When Bella (a soulful, scrutinizing Kristen Stewart) takes one look across the school cafeteria at the lush-lipped Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), sirens go off in her head. And the feeling is mutual: Lab partners in biology class, Edward can't control his attraction to Bella. It's biology, but it's chemistry, too: She emits a scent that vampire dudes inhale with urgency. Sitting next to her is driving him wild. Literally.
Bella is in Forks (just down the road from Twin Peaks, I'll wager) because her parents are divorced. Her mother, with whom she lived in Arizona, is traveling with her new husband. And Dad (Billy Burke), the town police chief, is glad, in his taciturn way, to have his daughter home. There's a period of adjustment - entering high school midway through the semester, she has no clique to call her own. But that's OK; Bella, with her iPod and her books, likes to keep to herself.
Until she meets Edward, that is, and suddenly her dreams are full of his lurking likeness. When a kid's car almost crushes Bella in the school parking lot, Edward, on the far side of the lot, is there in a flash - stopping the oncoming vehicle with a superheroic outstretched arm.
There are jokes about radioactive spiders and kryptonite, but then Bella is on the laptop, Googling vampires. She has sussed him out, his cold skin, his speed, his strength. But Edward and his family, a clan of pale-skinned stunners who live in a dazzling glass house in the mist-shrouded woods, aren't your typical bloodsuckers. They stick to animals, and leave the humans alone. Edward's father, Carlisle Cullen (Peter Facinelli), is, in fact, the town doctor.
Twilight manages the neat feat of radiating sexual heat at the same time that its pair of young lovers (well, she's young - he's been 17 for centuries) must remain ridiculously chaste. Even an innocent kiss could be lethal - or lead to a painful immortality.
Hardwicke, who showed a keen affinity for the female adolescent mind-set in Thirteen (and directed the teen skateboarding pic Lords of Dogtown), goes close-up on Stewart and Pattinson countless times. Chins aquiver, eyes shooting rockets at each other, it's about as intense a series of onscreen clinches as the movies have seen in ages. And amazingly, it feels real - the actors pull it off.
Twilight is a bit like the Harry Potters, sexed-up and set in the (kind of) real world. Misfit kids mess around with the supernatural (Twilight even substitutes a Quidditch match with a thunderstorm baseball session), and, certainly, there's the promise of a Potter-scale screen franchise.
Stewart, Pattinson and company should get cracking on Twilights 2 and 3 while they're young enough to plausibly play high school (Stewart's 18; Pattinson, who was the doomed Cedric Diggory in two Harry Potters, is 22).
There is, of course, a prom moment in Twilight - just after the flying battle between Edward and a rogue vampire who has the hots for Bella. And then Hardwicke sets up the sequel with an ominous appearance from a wicked vampiress, descending the stairs at the prom, looking hot - and venomous.
Twilight *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. With Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli and Ashley Greene. Distributed by Summit Entertainment.
Running time: 2 hours, 2 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (scares, violence, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters after midnight
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 214-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.