[30 June 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
By now, your opinion of the entire Twilight Saga is probably already set. You either like what Stephenie Meyer has done to the combination of teen angst and hackneyed horror, or you loathe every “Team” tenet of the wussed-out monster mania. Nothing this review says will persuade you otherwise, and you’re either totally geeked about the latest installment in the series (called Eclipse) hitting theaters on 30 June, or you dread the day Summit Entertainment ever approved this worldwide box office success. After the initial film, and its paltry New Moon sequel, no one would blame you for being disinterested. Both redefined the concept of “bad” cinema. Would it surprise you, however, to learn that Eclipse is actually a halfway decent film—severely flawed in many significant ways and still relying too heavily on the strained hormones of its three leads—but a far cry from the uninspired crap that passed for entertainment the first two times around?
It’s true. As we pick up the storyline, Jacob (Taylor Lautner) is still trying to get Bella (Kristen Stewart) to forget Edward (Rob Pattinson) and take a walk on the shirtless lycanthrope side. He and his band of equally beefy shapeshifting brothers are even more steadfast in their hatred for the Cullen clan. When rogue vampire Victoria (the redhead who saw her mate James killed by Edward in the first film) builds an army of the undead to destroy Bella, an unhappy truce is established between the neckbiters and the werewolves. The plan is to take on these “newborns”, destroy their ersatz leader Riley Biers (Xavier Samuel), and expose Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) to the royal council known as the Volturi. In the meantime, Jacob continues to push Bella to make a final decision. When she opts to marry Edward in exchange for everlasting life as a vampire, it forces the young wolf-man to make a choice that could threaten his very existence.
Let’s get one thing straight right up front: Eclipse is not a great movie. It’s not even a consistently good one. When you boil it down to its basics, it’s still two hours of shoe-gazing teen trepidation amplified by some otherwise unnecessary supernatural silliness. It’s still about Bella falling big and hard for Edward, the pale-faced Eraserhead clone who cares far too much for his human gal pal’s “soul” and stud muffin Jacob offering something far more visceral and real when it comes to lovin’. As their triangle gets strangled and strained, we watch various members of the “need some sunshine” crew cobble together strategy, explain backstory, and basically stand around like zombie supermodels, waiting for their minor moment to sparkle like diamonds. One of the weakest elements of the Twilight films is the lack of legitimate supporting players. Eclipse tries to push Jasper and Rosalie up to the front by giving them flashback filled motivations, but they are the only beneficiaries of some psychological heft.
The real loser here remains Bella Swan and her one note desire to be undead. Perhaps Meyer deals extensively with the adolescent’s inner demons, her unrelenting need to be a member of the Cullen clan, in the many pages of her community college level prose. Sure, we can buy that she sees a chance at being with the boy she loves forever—literally—but is that really a reason to give up on human life and go Stoker? Every conversation where the subject could be broached, every time cop dad Charlie confronts his daughter about her obsession with Edward, we get some namby-pamby talk of “heart” and “choice”... and that’s it. Nothing deeper. Nothing defendable. By the time our whisper thin walking rhinestone asks Bella to marry him, we see the young lust, but not the long term connection. At least Jacob in all his tanned torso explicitness is offering something slightly more tangible. Even better, he has a history with Bella and no competing concerns about the damage he could do to her ‘spiritually’.
Perhaps this is why, at about the 55-minute mark, all of the Twilight movies seem to get bogged down and start to drift. By this point in the story, the main plot points have been explored, the new characters introduced and given a few things to do, and our core trio of teens haven’t completely worn out their welcome. Yet it’s clear that in a studio-mandated desire to be true to the novel, series screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg is required to include as much novel-inspired padding as possible. Thus we end up with one too many comic exchanges between Bella and her dad, a pointless side trip to Florida so that our heroine can have a inane heart-to-heart with her mother, and a weird tent exchange between Edward and Jacob that borders on the laughable. It has often been suggested that the Twilight books could be pared down to a trio of terrific entertainments. Instead, we get the often bloated belief in a franchise of five.
Elsewhere, the series finally found a director capable of balancing the needs of the narrative with the ability to engage even the most avid Twi-hater. David Slade may not be a household name, and his first two films—Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night—are clearly not classics, but at least he’s not as outwardly incompetent as Catherine Hardwicke or hemmed in by critical expectations like New Moon guide Chris Weitz. True, his pacing is problematic, taking far too long to get Victoria’s vampire army to Forks for the fight and while capable of keeping things light, his deft hand can’t stop stars Kristen Stewart, Rob Pattinson, and Taylor Lautner from resorting to the same pesky performance tics that made their previous interpretations of the characters such a chore to endure. At times they are almost parodies of their previously perceived personas.
While it may seem like arguing gradients of garbage, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse is the closest movie so far to finding whatever potential lies inside Stephenie Meyer’s otherwise trite terror romance—and it is clearly quite the artistic archeological dig. No one will consider it a milestone and the faithful will flock to be sold and satisfied, lemming style. So depending which side of the franchise fence you are on, this is either good news… or nothing new. Twilight may wind up nothing more than a cultural anomaly in a post-millennial world unsure of the next step in genre-jumping entertainment. While better than the original and New Moon, it still suffers from a shoddy source—and no amount of directorial musical chairs can cure that particular aesthetic ailment.