulty in the Twilight franchise is that of the viewer putting up with it, so in that sense, Stephanie Meyer did a good job of making life difficult.  Unfortunately that was only achieved because she didn’t have the guts to actually demand anything at all from her audience, and we’re all a little bit dumber because of it.

-M

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