In the interest of full disclosure, opening this review I feel it’s only fair to own up to the fact that before viewing the Chris Weitz-directed Twilight: New Moon at a press screening in Los Angeles last week, I never got around to watching the first movie. However, I did end up viewing it a couple of days later (since I needed to use it as a point of comparison in this review), and in all honesty I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I say that so Bloody-Disgusting readers understand that just because a movie isn’t my cup of tea doesn’t mean I’m incapable of recognizing its merits. Which is why, when I tell you that New Moon is a poorly-directed, overly melodramatic, mind-numbing piece of total dog shit, maybe a few of you will actually listen to me and abstain from flushing your money down the drain.
I should also take the opportunity to admit here that I’ve never read a single one of the books in the series written by Stephanie Meyer; the closest I ever got was paging through and reading select passages from the first novel that had mysteriously beckoned to me from a characteristically gargantuan and assaultive display in the front of a Borders bookstore. I found Meyers’ writing to be passable, at best, and at worst comparable to the pandering prose of a dime-store romance novel bearing the image of a rock-hard Fabio clone on the cover. After thumbing through the book for several minutes, I truthfully couldn’t stand it anymore and tossed it back, noting in my own head that within the hour it would likely be scooped up by some pimply, braces-wearing seventh grade girl who sadly probably hasn’t ever even heard the name Judy Blume. But fine, I get it. For those seventh-grade girls, I have no doubt the books hold a sort of ephemeral magic; for Twilight readers well out of their teen years, I don’t pretend to know the answer.
All of that being said, the first film worked as well as it did because Hardwicke understood the sort of transcendent power that a star-crossed love story can have over the mind of a young girl. Her vision of Edward and Bella’s relationship was imbued with a beautiful, blue-tinged sumptuousness that underscored the romantic elements in an almost hypnotic, otherworldly fashion. So it’s a shame then that not only did she not return for the second installment, but that the producers chose to put their trust in the workmanlike hands of director Chris Weitz. Given this, it shouldn’t have surprised me that New Moon is mostly bloodless and dull, lacking the craftsmanship – and more than that the retrograde understanding of how teenage girls see the world – that Hardwicke brought to the first film.
In New Moon, Bella (Kristen Stewart) is abandoned by Edward (Robert Pattinson) and the rest of the Cullen clan early in the film, after an incident involving a paper-cut at their abode ends up putting her life in danger. Finding herself devastated and aloof (and prone to screaming fits in bed), Bella is saved from her downward spiral of depression when she develops a close friendship with childhood friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), the hunky Native American boy living on the nearby Quileute reservation. The relationship soon turns to romance, with Bella slowly but surely giving in to his sweet-faced charms. However, Jacob himself soon pulls away when he begins undergoing a series of drastic physical changes that can’t just be chalked up to puberty.
When Bella appears at Jacob’s house to confront him about his sudden hard-heartedness, she is threatened by the four bare-chested members of the “Wolf Pack”, a group of Quileute young men who exhibit the tendency to transform into ferocious wolves at a moment’s notice. It is here that all of Bella’s questions about Jacob are answered, as at that moment he transforms into a wolf in order to fend off the attackers. What Bella learns is that due to the recent presence of the Cullens in Forks (the small Washington town where the story takes place), the dormant lycanthropic trait shared by these young men has been released as an evolutionary response to their tribal lands being threatened by vampires. Turns out, the werewolves and the Cullens have been sworn enemies for centuries. With the re-emergence of Edward and the Cullens later in the story, Bella is forced into a difficult position – will she remain loyal to the vampire clan, or side with new love Jacob?
New Moon, like the first film, was adapted by Melissa Rosenberg, who also serves as head writer and executive producer on the critically-acclaimed Showtime series Dexter. Her screenplay for New Moon, much as her script for the first film, relies heavily on the melodrama so explicit in Meyers’ books, which given the primary audience she’s writing for is certainly understandable and not a fault in and of itself. And to her credit, she does have a way with the sometimes-awkward banter that transpires between teenagers, without any of the “wink-wink” pop cultural cleverness that, say, Diablo Cody might have brought to the tale (and I thank her for that).
The real problem with Rosenberg’s writing, even more pronounced in the second film thanks to Weitz, is that she tends to be too heavy-handed, even given the heightened emotions of the story she’s adapting. Sure, the term “melodrama” implies a certain amount of emotional poking and prodding, but I for one left New Moon feeling as if I’d just been clubbed over the head with a iron-cast croquet mallet. I couldn’t help but think that Rosenberg doesn’t quite trust her audience enough to “get” the romance of the piece on their own; too often she gives a rough shove when a gentle touch would do just as well.
The majority of the blame, however, must go to director Chris Weitz, whose rendering of the Twilight world feels flat and lifeless. Compared to the first film, which Hardwicke imbued with a certain soulful delicacy (particularly in the early courtship scenes), New Moon is a blunt-force object that feels somewhat like an overlong pilot for the CW network. The visuals feel oddly comatose; they’re slick, but there’s no poetry in them. The pale blues of Twilight have given away to glowing yellows and golds in New Moon; and while continuity of vision isn’t something I expect in a franchise that changes up directors with every film, the polished blandness of Weitz’s (and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe’s) color palette seems incongruous with the material.
Another fault with the film is that the CGI effects during the wolf transformations manage only to be shallowly impressive when they should wow us. Weitz himself has said that he and his special effects team made the decision (at Stephanie Meyers’ prodding) to make the metamorphoses of the “Wolf Pack” instantaneous, but the quick, blink-and-you’ll miss it conversions feel too easy. The animals, during the brief intervals of time they’re onscreen, also show no imagination in their design; they feel like generic animated wildlife paintings rendered by a Sierra Club calendar artist.
The quality of the performances vary somewhat between the three leads (Stewart, Pattinson, and Lautner), but only in their degree of badness. Stewart, in particular, is glaringly one-note in her portrayal of Bella. Unfortunately, she has only about three expressions in her arsenal: numb, bewildered and fearful. In the first film this was enough for her to skate by, at least for the first hour. And Hardwicke, unlike Weitz, at least seemed somewhat able to rein in Stewart’s more irritating, repetitive tendencies as an actress. Sorry Twilight fans, but the girl has no range; her annoying affectations (there are scenes where I swear to god she acted with her hair) give the impression of an actress who is uncomfortable in front of the camera. Pattinson, meanwhile, is a wooden non-presence in nearly every scene. He has one note to play – brooding and solemn – and he plays it to the hilt, to sleep-inducing effect. Lautner is similarly flat; he simply doesn’t have the chops to carry his character through the transmutations the role requires. As for the supporting actors, those that make the biggest impression are Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning, playing deadly members of the Volturi, the “vampire government” depicted in the film. Sheen, for his part, does the best he can with his small role, while Fanning comes across like an old pro compared to Stewart’s muttering, amateur performance.
There’s been a lot of talk about this film being the beginning of the “love triangle” between Bella, Edward and Jacob – which is true – except this particular triangle is made up of nothing but blunt edges. Had they cast better actors in the parts, there might have been some meat to it, but as is, it’s all crocodile tears. Making matters worse, this three-way dynamic is the crux of the story this time around, and as a result the rest of the film collapses around its flimsiness.
Look, the truth is, none of the three leads are likely to ever win an Academy Award (or even a Golden Globe). In fact, I’ll count them lucky if they still have movie careers ten years down the line. But at least in the first film, Hardwicke was able to coax out a spark between them. Weitz, unfortunately, just doesn’t have the same deft hand with his young actors. Whereas the romance possessed a certain amount of heft and tenderness under Hardwicke’s steady hand, in New Moon you never get a real sense of the urgency and intensity of Edward and Bella’s relationship. Some might chalk this up to Edward’s absence for a good stretch of the movie, but I think it goes deeper than that.
As has also been noted, New Moon supposedly possesses a broader scope than the first film in that several of the characters travel to Italy for a showdown with the Volturi. The problem is, the exteriors could have been filmed practically anywhere. The majority of the time, Bella simply runs through anonymous, vaguely European-looking cobbled streets. Weitz doesn’t seem to understand that there’s no real “scope” if the locations that are supposed to provide it are filmed so lifelessly. In the end, he simply fails to do anything interesting with the locale – it could have been shot in Burbank and it probably wouldn’t have looked much different.
Weitz is still perhaps best known for his work producing and co-directing American Pie with his brother Paul, despite the fact that he has directed three films since then (two with Paul, and one, The Golden Compass, on his own). I was one of the few that actually semi-enjoyed The Golden Compass, while still recognizing its particular set of shortcomings. That film had a pretty good set of visuals (it was shot by cinematographer Henry Braham). It was also anchored by a very good performance by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, an advantage New Moon unfortunately doesn’t enjoy. At the end of the day though, Weitz simply doesn’t possess the enterprising vision of a director like, say, Alfonso Cuaron (who directed the third Harry Potter film), or Guillermo del Toro (who directed one of the greatest films dealing with the fragility of youth ever made, Pan’s Labyrinth). Weitz is a director-for-hire; he should go back ten years and stick to directing comedies. The emotional and physical breadth needed for this type of film is frankly not where his strengths lie.
At the end of the day, the Twilight books simply aren’t great literature, but lackluster books have been known to make for fantastic movies in the past, films that actually managed to surpass their source material in every way (think Jaws). Hardwicke, I believe, was the right choice to direct the first movie. It wasn’t perfect, but she somehow managed to tease out the impossibly romantic feelings that the books elicit in their audience and capture it on film. Had she or a similar director been brought on for the sequel, perhaps the mild promise of the first movie would have been carried through. As is, the producers went with Weitz, the safe choice, and now they have a major dud on their hands. I can only hope that young fans of the series will stay home this time. But I’m not naïve. It’ll be a blockbuster, damn it.