'Twilight' takes bite out of Hollywood

November 20, 2008 Just the very sight of the title on the screen inspired piercing screeches of glee at a recent screening. And the arrival of our tormented monster-hero Edward Cullen is certain to send another wave of shivers, and that's before he ever sinks his teeth into anything - or anyone.

Director Catherine Hardwicke was also clearly taken by the character, and by the actor playing him, Robert Pattinson: She shoots him as if he were the featured model in an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, adoringly highlighting his angular cheekbones, his amber eyes (with the help of color contacts), those pouty red lips and that lanky frame.

He might be too pretty - and perhaps that's a crucial key to the character's popularity among girls and young women. He's a non-threatening, almost asexual vampire. This is not Bela Lugosi, and it's certainly not George Hamilton.

But much of what made the relationship between Edward and the smitten Bella Swan work in Meyer's breezy book has been stripped away on screen. The funny, lively banter - the way in which Edward and Bella teased and toyed with one another about their respective immortality and humanity - is pretty much completely gone, and all that's left is a slog of adolescent angst.

Purists, the ones wearing Forks High School sweat shirts to the multiplex, will be happy to see that the first line of Meyer's book - "I'd never given much thought to how I would die" - is also the first line in Melissa Rosenberg's script. Several other choice bits of dialogue have been plucked, and except for a couple of details that were moved around here and there, "Twilight" the film remains mostly true to "Twilight" the international literary sensation. (And the author herself makes a quick cameo.)

If you're coming into this material cold, though, you will be seriously baffled as to what the fuss is all about, and that becomes glaringly obvious in the way Hardwicke has staged her action sequences. When Edward leaps from one spot to another to show off his physical prowess, or when he races through the forest with Bella strapped to his back, it looks distractingly jumpy and false. (The moment when he sparkles in the sunlight looks especially cheesy.)

There's nothing transporting about the visuals. "Twilight" was a famously low-budget production compared to most traditional blockbusters, but this is ridiculous.

It doesn't help that, as Bella, Kristen Stewart looks singularly sullen the entire time. She's supposed to be enraptured by the thrills of her first love. Instead, she merely appears to be in the throes of pain. Sure, they can feel like the same thing when you're a teenager, but Stewart's one-note performance makes it difficult to get swept away by Bella's forbidden, romantic adventure.

Bella's story, for the uninitiated: The quiet, awkward girl moves from Phoenix to rainy Forks, Wash., to live with her police-chief dad (Billy Burke in a bad cop mustache) and quickly finds herself entranced by her mysterious, ethereal classmate Edward. At first, Edward fights his all-consuming attraction to Bella but eventually finds he can't stay away. Good thing, too, because she'll need him to protect her from even greater dangers than the one he potentially presents - and that's where "Twilight" really collapses in a heap of not-so-special effects.

Nikki Reed, the alluring star and co-writer of Hardwicke's startling debut "Thirteen," gets little to do but scowl as Edward's disapproving sister, Rosalie. Similarly, Peter Facinelli is just coolly creepy as the clan's patriarch, Dr. Carlisle Cullen. (Seriously, how is it possible that no one in town knows these people are vampires?) But Michael Welch and Justin Chon liven things up as a couple of classmates competing for Bella's attention. And Anna Kendrick, a scene-stealer last year in the high-school debate comedy "Rocket Science," pulls off the same feat here as Bella's saucy friend, Jessica.

She's such a joy to watch, she makes you wonder what she would do in the starring role. She might actually have some fun - and allow us to do the same.

"Twilight," a Summit Entertainment release, is rated PG-13 for some violence and a scene of sensuality. Running time: 121 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.


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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

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PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.

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