“Bella, he’s not as perfect as you think.” As Jake Taylor Lautner) regards Bella (Kristen Stewart), she’s on her way out the door, yet again leaving him for the sparkly-skinned vampire she loves more than life. Such repetition is key to the Twilight franchise, and it is all-consuming in Eclipse. The repetition allows you to know what’s going to happen at each important step, and so you can worry for Bella and feel smarter than her too: if she hasn’t yet realized that Edward (Robert Pattinson) isn’t as perfect as she thinks, well, she hasn’t thought very hard about anything that’s happened to her thus far.
Jake has a particular interest in Bella’s coming to consciousness, of course, and he makes that more than clear here. Though he has before been occasionally shy and even reverent when it comes to his beloved’s feelings, in this movie he’s willing to take chances (and yes, he takes off his shirt too, as do all the wolf-boys in his pack). True, his first effort to kiss Bella inspires her to punch him in the face (and viewers to squeal in delight). But at least he’s declared his intentions, which makes him seem the more forthright of her options.
The fact that these options are embodied by two relentlessly self-interested boys is disappointing—again. But Bella’s limited vision (attributed variously to her parents’ divorce, her rainy environs, Stephenie Myer’s myopia) long ago established this frame, and so each film rearranges the deck chairs while she delays and desires, so very earnestly. This installment features more straight-up action—fights, training for fights, flashbacks showing past fights—so that Bella’s end is put off with a bit more energy. But it’s still the same plot, the same frustrating plot about frustration.
That doesn’t mean that Bella doesn’t attempt to make a decision. In her first scene, set in a yellow-flowered field, she agrees to Edward’s self-declared “compromise,” that she’ll marry him if he changes her. The moment is preceded by one of the most brutal in the franchise, wherein young Riley (Xander Samuel) is assaulted on the street and changed most painfully by an unseen force. Seeing his agony and especially the long crane shot that leaves him writhing in the dark night, you have a better sense than Bella of the horror of the transformation and the existential loneliness that follows.
Bella is youthfully stubborn on this point, despite Edward’s repeated cautions that vampires are in fact eternally gloomy, pained, and soulless (this as he sighs and looks very soulful indeed). Like most kids, she sees her upcoming graduation from high school as a monumental event (even as the Cullen kids trade smirky looks, knowing that once she’s changed, she’ll graduate again and again and again). Bella asserts her wish to “start living” her undead life, which is at once understandable (she’s in love!) and dreadfully naïve (ditto).
As much as she wants to shed her past, Edward thinks she might miss it eventually, and so sets about helping her to say her goodbyes. First, he jets her to Florida to visit her mother one last time (before she “graduates,” he intones, the metaphor too weighty). Like Bella’s dad Charlie (Billy Burke), Renee (Sarah Clarke) suspects Edward isn’t the right choice. When she suggests she attend college in Florida rather than Alaska (which is where Bella’s lying about going as she plans her shift into the ever-cold vampire world), mother and daughter are lying out in the healthy sunshine (One. Last. Time.). As Edward skulks inside, watching through the window, mom notes, “You’re different with him: he moves, you move, like magnets.” Bella dismisses her mother’s concern, but you know she’s right. As much as Edward prattles on about “protecting” Bella, his obsessive creepiness is just increasing. The lowered eyes, the deep sighs, the sudden appearances whenever he sniffs out that she’s even thinking about meeting up with Jake. In any other context, he’d be outed as what he is, a stalker.
Bella does sometimes voice her own worries, especially when she learns—as she does too frequently—that Edward’s been lying to her. He explains it as his continuing effort to “protect” her, but he’s developed a pattern over the three films. (True, Bella does her own share of lying, which may mean that she is, as she believes, made for Edward’s world, or it might mean that she’s a moody, selfish teenager who may or may not mature into a generous and sincere adult.) Bella also seems deeply misinformed about the parallels between having sex and becoming a vampire. When she pushes Edward to commit to her through the former, he resists, saying he wants to “be married” first. (Again with the wife as possession!)
The couple is forced to wait while the movie manages a bit of action-plotting, which does make this third episode slightly less tedious than the first two. Here the Cullens and the Quileutes band together to fight off a crew of bad vampires, as well as a perfunctory visit from the Volturi, that dour vampire bunch so fond of hooded capes. While the werewolves and Cullens train together, the camera cuts repeatedly to Bella’s mostly blank-faced reactions. She might be enthralled by the strength on display or she might be appalled by this glimpse at her brutal future; in either case, she tends not to hear the case against her change, which the film makes more than clear.
First, Jake brings her along for a “council meeting,” actually a warm familial sit-down, complete with campfire, during which he and his pack share with her some deeply moving Quileute tribal history, about sacrifice and commitment in the face of some very mean vampires. Second, and by contrast, as witty as some of Edward’s coven may be, for the most part their stories are tragic: Rosalie (Nikki Reed) shares an especially harrowing tale of being gang-raped by her old-timey fiancée and his drunken friends, then resurrected by Carlisle (Peter Facinelli). The trauma, she insists, has left her a perpetually disconsolate teenaged vampire.
When Bella is unmoved by this story (oh no, she insists, she’ll be a happy vampire), the movie provides her with a second tragic backstory. Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) reveals that he was once a Confederate Army soldier, romantic and polite, then changed by the ruthless lady vampire Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno). She had him training her own army, made of “newborn” vampires (extra bloodthirsty, extra cruel and careless) then killing them before they can mature into thoughtful or regretful beings. As Jackson tells it, he was only saved from this abusive relationship when he met Alice (Ashley Greene), everyone’s favorite vampire-telepath, so sensitive and so relatively kind-hearted. Bella listens, looks away demurely as the happy couple kisses, and misses the point of his story: vampires are unhappy by definition.
Bella’s recurrent missing of points is made comic in one scene, when she is actually unconscious during a discussion of her fate by Edward and Jake. As the guys spend a long icy night competing over who loves her more or who’s better for her, she sleeps between them. It’s a jokey scene: Edward observes that Jake’s not such a bad guy, while Jake points out that Edward’s plan to “suck the life out of” the girl they both love is probably counterproductive for everyone, a sign of his dire “imperfection.” But the scene also underlines Bella’s essential passivity. The Twilight saga depends on her not deciding, not resolving, and above all, not moving on.