[15th Anniversary 4K UHD Review]
The Twilight Saga is celebrating its 15th anniversary. In celebration, a grandiose boxed set of 4K UHD discs (the sequels are making their debut on the format here) are releasing as a Best Buy exclusive (perhaps one of the last of their kind).
In 2008 I was a 28 year old bachelor who had no reason in the world to be interested in the Twilight books and movies, which were aimed squarely at teen girls. Mind you, I bore them no ill will and always loved a book series that got young people reading. As those 15 years have passed, however, series stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson have grown into some of the most revered and wildly accomplished actors of our time. And the swirling rumors of just how gonzo these vampire/werewolf love stories become in the latter entries has intrigued me. The time has come for me, a roundly middle aged husband and father who knows nothing about Twilight, to take a deep dive into this series and recount my adventures to you in written form. I’m going to write about each film as I see it, knowing little about what will happen in each successive installment.
You can read my review of the first film here. I’ll cover all of the sequels below.
There will be full spoilers throughout. Won’t you join me?
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)
Am… am I #TeamJacob?
My whole premise here of covering The Twilight Saga 15 years after the fact is that I basically know nothing about Twilight. And that premise is largely true. But I do know that Bella (Kristen Stewart) ends up with Edward in the end, after some tension around Bella having feelings for both Vampire James Dean Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), and Six Pack Werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). So it does unfortunately kill some of the tension around all of Bella’s longing when I know who she’ll end up with. And that may very well have been a source for my frustration with New Moon. When you know Bella is going to be with Edward, the melodramatic core of New Moon feels mostly like wheel spinning.
At the beginning of the film Edward does the thing that romantic leads with hidden superpowers tend to do: He breaks up with Bella and immediately disappears forever in order to protect Bella from the evil vampires he has exposed her to now that they’ve become an item. It’s a frustrating mechanic that always seems to happen in romances like this. “I just exposed you to a whole new world full of danger, but guess I need to leave now. Bye.”
Of course, this leaves Bella vulnerable to the “real” vampires that eat people, and they’re eventually going to show up to consume Bella, because Edward is a one hundred year old idiot. Meanwhile, it is also unfortunate that Bella has very little character to speak of beyond who she is in love with. So naturally when she’s trapped in eternal longing for Edward, she runs into the arms of her old childhood friend Jacob for comfort. She even says in the film that she’s quite selfishly using Jacob for emotional support even though she knows Jacob loves her. It’s rough, and I have to say that Jacob seems to treat Bella wildly better than Edward does, and just seems like a generally more amiable and talented guy. I’m not 100% sure why, when Jacob inevitably becomes a werewolf and has to hold back this, the most obvious secret in cinema history, from Bella, he has to go shirtless at all times. Lautner looks incredible and even Bella jokes about his muscle-bound glow up from the first film to the second. But what about Jacob’s Werewolfdom requires the abs exposure? I’m unclear, though not complaining.
New Moon does begin to broaden the worldbuilding of the story significantly in its final act, introducing actual on screen wolves, bringing dimension to the vampire vs werewolf rivalry, and even traveling to Italy to meet the Volturi, Twilight’s version of the Jedi Council with ancient aristocratic vampires wearing velvet and bossing people around. Apparently they’re about the only thing in the world that can kill a vampire, and Edward is seeking them out because New Moon is a love letter to Romeo & Juliet and young, stupid people (who, again, are actually 100 years old) who will voluntarily decide to leave their partners to “protect them” and then seek to end their lives because they can’t conceive of living in a world without their 18 year old love interest. There’s some intriguing set up here that leaves me excited for the rest of the Saga, even if New Moon felt like the spinningest of wheels.
Another couple of important elements crop up here that I’ll discuss briefly. We further unpack some other super power types of dynamics that are becoming notable. Edward has a unique ability to essentially read minds. Part of his attraction to Bella is that he cannot read hers. We come to find that while Bella still has virtually no personality, she does have an “anti-power” in that Vampires can’t seem to use their unique powers on Bella. I’m sure this will become more important. Somewhat hilariously, Edward’s sister Alice (Ashley Greene) has seemingly become Bella’s best friend in this installment with little to no build up. When Edward disappears a framing device begins where Bella is writing endless letters to Alice. Over and over throughout New Moon Kristen Stewart is narrating these letters. “Dear Alice…”. I had to stop the movie to look up who Alice even was because it’s so poorly established that they’re so close. Also, Alice can kind of see the future and her twitchy and conditional visions are what precipitate this convoluted Romeo & Juliet homage where Edward somehow believes Bella is dead because of a misread vision that Alice had. It’s not executed well in the film really at all, and I’m struggling to buy Alice and Bella’s relationship.
It also must be noted that Bella is now obsessing over becoming a vampire and nightmarishly focused on getting older and not being permanently young like Edward is. This further delves into the purity culture roots of the saga and the pressures that young women face to be beautiful forever, but it reads pretty creepy here. Bella wants to be turned, but Jacob doesn’t want to curse or condemn Bella. They finally decide she can be turned after they get married. It very much feels like purity pledge negotiations and teenagers navigating “how far is too far”.
While I like New Moon significantly less than I liked Twilight, the visual effects and overall visual style of New Moon is a dramatic improvement. Even a decade and a half later, the werewolves look pretty damn cool and are effectively rendered in CGI. Also, when vampires do cool vampire shit here, it does not look like ass… which it very much did in the first film. Vampires doing super speed or even getting into fisticuffs looks dynamic. Director Chris Weitz had just come off of making The Golden Compass, so perhaps he had visual effects knowledge enough to steer this entry in the right direction.
Edward’s absolute idiocy and 100-year-old childishness in New Moon frustrated me more than I could have possibly imagined it would. On the one hand this could be bad writing, but on the other hand… at least it got a reaction out of me? Maybe lots of people ended up #TeamJacob after New Moon because of how absolutely inane Edward’s behavior and choices are here?
The only way to find out is to keep going.
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)
While the cast has largely remained the same (though there’s a villain recasting here in Eclipse that brings Bryce Dallas Howard into the fold) and writer Melissa Rosenberg adapted Stephanie Meyer’s novels all the way through the entire film series, the directors have switched up in each installment so far, and Eclipse brings horror director David Slade into the mix. This is interesting because, for a series about vampires and werewolves, there’s been virtually zero horror elements to The Twilight Saga until this installment.
Slade seems to have been brought in to bring some of his 30 Days Of Night sensibilities into this wildly more violent entry in the series, featuring lots of vampires hunting and eating actual people, and full on war breaking out between a pack of villainous and bloodthirsty “newborns” who’re trying to eat Bella and the Cullens and Blacks who are temporarily aligned to… save Bella because that’s all that matters in these stories?
Honestly, it’s wild. If this were The Lord Of The Rings, Bella would be the One Ring. She’s just this high school girl who is wholly unremarkable, but around whom this entire fantasy world is constructed. I think this makes for juvenile storytelling, but it also accounts for why these were so wildly successful. Teens struggle with feeling like they’re on a stage for all the world to see; that they’re the main character in life. And here’s this entire epic series tapping into ancient myths and legends and featuring ancient traditions and cultures… all of which hangs on this 18 year old who is graduating college. Every single decision Bella makes or opinion she expresses has every other character wrapt in attention. All plot motivation is about protecting Bella, sacrificing for Bella, fighting a war and setting aside ancient grudges… for Bella.
I realize that thus far I’ve barely mentioned any of the villains or antagonists in my coverage of the previous films and that’s largely because of how uninteresting they are. Real vampires who eat real people show up and try to ruin the Cullen family’s weird vibe of having a human friend and ultimately a hunter/tracker vampire gets killed by the Cullens. His girlfriend, vampiress Victoria (Howard) now wants revenge, and she’s willing to “turn” a small army of “newborns” to hunt and kill Bella. This horror component is actually kind of cool as this series was wildly in need of a big brawl after 2 straight films of pining.
I like Eclipse a fair bit more than New Moon because the Edward vs. Jacob rivalry gets a lot more juicy when they’re both present and alpha-flexing and peeing on each others’ territories. I shit you not: At one point Bella is freezing her ass off in a tent at the top of the mountains serving as bait to draw this army of bloodthirsty newborns to her. And because Edward can’t warm her up (he’s a Cold One), good old Six-Pack Jacob needs to come in and warm her up because he’s “hotter than” Edward. So you’ve got this insane confrontation, in a little tent, between our rival suitors for Bella in which these guys are trading barbs and even bonding a little bit over their endless crushing on Bella and her neverending propensity to need to be protected.
By Eclipse, Bella and Edward are constantly talking about how Bella wants to be turned and how Jacob wants to marry her, and Meyer’s purity culture vibe gets dialed up to eleven as Bella and Edward end up with a night alone together (after her hilarious Dad Charlie has attempted to have “the talk” with Bella and she blurts out that she’s a virgin still) and Edward breaks out the Old Man Steve Rogers vibes and tells Bella all about how he intends to court her and preserve her purity for their marriage. He’s still also worried that if he tries to get down, he might end up eating her.
A friend mentioned a theory that perhaps when Edward was turned, his brain capacity kind of froze as that of a 17 year old’s. I like this theory because it explains why Edward’s janky and patriarchal-feeling chivalry remains possible even though this brother should have a century’s worth of wisdom stored up in him. Edward is constantly lying to Bella and manipulating things in order to
groom protect her and it’s kind of creepy, not to mention that he never sleeps so he just… sits there and watches Bella sleep all the time? Look, what I’m trying to say is that I’m still finding myself pretty firmly #TeamJacob, even though I know that’s not going anywhere.
We close with a whole-ass war having been fought over Bella just because a bad vampire wanted revenge on her. Jacob barely survives after suffering some grueling injuries and Edward and Bella kind of just leave Jacob’s injured ass and go ahead and get officially engaged at the close. I’m excited to hear the pitter patter of little vampire feet in these final films. (Yeah, I know there’s some kind of creepy vampire baby subplot because of all the internet memes about the weird looking baby). Maybe these final chapters will draw out some personality traits and dimensionality amongst our leads? A man can dream.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (2011)
What. The. Actual. Fuck.
I knew this series went buck wild, but this is some unhinged shit going on here. To quote world renowned detective Benoit Blanc “It makes no damn sense… compels me though”.
First off, kids: Don’t get married when you’re 18. And if you’re GOING to get married at 18, maybe don’t marry a vampire who’s going to hilariously ravage you on your wedding night to the point of the wedding bed becoming a shattered husk. THEN maybe don’t get vampire-pregnant with a baby that’s almost certainly going to murder you from the inside out. Just some life tips from Ole Uncle Ed, kay?
Breaking Dawn Part 1 wastes no time getting Bella and Edward hitched. It’s a largely sweet wedding sequence if you just ignore that Bella graduated from high school like last weekend. And if you ignore the fake-me-out nightmare Bella has about their wedding where the posh and evil Volturi crash and preside over a bloody affair. The Volturi only show up in this dream sequence so I HAVE to imagine they’ll actually play into the final chapter more, right?!
Then there’s the honeymoon. I’m telling you, this sequence is hysterical. It’s the most chaste and prudish wedding night sex montage of all time yet simultaneously leaves the bedroom in shambles. Bella’s a changed woman thanks to being deflowered, and both Edward and Bella make sure to awkwardly verbalize how this was the best night of their lives. But because Edward is like a walking talking chastity belt he won’t have sex with Bella anymore because he bruised her. Which she’s clearly stoked about.
But all that takes a back seat when Bella quickly and somewhat miraculously becomes vampire-pregnant. Breaking Dawn Part 1 kind of dragged until it got here. Then it is like “you wanna get nuts? Come on, let’s get nuts”! Rushing home to their vampire doctor clan leader, Bella is quickly withering away, but is determined to keep the baby. The Twilight Saga feels real purity culture adjacent and kind of pro-lifey for a series about monsters and star-crossed lovers. I also must say that the best visual effects in this entire series are the “withering away” effects they utilize for the pregnant and slowly-being-internally-eaten Bella. Kristen Stewart looks HUGELY unwell and it’s wholly convincing. The best “already bitten but not yet a zombie” makeup or visual effects in any other movie don’t hold a candle to how jacked Bella looks here.
For some reason all the werewolves REALLY need to kill this abomination baby and it threatens some character development for Jacob, who may actually rise up and rebel against his alpha in a shocking and rare plot development in this series that is only somewhat Bella adjacent. Eventually there’s this bizarre coalition of Jacob and a few of his pack that have peeled off with him holed up in Vampire Mansion along with the Cullens in order to keep the wolves from murdering Bella and her baby (which… again… is happening because… the baby is some kind of ancient treaty violation? Or because it’ll need to eat people in order to grow? Or something?).
I simply wasn’t prepared for where things were going to go with Jacob’s character arc. Like… the story seems to be FIRMLY sticking with this guy whom Bella has clearly rejected and who feels increasingly pathetic in his “protection” of Bella. But, friends, let’s talk about “imprinting”. All throughout these movies Jacob keeps telling Bella about how wolves imprint on one another and it’s like this supernatural “love at first sight” kind of biological experience. I assumed all along that Jacob was implying that he HAD imprinted on Bella, which is why he’s constantly a whiny child about how much he loves Bella and how she needs to choose him, etc. Nope. Couldn’t have been more wrong.
When Bella gives birth to this child, it essentially kills her. The vampire doctors had been planning a whole thing to transition her and save her life at the end of her pregnancy, so Edward is, like, shoving a syringe full of his “venom” directly into her heart Pulp Fiction style at one point and then he’s just biting her all over her body in a sequence that’s kind of more kinky than anything else in this entire sex-obsessed tale? But it doesn’t appear to work so now there’s a dead Bella and a vampire baby that everyone hates but will also sacrifice their life for?
Jacob literally wants to kill this baby and enters the house to full on murder it after having fought off all the wolves and maybe becoming a wolf king? This grown wolf man walks into the room, locks eyes with this child, and IMPRINTS ON A BABY! Through montage and sweeping music, we watch as Stephanie Meyer and Melissa Rosenberg show us why they’ve kept Jacob around in this narrative, and it’s frankly one of the most jaw dropping plot twists I’ve ever experienced in my life. What are we doing, folks? What are we doing? I don’t know, but I am PRIMED for this final chapter. I’ve been assured it is even MORE off the chain than this story, but in my wildest dreams up high I can’t even conceive of what is in store for me.
In a final (and great) shot, the camera hovers over Bella’s EXTREMELY dead (and convincing) body, zooming ever closer in until her undead amber eyes open up to reveal the newly reborn vampire queen. Yaaaaas.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2 (2012)
We’ve come to the end of the road. But:
Darling, don’t be afraid, I have loved you for a thousand years
I’ll love you for a thousand more
Friends, if you’ve read this far with me, I offer you my gratitude. I’d also like to ask: Doesn’t it feel like we’ve gotten SO far away from public high school in Forks, Washington? So very far away. Indeed, Breaking Dawn Part 2 is a full on super hero / comic book splash page that has evolved out of a supernatural teen romance story. And honestly, it’s not half bad at being a superhero story.
To be clear, the visual effects of Breaking Dawn Part 2 take a catastrophic nosedive and are notably awful throughout the film. From half vampire baby Renesmee’s entire look on screen across her many stages of development (none convincing) to the big werewolf/vampire mega battles, it seems like either a time crunch or a budget crunch rendered this ambitious finale hamstrung, visually.
But, oh… what a wild tale.
Within mere moments of the start time of this final film (rightly and justifiably broken into two parts here, which is so often a mistake in other franchises) Jacob has already let Bella know that he’s… uh… uncontrollably imprinted and in love with her infant daughter. She rightfully throws his ass out of the house and screams something about how he’s already nicknamed her Nessie, after the Loch Ness Monster, before she’s even held her own daughter. I was rolling. Stephanie Meyer and Melissa Rosenberg, you’re wrong for that.
We do get a prolonged vampire sex sequence that feels like the ultimate consummation of the purity culture through line of this saga. Finally Edward and Bella are both undead immortals who can get. it. on. with little to no risk of death or damnation. Bella asks how they’re ever going to stop fucking now, because the vampire sex is that good. Edward indicates they’ll be rather continuously fucking for at least a decade or so, but don’t worry, Meyer’s story is too packed to the gills with plot twisting shenanigans for any further fooling around.
The main narrative thrust of this final chapter does indeed have to do with the evil overlords the Volturi and their rules for vampiredom. A relative of the Cullens reports the existence of Renesmee to the Volturi and there’s some pretty cool lore about how vampire children aren’t allowed because their mental acuity freezes at their young age so when they have temper tantrums they kill entire villages. Rad. But Renesmee isn’t a vampire; she’s got a heartbeat and blood pumping through her veins. So the Cullens go global to gather a great cloud of witnesses in order to attest to Renesmee’s vitality, while the Volturi gather an army to do what they’ve always done: wipe out troublesome vampire clans and maintain power and control.
Breaking Dawn Part 2 blows up the scope of the vampire world significantly, bringing in late-entry characters played by such notable actors as Lee Pace and Rami Malek as vampires recruited to the Cullen’s side of this battle. There’s even a sick scene with The Wire and Jack Ryan’s Wendall Pierce as some kind of broker who helps vampires out of sticky legal challenges? It’s this massive world building all the way at the end of the tale that kept reminding me we were sitting in a high school classroom with these characters like a year ago. My neck and my back hurt from all this narrative whiplash.
Everything builds to a massive battle in a snowy field that, while not visually excellent, or even well choreographed in any way, still managed to have my jaw on the floor. How is this film rated PG-13 when at least a dozen vampire decapitations happen in this climax? The climax has remarkable comic book logic setting up all kinds of little petty rivalries and slights between different clans of vampires and satisfying age old rivalry after rivalry ends in someone getting a head ripped off and a body burned (the only true way to kill a vampire). It’s a big old chess game of different vampires using their different powers. The Volturi have the scenery chewing Michael Sheen as Aro (a pretty almighty vampire and head of the Volturi), as well as Dakota Fanning’s Jane, who can just inflict horrible pain using her mind. Importantly we’ve also got Bella working her new powers of projecting her “shield” to others, and of course Alice plays a key role as the vampire who can sort of see the future.
It is Alice who provides the final, absolutely INSANE, wild swing in this saga. We watch a massive, comic book battle play out on screen with many of our Cullen clan and Black pack falling in battle, lost forever. We see the Volturi defeated before our eyes and Jacob and Renesmee hauling off to live a life of safety forever disconnected from their families. We see it all… and then it turns out Alice was just showing Aro what the future held if he didn’t back down from the battle. I didn’t see this coming for even one second, so I’m not even mad about it. This gives the movie an epic, if tragic, final battle that it can then renege in order to provide a happily ever after moment for just about every major character. We know it’s happily ever after for everyone, including a grown Renesmee and Jacob, because we see a final future projection of Alice’s. In the end, Edward and Bella’s love creates unity among the vampires and werewolves and staves off the evil overlords of the vampire world as well. Truly it was all always about Bella being the center of the universe and her love being the most important thing that has ever happened.
As I’ve noted, The Twilight Saga was never made for me or anyone like me, and that is totally great. I’m so glad there are geek properties out there that exist for all different kinds of demographics. But while I was never the intended audience for Stephanie Meyers’ tale, it’s been an absolute cinematic joy to observe this cultural phenomenon 15 years after the fact and just let this whole deal wash over me. I don’t think it is objectively good storytelling, or profoundly reveals anything about our humanity or our sexuality. But it is a global phenomenon that will absolutely live forever in pop culture, so it’s very worthy of comment and consideration. It struck a deep cord with teens and young women in its time and tapped into a romantic yearning and nerdy love for monsters that lots of people resonate with. I think Bella Swan is ultimately a bland character and the handling of her teen/forever loves is pedestrian at best. But the saga swings for the fences with its insane narrative twists and turns and succeeds as a jaw-dropper par excellence in the way that pulp paperbacks often do. I have no idea if I’ll ever revisit The Twilight Saga, but I’ll never regret the journey it took me on.
And I’m Out.
The Twilight Saga 15th Anniversary Steelbook Best Buy Exclusive releases 11/14/23 at Best Buy