Vamped-up saga keeps its bite
Thursday November 19, 2009
NEW MOON (M) ˜…˜…˜… (131 minutes) General release WELCOME to the Twilight zone. The world of vampire boyfriends, werewolf protectors and love unto death; four best-selling novels in the process of being turned into a movie franchise juggernaut.At its centre is the figure of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), an apparently ordinary girl with some out-of-the-ordinary boyfriend experiences. In last year's Twilight, we saw her connect with Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the enigmatic high-school loner who, apparently, hated her at first, but was in fact intoxicated by her. And who, also, inconveniently, turned out to be a vampire.Edward, pale and interesting, forever 17, burdened with eternal life and the responsibility of a relationship with Bella, is a more consistent €” if less visible €” figure in New Moon, because he banishes himself from the narrative right at the outset.He has a real rival this time; Jacob Black, the cheerful, obliging Native American boy who, in Edward's absence, offers Bella companionship (with a cautious degree of courtship) and help with motorcycle repairs. Young actor Taylor Lautner was required to bulk up to an almost unnerving degree for the role, and the film focuses religiously on the results. A scene in which he tends to an injured Bella by whipping off his T-shirt and, bare-chested, mops at her temples, is unavoidably comical.But there's no doubt that €” alongside cars, which are major fetish items in the Twilight world €” male beauty is front and centre in these films. If you are a reader, you choose your affiliation: Team Edward, or Team Jacob. They are the objects of the camera's contemplation. Bella €” lean, glowering, in jeans and a flannie €” is an offhand heroine who's never going to inspire her own clothing line. Not quite a Jane Eyre, however; she can pique male interest, although her demeanour generally deflects boys' attention soon enough. But the camera doesn't linger on her: it turns to the torsos and cheekbones of the pin-up boys.As a spectacle, New Moon €” supposedly far more "epic" than its predecessor €” still leaves a bit to be desired. Vampires, in Stephenie Meyer's world, do not have fangs, and they don't need to hide from the light of day. But the direct rays of the sun make vampire flesh sparkle like diamonds, an effect that is dramatic in the book and strangely ineffectual on screen.And, disappointingly, the werewolves of New Moon lack heft. They don't look as if they could inflict damage: they seem as weightless and bouncy as Mario Party figures.In Twilight, the first film, the only vampires we really got to know were the Cullens, a PC, blended family of the undead who have chosen to shun the consumption of human blood. In New Moon, we are introduced to the ruling class of vampires, the Volturi. They are from Italy (via Britain it seems, from most of their accents), and they're familiar, aristocratic, superior figures with haute Goth wardrobes: you could almost imagine them, at a pinch, as Slytherin graduates.The Twilight phenomenon is a strange mixture of earnestness and clunkiness. If you put it beside Buffy, it looks short of irony and wit. If you set it against the recent TV series True Blood, it seems to have a limited sense of the world in which it operates. If you compare it to Katherine Bigelow's 1987 feature Near Dark there's not that heady mixture of grunge and desire that rejuvenated vampire conventions.The Twilight phenomenon, by contrast, has been described by some as a Promise Keepers' manual in disguise, a conservative, cautionary tale about restraint.But the danger is, in many ways, the point of the relationship that is being depicted. There's something that Meyer has tapped into, something about the threat and the promise of romance, that gives the saga its bite, its edge, its appeal.