(On Cable TV, December 2013) I read Stephenie Meyer’s The Host shortly after publication five years ago, but while I recall buying, reading and eventually giving away the book, I recall almost nothing from the novel beyond “romantic twaddle featuring parasite aliens and teenage love triangles”. As it turns out, this also describes the film pretty well: While The Host features body-riding aliens having taken over Earth in a fit of benevolent eradication, there’s no real science-fiction to be found here: no extrapolation beyond base sentimental melodrama, no extrapolative surprises, no real world-building. It’s not really surprising to see Meyer stick close to what made Twilight such a runaway young-adult success; it’s what she presumably knows and does best –but the real bitter disappointment here is seeing writer/director Andrew Niccol waste his time and energy by slumming in a framework so far away from his cerebral track record: The Host needs a lot of sloppy romanticism to work, but Niccol seems to have far more sympathy for the gleaming-chrome cleanliness of the aliens than for the messy humans in the story. That’s fine (I liked the aliens better than the human as well), but when it’s played straight it means an interminable and somewhat silly film. Saoirse Ronan does as well as she can with the material she has (and it’s a measure of her potential that her reputation as a fine actress will survive this film intact), but The Host is a clear example of how some aspects of a novel don’t survive the literalisation process of the movie medium: Having a protagonist engage in internal dialogue works fine on the page, but just sounds silly on-screen. Saying that the film is aimed at teenage girls sort of misses the point given how many car crashes are crammed in a story that didn’t even have any on the page. Some of the details are mildly entertaining (the cars, the ultra-generic “store”, the mirror-powered cavern fields) but there’s little else to lift the film above its basic problems: The dialogue is bland (try reading the IMDB quotes page and try not to fall asleep), most of the young men of the cast can’t be told apart, the story doesn’t go anywhere interesting once it becomes obvious that Meyer’s intent is far too nice (“You’ve been doing it all wrong!” our protagonist says of the alien-removing effort, “You need to do it with love!”). Give me a year, and I’m pretty sure I will remember nothing more from The Host as a film than I do from the novel.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) So there it is: the final conclusion of the Twilight “Saga”, after five seemingly-interminable films that were often more laughable than effective. If you sense some weary resignation in the preceding statement, then you probably understand how the series divides fans from onlookers. Fans will love it, while onlookers will wonder aloud at the series’ substantial plot holes, backward social attitudes and pacing issues. Fans will go nuts for the overblown ending (complete with written passages of Stephenie Meyer’s novel, and a lavish slideshow of every single actors to have played in the series) while onlookers will wonder when the thing will actually end. Plot-wise, the split of the series’ final book has taken its toll: After the events of the previous film, this one seems unsure of what to do: The villains announce their intention to come make trouble, then take weeks to come around –leaving the protagonist to mount a defense of sorts. Various vampires with superpowers are brought in (and it’s hard not to laugh when emotionless protagonist Bella’s superpower is explained as being a really effective superpower wet blanket), various stereotypes are presented on-screen (Irish vampires with a drinking problem? No, no, no…) and the film puts all the pieces in place for a big fake-out of a conclusion that wimps out just as it becomes interesting (and also has it both ways, almost). Bill Condon does fine as a director with the material he’s given (he even gets to helm a large-scale special-effects sequence.), while the usual trio of Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner are up to their now-usual standards as the protagonists. It goes without saying that this final installment, more than any others, is for the fans: If you’re still hating and watching after five movies, then there’s no helping you.
(On Cable TV, June 2012) It’s easy to be dismissive of the entire Twilight series as pop-culture fluff for teenage audiences, but the continued appeal of the franchise hints at something deeper than marketing brainwash. While Breaking Dawn is widely acknowledged as the weakest novel in Stephenie Meyer’s series, it does continue the “romantic fears thinly transposed in fantasy terms” trend of the series so far, what with the heroine getting married, having sex and getting pregnant. The pregnancy is terrifying enough without the addition of dueling vampires and werewolves, but that’s the kind of series this is. After the relatively sedate and well-handled Eclipse, which was just good enough to escape ridicule, this first half of the fourth novel renews with insanity and unintentional laughter. The birthing scene is about as well-handled as the material can be, meaning that the most ludicrous scene in the movie is the following battle between the vampires and the teddy-wolves: the CGI of the wolves is noticeably bad throughout the film, and it’s never as bad as when they’re thrown around by vampires. The “imprinting” thing is also very… special. Otherwise, the film plays on the same register aimed at fans of the series: The leads’ acting abilities are still as limited as ever (Kirsten Stewart glowers; Robert Pattinson broods and Taylor Lautner growls), the pacing is deadly slow and the quirks of the series just sound dumb to anyone who’s not emotionally invested in the plot. It’s made a bit more colorful due to the Brazilian honeymoon, and the more adult-oriented plot completely escapes high-school now that Bella is an unemployed pregnant newlywed. The film still works by fits and starts, although some choices (the editing of the wedding speeches, for instance) seem jarring given the series’ demonstrated lack of interest in directorial showmanship. Something that may not affect people who see the film without close captioning is the jarring atonality of the endless song lyrics displayed on-screen. Oh well; if nothing else, Breaking Dawn, Part 1 feels far more self-contained than anyone would have expected from a “Part 1”: The immediate dramatic arc is more or less settled by the time the film ends, with only slight cliffhanger elements. As for the rest, well, it’s a fair bet that no one will see this film completely cold: you will get what you expect from it.
(In theaters, July 2010) The problem with Eclipse is that while it’s just good enough to avoid much of its predecessors’ most unintentionally hilarious moments, it’s not good enough to make it a compelling film experience if you’re not already part of Twilight’s target audiences. Much of it stems from the thinness of its plotting, especially when compared to the languid pacing of its execution: By the fifteenth minute of the film, we know that vampires are coming to attack and that poor confused Bella isn’t any more decisive than before. And that’s where things remain stuck for the next hour, the script seemingly happy to remind us of both plotlines until it’s time to wrap it up. To director David Slade’s credit, the short fights between teen vampires and fluffy werewolves actually feel interesting. Alas, there’s isn’t much else to enjoy elsewhere in Eclipse: even the hilariously awful dialogue of the first two films seems a bit better-behaved here. There is still, fortunately, a bit of romantic universality in seeing Bella struggle between two pretenders who really want to kill each other. The acting isn’t much better, though, and the casting may be a bit worse: It’s not just for French-Canadian pride that I regret Rachelle Lefevre’s replacement by Bryce Dallas Howard as Victoria (Go, Team Victoria!): Howard doesn’t quite have the feral intensity required for the role and a number of the latter scenes feel like she’s meowing a lioness part. Ah well. In terms of genre-bending, Eclipse continues the series’ tradition of being romance under dark fantasy masks: Forget this film’s value to the horror crowd since there’s nothing original to see here in genre terms, even though a scene featuring a snowstorm, a freezing human, a frigid vampire and a warm werewolf is good for a cute chuckle. (It’s one of the only chuckles in a film that’s as dour as the rest of its series so far.) But, at the risk of repeating myself, I’m so far away from Twilight’s audience that the only thing left to do is admit that this film isn’t for me. That it doesn’t manage to go beyond its own fans isn’t much of a problem as far as box-office receipts are concerned… but those films will age quickly once its audience grows just a bit older. No film immortality in store, here.
(In theatres, December 2009) Given the runaway success of the Twilight series, it’s useless to review this second entry in the “saga”: Fans of Stephenie Meyer’s books don’t care, anti-fans don’t care in a different fashion, and practically no one will pick up this film at the video store going “I wonder what this is about?” The dumb indulgences have been turned into holy writ, the film is slave to the book and the result is aimed squarely at a particular demographic segment, those who actually know what “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” means and actually have an opinion about it. (Me, I’m “Team Victoria” all the way.) Still, there are still a few things to say about this film. Plot-wise, I was pleased to see that the universality of the first film’s essence (you know, “as a teen girl, you will be seduced by a dangerous creature that has the power to change you forever”) doesn’t completely goes away in New Moon: Poor featureless Bella gets stuck moping around and teasing a much-better boy who nonetheless turns out to be a manipulating control-freak by the last reel of the film. Surely that rings a few bells among the target audience. But what’s significantly improved this time around is the budget and the direction: Chris Weitz lets a bit more color flow into the film, and seems marginally more comfortable with the demands imposed by the special effects. The film feels fresher and better by the change of approach –although I miss some of the first film’s musical choices. While the film is still aimed at a specific fannish audience, still annoying in many ways (who just wants to hit Edward over the head with a shovel?), still in love with its own quirks and angst, it’s a passable movie-watching experience, far less painful than you’d expect, even though much of the humour may work at the film’s detriment (“So, Bella, your friend would rather hang out shirtless in the forest with four of his ripped buddies? There’s nothing gay with that at all.”) But, as I’ve said before, Twilight is not made for you, fellow cynical hipster cinephile: let the kids have their fun and don’t begrudge them a bit of honest passion.
(In theaters, December 2008) It’s too easy to blast this film for lousy special effects, ridiculous pandering to its audience, gigantic plot holes and lousy direction. The truth is; this is not “a vampire movie” as much as it’s a film made specifically for teenage girls, sublimating pubescent anxieties into an overtly fantastical metaphor. Plus, it’s based on a wildly popular book that half the audience has already read: The director’s got her hands tied to insipid voice-over narration, slow-motion introduction of the romantic hero, and a plot that stops mid-way through. Fans will presumably be pleased, although the rest of the audience will just stare in amazement at the hollowness of the “Twilight phenomenon”. There are rare moments of sunshine in the middle of the morass: a conventionally amusing scene shows how dinnertime conventions are different between humans and vampires, while some particularly lousy lines will have anyone laughing at the ineptness of it all. (For those who aren’t fans, consider this: Imagine the dullness of Star Wars Episode 2‘s romantic subplot stretched over 90+ minutes.) Basically, it’s OK to love or hate this film, as long as you pre-identify as being part of its public or not.