It fell a hair short of the franchise record, but The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 had the fifth-best opening weekend in movie history with $139.5 million. Although Breaking Dawn scored positive notices from a few critics, including Slate’s Dana Stevens, it also earned the series’ lowest score on Rotten Tomatoes. But if ever there was a critic-proof series, this is it. The 44 percent drop off in box office revenues from Friday to Saturday suggests the extent to which the opening grosses were driven by hardcore fans for whom even 24 hours was too long a wait. There have been plenty of efforts to explain the franchise’s appeal—please, tell me more about these “Twilight moms”—but rather than theorizing from afar, I thought it would be more revealing to examine the films in situ, amid the fans who turned out for an eight-hour marathon of the first three films, leading up to the midnight premier of the fourth. What follows is a minute-by-minute record of the experience, interrupted only by bathroom breaks and a mild case of the sniffles. Beware: Spoilers abound.
4:06 p.m. In voiceover, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) intones, “Dying in the place of someone I love seems like a good way to go,” as a soft-focus deer leaps through the forest, an early sign of the series’ obsession with self-sacrifice and/or self-annihilation.
4:09 With Bella’s mom on the road with her ballplayer beau, Beau, Bella relocates from Phoenix to the tiny, rain-sodden town of Forks, Wash., to live with her police-chief dad, who’s made a few home improvements in preparation for her arrival. “I put up some shelves in the bathroom,” he says hopefully. “Right,” she sighs. “One bathroom.” A fleeting exchange, nicely expressive of the gulf between bachelor dad and teenage girl.
4:10. Enter Taylor Lautner as Quileute Indian and future werewolf Jacob. He and Bella were friends as children, but it’s been years since she’s spent any time in Forks.
4:13 As the self-involved dim bulb Jessica, Anna Kendrick injects a flash of humor and intelligence, doing a superfluous spin as she walks away from Bella in gym class.
4:14 Our first glimpse of the Cullen children, four preternaturally good-looking teenagers who, unbeknownst to all, are vampires. It takes place in the site of so many significant high-school events: the cafeteria.
4:15 Enter Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who’s like James Dean reincarnated as an albino stick figure. The movie does the swooning for us, the guitar in the score quickening as an angel chorus swells.
4:18 Bella and her dad meet for dinner at his usual spot. A close-up as he and Bella reach simultaneously for the ketchup, their colliding hands underlining their mutual discomfort. Another small but poignant moment.
4:22 After an awkward first meeting, Edward and Bella are reunited as biology lab partners, and the sparks quickly fly. Seldom has the word “anaphase” held more suppressed longing.
4:28 We meet Dr. Cullen (Peter Facinelli) the preposterously blond head of the Cullen clan. He looks like he should be doing rounds on a soap opera. Does any M.D. use this much styling product?
4:31 Edward watches over Bella as she sleeps. In the dark of the theater, someone mutters, “Creepy.”
4:36 Edward asks Bella, “What if I’m not the hero? What if I’m the bad guy?” Apparently a century-plus of life has still not clued him in to the timeless appeal of tortured bad boys.
4:39 Our intro to the local Quileute population, who in addition to being werewolves, apparently really dig Twizzlers.
4:49 Edward and Bella grab a meal, their first quasi-date. “I can read minds,” he says, scanning restaurant patrons as the camera pans over them. “Money. Sex. Money. Cat.” The last falls on a dreadlocked dude who sighs contentedly at the thought of his four-legged friend.
4:55 Adept in the ancient art of Google, Bella has sussed out Edward’s undead nature and confronts him with it amid the mossy trunks of ancient trees.
4:57 Edward steps into a patch of sun to show Bella why vampires avoid natural light—not because they’ll burst into flame, but because it makes their skin shine like diamonds. As goofy as this rewrite of established vampire mythology is, I’m impressed by the way the movie’s underpinnings seem to emanate directly from the libido of a 14-year-old girl. It’s not that vampires are undead monsters who can’t bear the purity of sunlight, but that they’re so special they can’t let anyone see.
5:00 “You’re like my own personal brand of heroin,” Edward tells Bella. “I don’t know if I can control myself.”
5:03 “I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him,” Bella says. Although Stewart’s muttering and mannerisms are definitely 21st century, there’s something preliberation, almost desperate, about the way she attaches herself to a being she, and we, barely know.
5:20 Bella’s mom asks her, “Are you being safe?” a nifty double-entendre that underlines the series’ reworking of normal teenage concerns. It ain’t Joss Whedon, but it’ll do.
5:21 Half-clothed on her bed, Edward and Bella nearly succumb to temptation, but he hurls backward, exclaiming, “I can’t ever lose control with you.” They love and desire each other, but they can’t give in to their fleshly appetites because it’s just too dangerous. A pro-abstinence masterstroke.
5:23 Perhaps I’ll change my mind after four movies’ worth of lip-biting, but so far I’m sticking with my contention that Stewart is a good actress, one whose unfiltered portrayal of teenage lust and discomfort feels almost distractingly real in Twilight’s low-camp context. That said, she’s much the same out of character. When I see her onstage or in interviews, it’s hard to suppress the desire to upbraid her like some finishing-school matron: “Don’t slouch! Stop fidgeting! And smile!”
5:25 The Cullen family unites to play their superhuman version of baseball, with the crack of their bats masked by an oncoming thunderstorm. Better than any other, the sequence exemplifies the movie’s overlap of supernatural fantasy and young-adult tropes: It’s like Degrassi Vampire High.
5:28 The trio of vampires who’ve been slow-mo stalking the Cullens throughout the film finally catch up with them. You can tell the males are evil because one has dreadlocks and the other a scraggly ponytail. They’re the kind of boys your mom warned you about. Redheaded Victoria (Rachelle Lefevre) seems like less of a present threat, but she’ll surely be back.
5:40 Ponytailed vampire Cam Gigandet has kidnapped Bella’s mom and lures Bella to a dance studio in Phoenix, where as a child she learned to plié. He sinks his teeth into her arm, but Edward sucks out the vampire venom, preventing her from either dying or being changed. It’s Edward’s first taste of Bella.
5:50 Prom. Edward and Bella dance under a gazebo outside the school, with music wafting across the air. The camera pulls back to show Victoria watching over them, her lips curling into a smile as the credits roll. Stay tuned.
6:26 Bella awakes with Romeo and Juliet on her pillow, a sop to the subtext-impaired.
6:28 Bella’s friends are still paired off the way they were before summer break. Apparently in the Twilight universe, even adolescent humans mate for life.
6:36 “You’re my only reason to stay alive—if that’s what I am,” Edward says.
6:41 Glancing around the theater, I notice that a couple in my row have brought their own blanket to snuggle up with. They’re in for the long haul.
6:49 Edward dumps Bella after learning that Victoria (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) intends to avenge her mate’s death at Edward’s hands by killing his human consort. A shell-shocked Bella trips over a tree in the forest and faints. Someone needs to do a supercut of the series’ heroine falling on her ass, which seems to happen every several minutes.
6:56 Although he’s thousands of miles away, Edward appears in ghostly form to warn Bella when she’s getting into trouble. I can’t help but think the first film would have taken some of the curse off this unbearably saccharine gimmick with a wink or a nod, but Chris Weitz’s directing lacks the wit and self-awareness Catherine Hardwicke brought to the first installment. Spoiling any delusion that Hollywood is a meritocracy, Weitz was given the job after killing off the Golden Compass series with a fizzled franchise-starter.
6:59 Jacob is clearly crushing on Bella, although she’s blind to it, and perhaps to her own attraction to him. She procures a pair of defunct dirt bikes for the mechanically inclined Jacob to fix, thus giving them ample reason to spend time together in Edward’s absence.
7:05 Did I mention Jacob’s a werewolf? Now he knows it as well, and is spending his free time with his fellow Quileute mutants. Why are they all so hairless in their human form? They look as if they’ve just stepped out of an ad for bodybuilding supplements.
7:08 Bella gets a motorcycle of her own, and promptly … falls off.
7:11 Having realized that the rush of danger will make Edward appear to her, if only as a ghostly superego, Bella takes a double date to an action movie called Face Punch. The offscreen dialogue—“No, you put your gun down or I’ll blow your head off”—is the closest New Moon gets to a bona fide joke.
7:34 Jacob’s been avoiding Bella, so she goes to his house. A confrontation with his tribal brethren turns angry, until a particularly hot-tempered Quileute turns into a werewolf. As the wolf lunges for Bella, Jacob emerges from the house and starts running at it. Bella screams for Jacob’s safety until he, too, changes form. The wolf is out of the bag.
7:37 “It’s not a lifestyle choice,” Jacob says of his lycanthropy. “I was born this way.” Throw in his body-sculpted, manscaped physique, and you have to wonder if his competitive interest in Bella is just a way to get Edward to notice him. Homosocial deconstruction, activate!
7:55 Believing Bella dead, Edward plans the vampire equivalent of suicide by cop. He heads to Italy, the home of a three-vamp tribunal called the Volturi, intending to expose his diamond-skinned self to a crowd of humans and earn the Volturi’s fatal wrath. (They don’t have many rules, but keeping the existence of vampires secret is the big one.) It’s not easy to kill a vampire, but they’re pretty good at it.
8:00 Bella, naturally, arrives in the nick of time, but not before Edward has unbuttoned his shirt and taken a half-step into the sunlight. He’s got body hair, along with alarmingly pale skin and hipbones you could balance a lunch tray on.
8:03 “It doesn’t make sense for you to love me,” he says to Bella. The sound of noses being blown in the audience.
8:05 Edward and Bella pile into an elevator to meet the Volturi. Apparently the undead favor opera as elevator music.
8:08 In addition to being exempt from Edward’s ability to read minds, Bella is apparently impervious to the Volturi’s powers as well, an indication that her relationship with Edward serves some as-yet-unknown higher purpose. She’s human, but not ordinary.
8:10 Good lord, head Volturi Michael Sheen’s wig is painful to look at. Is Volturi Italian for “slumming character actor”?
8:21 The audience loses it en masse for the first time, busting out laughing at the sight of Edward, in flashback, running through a meadow in breeches and loose-flowing shirt.
8:25 The second break between movies. New Moon gives Pattinson a little room to indulge his inner Dean, which is a welcome break from all his alabaster mooning, but it’s lacking in ketchup bottle moments. It’s not nearly stylized enough to pass as a fairy tale, but the series feels as if it’s departed the real world, and there’s no turning back. On the way out of the theater, the security guard asks, “Do you know this isn’t over?” We know.
8:47 Half of the blanket couple asks the three chattering women next to me to keep it down. It does not go well. The phrase “Mind your fuckin’ business” is used.
8:49 Edward proposes to Bella. “Marriage is just a piece of paper,” she says, sounding like an emancipated young woman except for the fact that she clearly wants to be contradicted.
9:03 Taylor Lautner enters in a tight, rain-soaked T-shirt. The woman in front of me spasms and extends her arms. Team Jacob.
9:08 Jacob explains how wolves “imprint,” forming an unbreakable bond with another creature. They mate for life.
9:12 My wife and I have been bingeing on The Good Wife recently, but it’s taken two and a half movies for me to spot Elizabeth Reaser—aka Will Gardner’s sporty ex-girlfriend—as the Cullen materfamilias. She’s among a raft of familiar faces, including Dakota Fanning, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Michael Sheen, who pass by unrecognized until the end credits. It’s not that they disappear into their roles so much as their bad wigs and thick makeup. For all the money piled into the Twilight films, there’s an amateurish, overstated quality to them, as if they’re staffed by movie-of-the-week veterans thrown out of work by the reality TV boom.
9:17 Quileute story time. Along with a handful of werewolf pups, Bella is initiated into the tribe’s lore, which includes their initial encounter with a man who was “hard like stone and cold as ice.” Given Meyer’s penchant for the on-the-nose descriptors like “tomato red” and “coal black,” it’s safe to say the phrase comes straight from the book.
9:18 In the story, the tribe is saved by the suicide of a chief’s wife, who cuts her belly open with a knife to distract a savage vampire. The series’ suicide fetish begins in earnest.
10:02 It’s Bella’s turn to be horny. Edward responds, “Believe me, I want to. I just want to be married to you first ... I know it’s not a modern notion.” They work out a deal: She’ll accept his proposal, and he’ll turn her into a vampire, but not until after graduation.
10:11 Victoria is on the hunt, with an army of unpredictable, superstrong newborn vampires in tow. Along with Edward and Jacob, Bella retreats to a mountaintop hideaway, which is promptly hit by a major snowstorm. Jacob, who goes shirtless even in the snow, slips into Bella’s sleeping bag to share his wolf-life body heat. Edward doesn’t like it much. “I am hotter than you,” Jacob points out. A big laugh from Team Jacob.
10:14 Edward calls Bella “Mrs. Cullen,” but she hedges: “I at least want to hyphenate my name.” (You go, girl.) Jacob overhears and prepares to storm off in an unrequited huff. Bella’s concerned for his safety, so to keep him out of the fight, she kisses him.
10:21 The final battle. (Fights in the Twilight movies seem to inevitably start with people running directly at each other.) Victoria loses, naturally, but the disappearances and deaths linked to her vampire recruitment program have attracted the Volturi’s attention, which spells serious trouble ahead.
Breaking Dawn—Part 1
10:50 I duck out of the theater to grab some caffeine. On the way, I pass the line for my 12:01 a.m. screening, as well as lines for the 12:05, 12:20, and 12:40.So this is what a phenomenon looks like.
11:03 They let us into the theater, nearly an hour before the screening. Within 10 minutes or so, almost every seat is full.
11:10 An R.A. from a nearby university is taking orders for concessions from a large group of freshmen. Turns out their entire hallway has come en masse. It’s worth pointing out that these women—and they’re almost all women—were in junior high when Meyer’s first book was published, and were high school juniors (like Bella) when the first movie was released. Based on their frequent laughter during the Breaking Dawn screening, they seem to realize the Twilight movies are silly even as they willingly succumb to their charms. Or perhaps they’re just finishing what they started.
12:07 a.m. Just before the film starts, a manager warms up the crowd: “Is anyone here on Team Edward?” Team Jacob is much, much louder.
12:26 A few seconds into the movie, and Taylor Lautner’s already wet and shirtless. Team Jacob approves.
12:27 A lonely Edward gazes out the window. “Awwww,” says the crowd.
12:30 Flashback to the days when Edward was less in control of his bloodlust, although he only preyed on murderers, like Michael C. Hall on Dexter.
12:37 The wedding. Bella teeters on her high heels. “Just don’t let me fall, Dad,” she says. Easier said than done.
12:57 Nervous titters run through the crowd at the first sight of the marriage bed.
12:58 Bella hits the bathroom, brushing her teeth, fixing her hair, shaving her legs in preparation for her big night. For just a few minutes, she’s a teenage girl again.
1:02 The canopied bed is shattered as a result of their lovemaking. It’s supposed to play as a joke, but the series’ opportunity to grow a funny bone has long since passed.
1:05 Bella is covered in bruises, and Edward apologizes. “For a human,” Bella says, “I can’t imagine it gets any better than that.” Considering that she and Edward were both virgins, one hopes she’s wrong.
1:08 And, of course, Bella gets knocked up.
1:24 The family meets to discuss Bella’s pregnancy. Alice calls it “a fetus.” Rose insists on “baby.” Jasper says “maybe.” Welcome to the culture wars.
1:30 The werewolves meet to discuss how to respond to this new half-breed threat. The soundtrack fills with overdubbed voices representing their in-pack telepathy. One longs for the pre-CGI era, when a sequence this goofy would simply have been written out of the script. The alpha wolf decides that the baby’s presence is enough of a disruption to the established order to void the fragile peace between vamps and wolves. Jacob objects, but a wolf pack is not a democracy.
1:52 Bella considers baby names. E.J.—Edward Jacob—for a boy, and, wedding their mothers’ names, Rene and Esme, for a girl: Renesme.
1:56 The baby is born. Please don’t be Renesme. Please don’t be Renesme.
2:00 At long last, Jacob imprints, although not on a romantic mate. With his first glimpse of Renesme he goes gooey.
2:04 The wolves—minus Jacob’s splinter faction—attack the Cullens’ house, with Bella and baby inside.
2:09 Bella’s newly vamped eyes open, to what sounds like the end-credits sting from Lost.
2:10 It’s over, but a brief post-credits scene with the Volturi sets up Part 2. As the camera zooms into his face, Sheen glowers, “She has something I want.” See you on Nov. 16, 2012.
Postmortem: The Twilight films have gotten more professional over time—the Breaking Dawns are directed by Oscar winner Bill Condon—but also more lifeless. Hardwicke’s cringe-worthy Red Riding Hood certainly proved she’s fallible, but she also grounded the series in an approximation of real life and palpable teenage psychology, which has steadily drained from each successive film. There is, as Dana Stevens points out in her review, some genuinely, and commendably, weird stuff in Breaking Dawn, Part 1. But it’s weirdness without conviction. Condon is merely photocopying Meyer’s pallid vision for an audience that’s already two steps ahead of him. Unlike the Harry Potter films, which got progressively stronger as the producers learned to trust directors with stronger voices, the Twilight movies have become impersonal to the point of anonymity. They don’t even feel like product any more. They’re more like the Styrofoam product comes packed in.