You need to watch the most underrated monster movie before it leaves Netflix this month
In the same year Iron Man and The Dark Knight gave superheroes critical acclaim, young adult romances also came to dominate mainstream culture. Though the genre’s time was shorter-lived than superheroes, the lasting legacy of one YA franchise can still be felt in any show on The CW.
But have we been unfair? Or can a single movie actually be as bad as it’s made out to be? After over a decade-plus of memes that belittle women’s media, can we actually find something nice to say? Or has the criticisms been warranted? It’s… complicated.
It’s hard to talk about the 2008 film Twilight on its own. You simply can’t, not without also addressing everything it’s synonymous with, from sparkling vampires to the now-empty meme “A better love story than Twilight.” Twilight alone encouraged film studio Lionsgate to plunder the young adult section at Barnes & Noble in search of their next hit. They found both success and failure in The Hunger Games and Divergent.
But more than 10 years since its theatrical release, does Twilight have any merit at all? Find out for yourself by streaming the entire five film series before it leaves Netflix on January 15.
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke and sourced from author Stephanie Meyer’s hit tween books, Twilight was a cultural nuke. If you were tuned into pop culture in 2008, you remember it well. Its rise was like Harry Potter redux, but with a narrative that replaced saving the world with ensuring your first time isn’t too weird.
Its premise had just enough fantasy to bring new life to a familiar set-up: In rainy Washington, new girl Bella (Kristen Stewart) falls for bad boy Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), initially unaware of his true nature as a vampire. Fighting off his own lust for Bella, Edward must protect her from a rival coven of bloodsuckers.
Sequels expanded the story to include a rival lover, Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Introduced in Twilight as Bella’s first friend in the neighborhood, he’s soon revealed to be a werewolf, a species battling with vampires. Bella is torn between the two heartthrobs who pine for her amid a centuries-long conflict.
Twilight has good stuff from the get-go. An ordinary teenager finds herself wrapped up in something impossible? That’s how good escapist stories have worked forever. But whether it’s Meyers’ plotting or the filmmakers waddling through a ponderous script by Melissa Rosenberg — a writer who would find greater success with Marvel series Jessica Jones — Twilight is one of the few pop culture infamies to have a reputation that’s largely warranted. It is weird there’s a massive age disparity with Bella and Edward, and their whole relationship does reek of manipulative behavior.
But Twilight has its strengths too. The continued success of Kirsten Stewart and Robert Pattinson gives the movie retroactive importance. By itself, Twilight has a style that’s largely vanished from cinema.
Director Catherine Hardwicke and cinematographer Elliot Davis depict Bella’s world of Forks in frigid colors and up-close compositions; you can almost feel the characters breathe on each other. Much of the film’s imagery is erratic and dizzying, evoking a weightlessness and nervousness that’s appropriate for Bella’s point of view as an unprepared teenager entering a world of monsters. It’s a little nauseating for the viewer, especially when the action cranks up.
The cool tones of the film also emphasize both Stewart and Pattinson’s pale complexions, an effect that makes this vampire/human couple look like a pair of ghosts. “Aren’t people from Arizona supposed to be, like, really tan?” asks Jessica, played by Anna Kendrick in an early role before stardom. It’s an amusing lampshade that acknowledges Stewart’s natural Snow White qualities. But to the benefit of Twilight, its arresting blue-gray hues shoulders gothic influences that are otherwise filed down by its northwestern coast settings.
As much as Twilight rebels against the vampire genre by building new tropes (the infamous scene of Pattinson sparkling gets a nitty-gritty explanation, then is never referenced again), it’s become a prominent influence for anything dealing with moody teenagers. One can’t help but see Forks and imagine it’s a reasonable drive to similar towns like Hawkins, Riverdale, and any CW show shot in Vancouver. People spent over a decade dunking on Twilight, but its execution continues to provide cues for its successors.
There’s a lot to dislike about Twilight, but a lot to enjoy too; your mileage with camp will decide your take on its infamous baseball scene. But vitriolic hate towards it was unjustified. Twilight became shorthand for dismissing the emptiness of popular art, but it had the ill-fortune of arriving when fantasy media was still widely gendered. It was 2008 when Twilight “invaded” the holy ground of San Diego Comic-Con; it wasn’t Marvel or DC but Twilight that modernized the convention machine. That didn’t stop male “counter-protestors” who brought “Twilight ruined Comic-Con” signs.
This isn’t to say that Twilight was tragically damned by misogyny. There are many women who were and are unkind towards Meyer’s saga. Some were critical of Twilight in its heyday, and the first film’s tenth anniversary encouraged mixed reevaluation in outlets like The Mary Sue and Glamour. But there is a bias against women’s media, and Twilight has been at the enter of it. In a 20-minute video essay, novelist and former YouTuber Lindsay Ellis had the most succinct take on the whole thing: “It isn’t that bad.”
Twilight is neither great nor woefully misunderstood. It’s a silly and awkward teen romance that makes little sense after five minutes of serious thought (how and why do the Cullen kids attend a different high school every four years?). But both Stewart and Pattinson have proven to be more capable artists than the series allowed them to be, and the first Twilight remains a strange, moody artifact that doesn’t spiral into the wobbly pseudo-political epic conflict that its sequels do. You can go ahead and hate Twilight, but at least make sure you watch it first.
The five movies of the Twilight Saga are streaming on Netflix until January 15.