In the past year or so, the Twilight films have had a cultural resurgence, delightfully deemed “The Twilight renaissance.” Though its cinematic value may be disputable, its position as a world-tilting global phenomenon – a cultural reset – can hardly be understated. Not only did it launch the careers of two of indie film’s most admirable actors (plus a slew of other stars who everyone has forgotten were in the saga), but it founded an entire subset of culture. People have made thousands of TikToks chronicling lonely binge-watching, referencing the most iconic scenes, and even attempting to seduce Carlisle into turning them into vampires to save them from COVID-19.
The first installment in the franchise, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, is surprisingly well-made. Despite its awkwardness, when compared to the rest of the films in the franchise, Twilight is much more artistically driven. As clumsy as the script may be, the film’s production design and color grading is notable — its cool-toned aesthetic is fitting for the lushness of Washington’s wilderness. Plus, the film has an unparalleled portrayal of the unbridled energy and playful obnoxiousness of teenage boys. Bella (Kristen Stewart) and her human friends actually act like seventeen-year-olds: super uncomfortable. Bella is deeply insecure, reacting to most things with incomplete, stuttering sentences. She is also self-destructive, flinging herself at a vampire she’s known for less than a week because she thinks that she is “unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.”
The romance is weird. Apparently, Stephanie Meyer wrote the meadow scene in Breaking Dawn before anything else in the books, leaving her to go back and fill in everything that leads to it. Honestly, she probably thought it was a normally paced relationship, which correlates to the theme of mistaking sexual desire for love. This may be related to the fact that Meyer was raised strictly Mormon – meaning her understanding of sexuality is mostly based on the innocence of romance. It makes sense, given that lust may disguise itself as love to someone without the ability to recognize the difference. Yes, Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Bella are supposed to be soulmates, destined to love each other regardless of their separate worlds, but their story is devoid of any yearning or build up (the entire franchise takes place in less than two years!) They never pine after each other, and there is no falling. They are just suddenly, miraculously, and deeply in love, with only four days passing between them meeting and being willing to die for each other with no questions asked.
Now Edward… the angsty emo who dresses like a church boy in a wool peacoat. His taste for drama is impeccable, blaming the change in his eye color on the fluorescents rather than admitting he got contacts like any normal person would. And, of course, his whole ‘let me drag you to the middle of the forest, because that’s the only appropriate place to have conversations about my true nature whilst satisfying my love of theatrics’ moment cannot go without mentioning (That whole scene, by the way, is one of the greatest in the entire franchise). Edward dragging Bella up a mountain so that he can show her that he glitters in sunlight, perching himself in a tree to tell her that she is the human equivalent of heroin, and telling her to “hold on tight spider-monkey?” Ridiculous, but incredible.
New Moon, is decently shot with a lovely palette of earthy colors and beautiful landscapes. Although aside from that, it’s not the most coherent, well-written film, and it drags on for much too long. It’s all over the place, but there are some really sweet moments with Bella and the pack, especially Jacob (Taylor Lautner), Quil (Tyson Houseman), and Embry (Kiowa Gordon) – mostly because despite the whole werewolf thing, they’re normal teenagers who offer easy, spirited friendship. They aren’t intimidatingly wealthy and knowledgeable vampires who have lived for hundreds of years; rather, they are malleable, inexperienced, and usually pretty laidback, bringing a great sense of warmth into Bella’s very confusing life.
Charlie Swan (Billy Burke) is one of the only solidly sane and normal characters in the entire series, and is completely underrated. He gets a lot of flack for his supposed attempts to pull Edward and Bella apart, but his number one motivation has always been Bella’s happiness and safety. He watched Bella continually wind up in strange, unsafe situations where she came out inexplicably hurt, including her suffering during a four-month period of deep, all-consuming depression because Edward decided to run off to Italy. He is also a cop — he is certainly not stupid, and the Cullen’s excuses were never super believable, but he still didn’t accuse Bella of lying. He simply listened to her, respected her, and let her have her own personal life. Despite the fact that he is lied to throughout the franchise (massively lied to, big life-altering lies), he does not harass Bella for the truth, but instead tries to be as attentive and supportive as possible.
This installment features a lot of self-destruction. So much. Bella decides that since hallucinations of Edward appear to her when she’s being reckless, she should do the most dangerous, brash things she can think of to… what? Cope with his absence? Maybe? Throwing herself on motorcycles and flinging herself off cliffs, Bella’s self-destruction flames Edward’s when he decides to thrust himself into sunlight so the Volturi will execute him. In fact, the Volturi’s introduction is the most interesting part of New Moon. Dakota Fanning, in particular, plays Jane’s calculated, unflinching coldness surprisingly well in a franchise full of weird performances. She would have been way more terrifying if she was actually twelve, but fifteen-year-old Jane is fairly chilling too, and Michael Sheen as Aro is thoroughly slimy and unpleasant.
Onto the Cullens, my favorite non-humans ever. I, in my infinite childhood wisdom, never remotely had an interest in the love triangle that defines the Twilight films — I just wanted to be a Cullen. Not because they were filthy rich or absurdly attractive, but because they were, and remain to be, absolutely iconic, super memeable, and wildly entertaining. Eclipse, the third film of the franchise, contextualizes a lot of their experiences.
It is worth noting that Esme (Elizabeth Reaser) and Rosalie (Nikki Reed), the two female vampires who are actually given backstories, were both victims of violent abuse before their transformations. Rosalie was violently raped and murdered by her fiancée and his friends, whom she rightfully revenge-killed once she became a vampire. And even though she was newly turned, she does it without being overcome by bloodlust, a testament to how remarkable she is. That picture of Lucille Bluth holding a cupcake and saying “good for her,” is a fitting representation of me thinking about Rosalie Hale slowly, theatrically, and painfully killing her rapists one by one. On the other hand, Esme was domestically abused by her husband until she ran from him. Then, her newborn child died of lung fever after two days of life, and she attempted to commit suicide by throwing herself from a cliff. Overall, both of them are underdeveloped as characters, and their complexities go largely, and disappointingly, unexplored, as the franchise directly ignores their intelligence (Rosalie has a medical degree) in favor of using them as accessories to the story.
Another weird characterization was the decision to make Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) a former Confederate soldier. An argument can be made that it shows tremendous character growth to go from a Confederate soldier to a kindhearted empath over hundreds of years, and that the Jasper that we know now is concretely different from his past self. Obviously, conscription existed, but Jasper seems proud of his status as the youngest Major in the Texas cavalry, which implies that he had a choice, or at least was a willing participant. His story could have been exactly the same if he fought for the Union, but Stephanie Meyer wanted him to be a Confederate soldier, and that decision surely begs for acknowledgment.
Both volumes of Breaking Dawn are, on all fronts, easily the most disappointing films of the franchise. On the technical side, the production design is generally lazy and flimsy. Hair and makeup is all over the place throughout the entire saga, but fails especially in the final two films. There is a dizzying lack of consistency and a frightening collection of bad wigs. All of the characters have fairly consistent looks throughout the novels, but Esme’s hair is a drastically different shade of brown in every film. The vampires suffer varying degrees of cakey white makeup, and in total, it just feels like the costume and makeup departments gave up on continuity. The CGI, particularly during the final showdown, is tragic. Then, we have the fake baby, which is genuinely one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. Originally they had a horrifying puppet contraption to play baby Renesmee, but swiftly realized that it looked awful and turned to CGI. Unfortunately, this CGI baby is just as terrifying and off-putting. Yet even worse is Renesmee as a toddler (before Mackenzie Foy stepped in to play her), who is CGI’d to an equally disturbing extent. To be fair, a rapidly aging half-vampire baby is hard to pull off, but it really feels like they wanted to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible, including the glaringly obvious pro-life moment before Renesmee is actually born, where Rosalie and Alice argue about whether or not a fetus is a baby.
The scripts, for both part one and two, are mostly bad, but there are a few really sweet family moments that hold things together. Anna Kendrick keeps it pretty real as Jessica, and Esme stays being the sweetest mom ever, especially when she brings Seth (Booboo Stewart), Leah (Julia Jones), and Jacob sandwiches. The friendship between Edward and Seth is highly refreshing, and Alice (Ashley Greene) proves herself as probably the most fantastic wingwoman Edward and Bella could’ve asked for. Charlie remains the sanest character, and Rosalie finally gets more than two lines! It all feels nice enough until Bella screeches, “you nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness monster?!” while tossing Jacob out of the house. This was definitely not Kristen Stewart’s best piece of acting, and altogether was a wildly cringey scene. In fact, most of part two is pretty cringeworthy. The idea that Jacob, an adult man, imprinted on an actual newborn child is alarming. Stephanie Meyer would probably claim that he just wants to protect her, an honorable duty to take on, except it’s canon that the endgame of their relationship is both romantic and sexual. So, if you have to flounder for evidence that something isn’t pedophilia, it probably is.
There’s also a lot that gets completely ignored from a plot and character standpoint. Bella is supposedly a shield, meaning that no powers work on her, and the franchise keeps faithful to this up until baby Renesmee touches Bella’s cheek and floods her mind with the only memories she has of her. There is also the idea that all vampires have super speed, but for some reason, hardly any of them use it during the final showdown. Instead, they walk mind-numbingly slow across the vast expanse of the battleground for no reason other than drama. It would be much less awful to sit through if they just put their speed to use (and it would shave at least 10 minutes off the movie).
The Twilight Saga is all a bit batshit. However, it is an exceptional cultural touchstone, and this duality is pervasive. Its flaws heavily outweigh what it does well, and there is new information constantly being uncovered by fans, or released by Stephanie Meyer, that tends to add to the franchise’s problems. There are heavy amounts of racist rhetoric and propagandist Mormon plotlines, and it regards its female and indigenous characters with a horrible amount of disrespect. But, it has also been seared into my consciousness since I was 10 years old, and will always be this weirdly formative moment in my childhood — something that rings true for most people around my age. The Twilight Saga has not been palatable as serious content in a long time, but continues to be looked upon with fondness for its ability to recall collective nostalgia, and for this reason, it will always be a bizarre, yet undeniably influential, cultural phenomenon.