It's exhilarating to finally find a genre movie that knows how to pander. The Twilight Saga: New Moon opens with Bella Swan (Kristin Stewart) looking windblown in a barely-buttoned shirt; it moves quickly to show us bare-chested Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), and ends with the dreamy declaration from vampire-lover Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) that all the girls have been waiting for. Add in a romantic triangle as Jacob and Edward vie for Bella, a heavy dose of angst, some unrequited (and fully requited) love, and it's no wonder the preview audience I viewed this with kept bursting into spontaneous applause and sighs.
Vampire trappings and soap-worthy love triangles are all very well and good, but the heart of the Twilight series isn't cheesecake or melodrama: It's safety. Author Stephanie Meyer, just like her characters, is consumed by fear. All her creations are worrywarts: Edward is terrified that he'll hurt Bella, Jacob is terrified that he'll hurt Bella, Bella is terrified that everyone will get hurt defending her.
But this fear also manifests itself in an odd, and never fully confronted, fear of aging. At the opening of New Moon, both the book and the movie, Bella has a vision of herself as a grandmother—a vision that she experiences as terrifying.
Bella is so adverse to aging that she tries to get her friends and family to ignore her 18th birthday. More dramatically, she begs Edward to turn her into a vampire at every opportunity. But is this because Bella doesn't wish to grow old while Edward remains forever young, or is it because Edward's immortality is itself so appealing?
If Edward represents agelessness as a perfect fantasy, Jacob Black represents aging as a horror-film disaster. As you almost certainly know from advance publicity (and if you don't, here comes the spoiler,) Jacob discovers partway through the film that he's a werewolf. Lycanthropy, as it turns out, is adolescence on steroids. Jacob loses control of his emotions, grows hair where he shouldn't, starts hanging out with the wrong crowd, and begins thinking so loudly that all his friends can hear him.
In choosing between Jacob and Edward, Bella is choosing between growing up, with all its dangers and messy unpredictability, and staying a faery child, forever young and lifeless. In the end (here's another spoiler), without much of a fight, she opts for immortality. Thus, the Twilight series isn't so much a coming-of-age story as a refusing-to-come-of-age story.
It's easy to make fun of that. When the film showed a dream-image of Bella as a future fantasy vampire, running besides Edward with her magical fairy dust vampire skin all sparkly in the sun, the mostly enthusiastic preview audience erupted in derisive laughter. The desire for eternal youth is childish. And kind of embarrassing.
But there's also something natural, even conservative about it. In the age of Obama, it's generally assumed that young people are progressive, but Twilight is here to tell you that isn't necessarily so. The desire for safety and sameness, the reluctance to change, the wish for some father figure—like Edward's vampire dad Carlisle—to come and fix everything, that's appealing.
Indeed, one of the series' oddest and most telling creations is Edward's family, a group of coupled-up vampires who refer to each other as sisters and brothers and call Carlisle "dad." In the Cullen household, you can get married without growing up or leaving home. The domestic idyll he offers is surely as much a part of Edward's faery charm as is his ability to remain forever 17. And that's not even mentioning Twilight's obsession with abstinence. Edward won't have sex with Bella because (of course) he's afraid of hurting her with his super-vampire bedroom antics.
Meyer may be promoting family values of a sort with the books, but she's also promoting tolerance. In the movie, Jacob—the muscled wolf-man running with the all-male pack—insists that his new existence is not a "lifestyle choice" but that he was "born this way." Judging by the giggles in the theater, the gay subtext couldn't have been much clearer. Nor could the moral of the story when Bella accepts Jacob for who he is despite the secrets hiding in his closet. She does something similar with Edward, insisting that her vampiric true love has a soul even though Edward believes himself to be damned.
New Moon thus holds out the promise of life and love for all God's children, whether tween and swooning, closeted and hairy, or angst-ridden and pale. It's not a new vision, but it remains a popular one.