After you've seen The Twilight Saga: New Moon, sink your teeth into our Spoiler Special discussion:
Sometimes a critic's aesthetic judgment is impossible to extricate from what you might call her cinematic libido. There are movies that bring us a pleasure that's neither definable nor defensible. These used to be called "guilty pleasures," but that phrase seems too judgmental, too pre-Vatican II, for our postmodern era of omnivorous cultural consumption. The distinction between high and low culture, between what we're allowed to enjoy publicly and what we must sneak off to savor in private, has effaced itself to the degree that "guilty pleasures" needs to be replaced by a more morally neutral term. For our purposes here, I'll go with a term that a friend and I coined in college and that I still deploy on occasion: movies we couldn't intellectually defend but still unapologetically loved we called "juicebombs."
All that to say thatThe Twilight Saga: New Moon (Summit Entertainment), like its 2008 predecessor Twilight, is a classic juicebomb. Mopey, draggy, and absurdly self-important, the movie nonetheless twangs at some resonant affective chord. This viewer, at least, was catapulted back to that moment of adolescence when being mopey, draggy, and absurdly self-important felt like a passionate act of liberation. The Twilight movies are schlock, but they're elegantly appointed, luxuriously enjoyable schlock, and the world they take place in—the densely forested, perpetually overcast, vampire-and-werewolf-ridden town of Forks, Wash.—feels like a real, if fantastical, place. It's as specific and evocative a location as the fictional Washington town of Twin Peaks. It's this sense of place that elevates the Twilight films above the best-selling books by Stephenie Meyer, made up of impenetrable blocks of descriptive yet curiously featureless prose.
When we last left Forks, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), the sulky new girl in town, was attending the school dance with her true love, the forever-teenage vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Edward, a member of an abstinent vampire clan that has forsworn human blood, is the dream boyfriend, given to slavish declarations of devotion ("Bella, you give me enough just by breathing") yet ever-unattainable because of his insatiable erotic appetite—if he so much as kisses Bella, he may not be able to stop himself from ripping her throat out and draining her blood. Like a '50s coed bargaining for her boyfriend's fraternity pin, Bella is constantly pressuring Ed to make her not his prey but his co-predator. If he bites her in some other, unspecified fashion, she will be turned into a vampire as well, and the two can live together in undead bliss for all eternity.
As the second installment begins, Edward and his whole pale, glittering, amber-contact-lensed family are about to leave Forks for good. Ed spouts some nonsense about not loving Bella anymore, but we know from his pained face that he's deserting her for her own safety. Bella spends three months numb with grief (a state that's effectively evoked by a long 360-degree shot of her staring out a window as the names of the months flash up on-screen). But on discovering that a rush of adrenaline allows her to sense Edward's presence briefly, Bella starts seeking out dangerous situations. Her friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), a foxy-fine Quileute Indian who's also, as it turns out, a newly initiated werewolf, helps her to salvage and restore some old motorcycles, which Bella takes out for high-speed spins. (The Twilight franchise may promote sexual abstinence, but its stance on helmet safety is downright promiscuous.) Meanwhile, an ancient enmity between vampires and werewolves is heating up in the forests outside of town.
The feminist in me wishes that Bella spent more time actually working on those motorcycles rather than hanging over Jacob's shoulder as he wields his manly, er, wrench. The feminist in me wishes a lot of things. But say what you will about the Twilight films; they take female desire as seriously as a grad student from the early '90s. The whole overcooked vampire vs. werewolfmythology (which also involves packs of shirtless wolf-boys and a sort of vampire Pope, played with camp glee by Michael Sheen) is, in essence, an excuse to place the viewer in Bella's Timberland boots: torn between two flesh-eating monsters, feelin' like a fool. Haters may construe Bella as a passive victim eager to be served up as vampire meat, but she's the subject of this love story, not its object; she's the lover while Edward and Jacob are her diametrically opposed beloveds, one hot-blooded (Jacob runs a constant body temperature of 108 degrees), the other pale and cold as stone.
Matty Robinson, a co-host of the excellent movie podcast Filmspotting, likes to say of an underrated performance, "I don't want to see his Hamlet, but [X] is not bad in this role." You don't want to see Kristen Stewart's Hamlet—and based on a few lines Ed reads aloud in an English-class scene, you really don't want to see Robert Pattinson's Romeo—but both actors are ideally suited to their roles as pining sweethearts separated only by the fact that one lacks an eternal soul. Based on her mumbly, visibly uncomfortable appearances on the talk-show circuit, Stewart really is a bit of a Bella, rough-edged and glum. And Pattinson—well, he's best when he's not talking, but, luckily, New Moon's Bella-centric plot structure doesn't often require him to. (Of course, the knowledge that they may or may not be dating in real life—not since the days of Walter Winchell has a Hollywood romance been more carefully stage-managed—adds to the penumbra of mystery that surrounds the couple.)
As a last-ditch defense for my fondness for New Moon, I'll observe that unlike its predecessor, the sequel (directed not by Catherine Hardwicke this time but by Chris Weitz, co-director of About A Boyand American Pie) is often intentionally funny: the scene in which Bella insists on taking not one but two prospective suitors to an action movie called Face Punch or the moment when a paper cut at a birthday party leads to a near-mauling by her vampire pals. But a true juicebomb, by definition, requires no defense. As the screen went black after Edward's supremely cheesy last line, my first thought was, "Give me a break." The second was, "How long till Eclipse comes out?"
Slate V: The critics on New Moon and other new releases