You needn't read Twilight, Stephenie Meyer's best seller, to know where its secret pulses reside. Just see the movie version and listen to the reactions of the girls in the theater (TIME surveys the fangirls behind the Twilight phenomenon). There's an audible shiver as they first spy the teen vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), his impossibly gorgeous face caked in a mime's pallor, sitting in biology class next to young Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart). When he holds an apple in his hands to present to her the novel's cover image the girls emit an awestruck sigh, as if they'd just seen Zac Efron in the flesh or a puppy on YouTube. And when he tells Bella, "So the lion fell in love with the lamb," you hear applause, the imprimatur of Meyer's young connoisseurs. To judge from a preview screening, Twilight the movie is their dream of the book projected 30 feet high.
Kids have already made this love saga a multimedia sensation, with 17 million copies of the Twilight tetralogy in print and with the CD of the movie sound track at No. 1 on Billboard's chart. Could this be a Harry Potterlike pancultural behemoth?
Maybe not; the Potter films are superproductions costing in the hundred millions, while the much more intimate Twilight, directed by Catherine Hardwicke from Melissa Rosenberg's script, has a low-medium budget (less than $40 million) and an artless indie vibe. But just as J.K. Rowling cannily fed tween readers' innocent lust for adventure, so Meyer smites their slightly older sisters with the adventure of innocent lust. And when the teen witches and wizards of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth film in the series, vacated the prime slot of the weekend before Thanksgiving for a July 2009 opening, the vampires of Twilight moved in. It sounds like kismet, Hollywood-style.
Vamping till Ready
Is it destiny that links Bella to Edward? That's what she feels shortly after she leaves desert-dry Phoenix, where her mother has just married a semipro baseball player, to spend time with her police-chief father (Billy Burke) in rainy, misty Forks, Wash. Bella calls herself "the suffering-in-silence type," but instantly all the nice kids in her junior class are clamoring to be her BFF. Not so Edward. His pained, brooding, utterly irresistible gaze says, I have depths you don't want to dive in. After sitting next to Bella once, he has to take some sick days. It's soon evident that he is fighting his fascination for her with all the strength that she is applying to getting close to him.
The word among the local Native Americans (who in movies like this are never wrong) is that Edward and his family are vampires. That doesn't stop Bella from falling into a love whose toxicity is its lure, just as Edward is risking being with someone he's severely tempted to devour. Her nearness is like vampire heroin; his love for her has become his religion and his sin. Edward knows he should just say no, but, as he tells her, "I don't have the strength to stay away from you anymore."
For any author of imaginist fiction, from J.R.R. Tolkien to George Lucas, from Rowling to Meyer, the fun is in creating the laws, folkways and architecture of the alternative universe that its more fanciful characters inhabit. The Cullens are a fastidious family of vampires; in their tennis whites, with their regal airs, they resemble the aristocratic Flyte brood in Brideshead Revisited. They call themselves vegetarians because they drink the blood of animals, not people. They can fly, move with lightning speed, scale trees in a trice. They also play baseball, which in the Cullen clan is a lot like Rowling's Quidditch. Their ball-playing, and the scent of human snack food, will attract the notice of a trio of rogue vampires, whose leader, James (Cam Gigandet), is a demon simulacrum of the angelic Edward.
Falling in Love with Love, Again
Twilight also observes movie laws as aged as Edward, who was initiated into the realm of the undead in 1918. Defiantly old-fashioned, the film wants viewers to believe not so much in vampires as in the existence of an anachronistic movie notion: a love that is convulsive and ennobling. Bella could be any Hollywood heroine in love with a good boy whom society callously misunderstands. She's Natalie Wood to Edward's James Dean (in Rebel Without a Cause) or Richard Beymer (in West Side Story). Cathy, meet Heathcliff. Juliet, Romeo.
This brand of fervid romance packed 'em in for the first 60 years of feature films, then went nearly extinct, replaced by the young-male fetishes of space toys and body-function humor. Twilight says to heck with that. It jettisons facetiousness for a liturgical solemnity, and hardware for soft lips. It revives the precept that there's nothing more cinematic than a close-up of two beautiful people about to kiss. The movie's core demographic is so young, its members may not know how uncool this tendency has become. But for them, uncool is hot. And seeing Twilight is less a trip to the multiplex than a pilgrimage to the Lourdes of puberty. It's the girls' first blast of movie estrogen.
Hardwicke, who directed the teen outsider films Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown and The Nativity Story (another fable about a special girl with a condition that's hard to explain), is no great shakes as an auteur. She dawdles in sketching Bella's high school chums, and her direction of the dialogue will often bore those who aren't mouthing it from memory as the actors speak it. But she chose her leads wisely: the pretty Stewart is a questioning, questing presence; the Brit Pattinson, a sensitive-stud dreamboat. And Hardwicke is faithful to the book's chaste eroticism. The couple must put off having sex because, well, it could kill Bella. (AIDS metaphors are unavoidable here.) Yet waiting has its own delicious tension.
So Twilight isn't a masterpiece no matter. It rekindles the warmth of great Hollywood romances, where foreplay was the climax and a kiss was never just a kiss.