You've heard it's bad. You've heard it's sexy. But you haven't heard the truth about New Moon, which is that it's actually a not-so-stealthy satire of itself. If you don't realize that, you're the butt of the joke.
The Twilight series, whose second installment hits theaters tonight in the weird form of New Moon, has gone through a lot of changes in its journey from book to screen. This paranormal romance about a postgrunge girl from the Pacific Northwest and the monsters she loves isn't just a fictional world. It's a lifestyle. But what exactly is this lifestyle about? Is it about celibacy and traditional gender roles, the way its conservative Mormon creator Stephenie Meyer would have us believe? Or is it about rampant girl hormones, boys who strip at the slightest provocation, and otherworldly sparkle woodies?
Or is it, perhaps, about something else entirely?
I'll go with door number three. From the moment that Bella arrives for her first day of school and sees vamp Edward ambling toward her in slo-mo, his skin powdered white and lips cherry red, we're plunged into some kind of gender-bending satire of beer commercials. But instead of a busty blonde boob-bouncing her way towards the camera, we have the ridiculously made-up Edward, looking like something that got dunked in a Sephora store and then hurled through the stock room at Abercrombie and Goth. Once the two have kissed in extreme lurid closeup, wolfboy Jacob emerges literally from nowhere to show off his mega-muscles (which everybody comments on endlessly). As he gives Bella a hug, he explains that he likes the Reservation school way better than the white people's school. The scene is sheer comic genius, with the actors panting exaggeratedly as they kiss, and the lines wildly out-of-sync with the action (Jacob is constantly reminding the main characters how white they are in the middle of a "let's kiss" moment).
And it only gets better. Bella's human friends, represented incongruously as hipsters, are in on the joke. Their banter, possibly the best part of the whole movie, tips you off immediately to the fact that writer Melissa Rosenberg - whose main claim to fame is as a producer on ultra-dark serial killer satire Dexter - knows there is a significant audience who has come to watch New Moon just to laugh their asses off. And indeed, when I saw the film at a special sneak preview, loud laughter was as frequent as shots of Jacob's perky nipples.
It's almost as if the ostensible set-up of the movie - EDWARD: We can't be together; BELLA: Ohhhhhh [sigh] - is there just as a kind of blocky set in the background of the real story. A story about smart, snarky teens who think the entire premise of the film is stupid. There's a terrific scene when Bella starts to hang out with her old friends again after months of moping over the missing Edward, and she and her gal pal go to see a zombie movie. As they walk out of the theater, her friend launches into a long rant about how zombie movies claim to have some "deep meanings about consumerism" but that they're just dumb. Hello, moment that is way too meta for this movie.
And that's not the only meta moment. After the zombie rant, Bella and her pal run into a gang of motorcyclists who are catcalling and hooting at them, asking them if they want rides. As Bella stares at the men, Edward appears before her in a really bad Obi Wan-style apparition, urging her to "keep walking - danger." So of course, Bella walks up to the motorcycle guys and hops on the motorcycle, only to see the Obi Edward ghost go all after-school special on her, warning her again about the naughty man. This is the kind of pop culture reference that teens raised on "very special episodes" and old Star Wars movies will get, especially with the cheese larded on in such dramatic proportions.
Don't get me wrong: There are long, boring parts in this movie, mostly featuring the giant lack of chemistry that is Edward/Bella. But there are moments of subversion in between the emo globs that tantalize us into asking what Bella could become - if she would just exit the Twilight plot arc that will eventually propel her into marriage and babymaking.
In New Moon, that exit feels like a real possibility in a way that it won't after next year's wedding-oriented sequel Eclipse. The Bella of New Moon becomes "an adrenaline addict," seeking out motorcycle rides with shirtless Jacob and jumping off cliffs into the water, just so she can see Obi Edward again, telling her to be safe. She also starts cozying up with shirtless wolf boy Jacob and his pals - who cheerfully remind her that she's "not brown enough" to be clever. Again, Bella's friends (and writer Rosenberg) supply the ironic commentary that's running through everybody's heads anyway.
When a human boy with a crush on Bella asks her out to the movies and suggests a romantic comedy, she insists that they go see a movie hilariously called Face Punch, because she's "all about the adrenaline." First of all, Face Punch is now my new favorite movie title - New Moon cannot stop making jokes about teen pop culture. And second, I love the idea that Bella has this totally badass side that in no way matches the character's reputation as chaste romantic girly-girl.
The Bella of New Moon is a chick who fools around with vampires and werewolves, and then goes cliff jumping, "you know, recreationally," as she puts it later. And when this girl finds herself in the middle of over-the-top romantic scenarios, she's not exactly a swooner. In fact, she just wants to get her annoying boyfriend to turn her superpowered and vampy like him. When the boringly tormented Edward hints that he can't make her a vampire because she'll "lose her soul" and she looks kind of irritated and replies, "Well I don't believe in that."
So is this a movie about the glories of celibate romance? Not metaphorically, and not literally either.
Let's just take a quick gander at the much-vaunted symbolism of the series, where monsters stand in for humans and monstrous desires stand in for sexual ones. Edward's brother tries to eat Bella when she gets a paper cut; Jacob's brother also tries to eat Bella when she makes him mad. So: Sexiness is in the metaphorical air. But then things go literal. Jacob takes off his shirt and Bella tells him he's beautiful. Then when Jacob goes Total Wolf, he just stops wearing shirts altogether, spending most of the movie in tight denim cutoffs and running shoes. Edward also takes off his shirt in a scene where his pants ride so low that we see a little wisp of sparkling vampire pubes.
Nobody ever says anything about celibacy ever. Indeed, they spend more time arguing about race than they do about sex. As Jacob snarks to Bella, "Maybe I'm not the right kind of monster for you." All these teens ever do is jump into each other's bedrooms and kiss and pant heavily. This is not a movie about avoiding sex: The sex is just taking place offscreen. I guarantee that people the world over will be jacking off to memories of Jacob and Edward and Bella in their ruffled pink beds tomorrow night because this flick is packed so full of beefcakery. Basically, New Moon is training wheels for future Playgirl readers.
What's amazing about New Moon, and the whole Twilight series generally, is how easily it becomes self-parody. I think that's part of its appeal to teenagers, a group of people who cut through adult pretension and lies so incisively - and yet fall so hard for impossible fantasies. It caters to a youthful desire to watch a fairy tale, and then to see that fairy tale mocked mercilessly as the after-school-special bullshit it is.
I suspect that audiences for New Moon will sometimes choose to see Edward as genuinely romantic, while others will laugh at his makeup. Still others will - like the movie itself - vacillate wildly between romantic yearning and scornful laughter.