Twilight

In theaters.

Thus far, I’ve managed to avoid reading Stephenie Meyer’s vampire series. I know enough about the books—and about myself—to know that I would really dislike them, and although that kind of makes me want to read them anyway so that I can make rude comments about them, I try to avoid caving into that perverse impulse.

Unfortunately for my attempts at being a better person, my fourteen-year-old niece mentioned over Thanksgiving that she really wanted to see Twilight, the new film adaptation of the first book (she’s read them all), and I couldn’t resist offering to take her. I felt like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, accompanying a genuinely besotted fan so that I could sink my teeth into the object of her affection, but I think she suspected the truth (she kept glancing at me in the theater to gauge my reaction), and she got a free ticket out of the trip, and of course I love her and would never be rude to her.

Plus, truth be told, I didn’t hate the movie as much as I had expected. Director Catherine Hardwicke makes the most of the Pacific Northwest setting, giving the whole film a rainy, verdant beauty. In a few scenes, notes of levity manage to sneak into the otherwise morose story and charm me in spite of myself. And finally, I underestimated how endearing Brooke’s enthusiasm would be. I couldn’t share her love of Edward and Bella, but her excitement was mildly contagious. In my own way, I enjoyed the movie as a weird hybrid of melodrama, comedy, and aunt-niece bonding.

For the uninitiated, the lackluster heroine of Twilight is Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), a teenage girl whose featureless personality permits all readers so inclined (and now viewers, as well) to project themselves onto her. Why would anyone want to? Well, soon after moving to rural Forks, Washington, Bella meets the impossibly gorgeous Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson—not impossibly gorgeous but serviceable, I suppose), who reciprocates her infatuation with a weird fascination of his own. After a few unexplained incidents and some amateur sleuthing, Bella realizes that Edward and his mysterious family are all vampires. Still obsessed, she stubbornly refuses to run screaming in the opposite direction, but her neck remains unscathed. The Cullens are a clan of “vegetarian” vampires, forgoing human blood in favor of the less satisfying yet ethically sound blood of woodland wildlife. Ethics aside, part of Edward longs to suck Bella’s blood (no other human hemoglobin has quite the same draw—isn’t it romantic?), so their Romeo-and-Juliet romance must be a chaste one: If a kiss lasts too long, he just might lose control and chomp down on a major artery. Sadly, their moody handholding as abstinence-only poster-children does not go unchallenged. A non-vegetarian vampire with a competitive streak sniffs out Bella and takes a less-restrained interest in her blood, putting the girl in mortal peril.

That’s a longish summary, but only because I can’t resist the urge to be flip. Virtually nothing happens in the first two-thirds of Twilight. The poor young actors, neither of whom seems to have much range, must spend interminable scenes staring intensely at each other, crinkling their brows, and blinking ever so passionately in between bits of awkward dialogue. From Brooke’s animated post-movie recap, I gather that some of the most cumbersome lines are taken directly from Meyer’s book. Thus we have the celebrated author to thank for the following exchange:

Edward: And so the lion fell in love with the lamb.
Bella: What a stupid lamb.
Edward: What a sick, masochistic lion.

The thing is, I can envision a scenario in which that overwrought prose might have worked. Maybe with a bit of self-mockery, a touch of humor, that could have been charming, but Stewart and Pattinson (especially Pattinson) don’t have the finesse to pull it off.

That’s a shame because when Twilight allows itself to lighten up a shade, it has a quirky sort of appeal. In one scene, Edward takes Bella to a Cullen family baseball game. Everyone is wearing old-fashioned, turn-of-the-century uniforms—a delightful nod at the vampires’ longevity and, as a result, their dated cultural touchstones—and they’re all thrilled to be playing ball. It turns out they can only play during lightning storms (their extraordinary speed and strength create a boom whenever the ball strikes the bat, and they need thunder to camouflage the sound), so the game is a treat, and they’re all having fun: smiling, cheering, even laughing. Maybe eternal life isn’t all moping and mooning about, which makes Bella’s determination to die for Edward—to sacrifice her life to be his undead consort forever and ever always—marginally less squirm-inducing.

But make no mistake: As fairy tales go, Twilight is a particularly twisted, unhealthy fable. First, there’s the awful sex-equals-death metaphor, making old-school slasher pics look subtle by comparison. I think back to how Buffy the Vampire Slayer used vampirism to tackle sexuality and its consequences (good and bad) with heartbreaking eloquence and compassion, and I weep for the poor girls who are getting this ugly sledgehammer instead.

The other big difference between Buffy and Bella, of course, is that Buffy had a life of her own: dreams, goals, interests, responsibilities, friends, family. She was a whole human being. Bella, by comparison, is a shell. She might not be blonde and giggly like the stereotype, but she’s no less single-mindedly boy-crazy for having brown hair. She’s a terrible role model, which might have been okay (not every fictional character has to be admirable) if Twilight didn’t insist on romanticizing her relationship with Edward. Breaking into an unwitting girl’s bedroom to watch her sleep is not romantic. Throwing yourself at the mercy of a boy whom you barely know and who has given you no reason to trust him is not romantic. Offering up your life, your future, in an impulsive, pointless, yet oh-so-grand gesture is definitely not romantic. (And on a more superficial note, sparkly diamond-like skin is not attractive. What is up with that?)

So I freak out about all of this because that’s what I do—it’s what I’ve always done—but I’m sitting next to Brooke, and she’s tickled by the whole thing, and I don’t have any reason to believe that she’s been traumatized by Stephenie Meyer’s warped imagination. So Brooke loves the sparkly, broody, seemingly bad but actually good boy, the kind of boy whom you and only you truly understand. Is that so bad?

Maybe the heart of my problem with Twilight is that, even as a teenager, I never had a thing for withdrawn, broody boys. (I’m an introvert, and I always gravitated toward the guys who seemed self-confident and outgoing—in other words, guys who weren’t like me. I don’t pretend that that’s necessarily any healthier.) Watching Twilight was like regressing to high school and being forced to listen to some girl babble about Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites or Jared Leto in My So-Called Life. I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now. It’s not my fantasy.

I still don’t think it’s a healthy fantasy, but not all fantasies are, and in the end, Twilight is probably relatively harmless, an obsession you outgrow as you grow up. At least Hardwicke makes it pretty, with the dewy blue-green color palette and the swoopy shots through lush forests. At least the baseball-playing vampires crack me up. At least Brooke had a good time.