The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

Read David Harley’s review:

There’s a scene very early in Twilight: Eclipse in which Bella (Kristen Stewart) and sparkly vampire-boyfriend Edward (Robert Pattinson) lounge in a sun-streaked field of lilies, swooning over each other as they deliberate the future of the most important relationship ever to exist in the world – namely, their own – and generally babble on about just how tragic and beautiful they are. There’s also a lot of intimate embracing, and fingers lacing through fingers, and…well, you get the picture. It’s a groan-inducing scene for anyone over the age of twelve or in possession of a set of testicles, and it instantly brought to mind the dreadful second installment, New Moon, where by the end I literally felt the urge to spear out my own eyes and force-feed them to Chris Weitz on sharp metal skewers.

Luckily, my fears of having to sit through another interminable two hours of Bella crying in a forest was mostly for naught – Eclipse is by far a better movie than New Moon, and that’s thanks to director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night), who understands how to balance action and melodrama in a way that Chris Weitz just didn’t. Where New Moon was a clumsily paced, brutally long-winded exercise that peddled in second-rate CW theatrics, Eclipse – while still at least twenty minutes too long and not without its flaws – is lighter on its feet and infinitely more bearable.

It’s not to say that Eclipse is a great, or even a particularly good, film. The CG “werewolf” effects still leave much to be desired, and the dialogue (the script was written by Melissa Rosenberg, in her third outing) still tends toward the banal and expository. It’s also bogged down (again) by that painfully leaden love triangle, which just doesn’t possess the required tension to sustain our interest. Sorry girls (and gays), but a key part of the problem is undoubtedly the casting of Taylor Lautner. Sure, he looks good with his shirt off (at least that’s what everyone keeps telling me), but his performance is mannered and awkward; like a cutout from a beefcake magazine, he’s all pecs and shoulders, but no heart. Quite frankly, the character of Jacob calls for a real vulnerability that Lautner just isn’t capable of as an actor, and may never be.

Faring better this time around is Kristen Stewart, who unlike Lautner actually does possess a shimmer of raw, human feeling behind her eyes. Left to her own devices, she has the tendency to bury this natural openness beneath a mountain of repetitive physical affectations that give her performances an ungainly, amateur-hour feel, and this tendency reached its grating peak in New Moon (not helped by the fact that Weitz’s film was such a poorly-paced schlep). Maybe it’s due to Eclipse being an immeasurably more engaging movie than New Moon, but here Stewart seems to have dialed down the mannerisms that so plagued her performance last time. It’s not an Academy Award-winning turn by any stretch, but it’s certainly an improvement.

Plot-wise, the film still feels rather unwieldy, with characters dashing in and out before you even knew you were supposed to be paying attention to them, and subplots being briefly entertained before getting brushed aside to give us another shot of a shirtless Taylor Lautner, leaning against a car and glowering like an oversized sixth-grade bully getting ready to steal some poor kid’s lunch money. Rosenberg’s biggest weakness as a writer here is her inability (unwillingness?) to excise the narrative fat from Meyer’s books, while also being far too indulgent of the “I wanna see Jacob’s nipples again!” whims of every pimply tween girl in the audience. The plot, ignoring all the underdeveloped detours, is thus: back in Forks after being reunited at the end of New Moon, Bella and Edward’s relationship runs into more problems when a premonition reveals that flame-haired, revenge-fueled vampire Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over from Rachelle Lefevre) is creating a Newborn Vampire Army to hunt down and kill Bella in order to avenge the death of her lover James. Meanwhile, Bella makes her best attempt to quell the romantic rivalry between Edward and Quileute-werewolf Jacob, whose quest to win her over intensifies. Ultimately, the vampires and werewolves must come together to fight off the Newborn Army invasion if Bella is to survive.

That nutshell summary really only scratches the surface of what’s going on here. In addition to the large cast already established in the previous two films, we’re also introduced to a few more, including Riley (Australian actor Xavier Samuel), Victoria’s first Newborn victim who leads the Army into battle; Leah Clearwater (Julia Jones), a female member of the Quileute tribe involved in some sort of barely-brushed-upon love triangle; and Seth, a pubescent member of the Quileutes played by the unfortunately-named young actor Booboo Stewart. (Yes, that’s right. Booboo.) It’s a large cast to juggle and Slade does his best, but in the end you can’t help but feel sorry for some of the supporting actors, i.e. Elizabeth Reaser (returning as Esme, “matron” of the Cullen clan), who stands around for most of the movie looking confused as to where all her lines went.

Nevertheless, it’s in the fleshing out of a couple of heretofore underdeveloped characters where Eclipse really hits its stride. In essence, we’re treated to a couple of nifty flashbacks detailing the origins of both hot-headed Rosalie (Nikki Reed) and “twin brother” Jasper (Jackson Rathbone). In the first, (possibly the movie’s most rewarding sequence) Rosalie is shown in her pre-bloodsucking days as a 1930s society girl, being courted by a wealthy suitor only to be gang-raped and nearly killed (off-screen, naturally) by he and a group of his drunken low-life friends. After she’s left for dead in the street, Cullen clan leader Carlisle (Peter Facinelli) finds her and changes her into a vampire, saving her from certain expiration and giving her the opportunity to return to the home of her wicked ex and dispatch him in a delicious moment of retribution. The second, a Civil War-era flashback, sees Jasper as a Confederate soldier unfortunately finding himself set upon by a group of lusty Southern belles with a taste for blood. These sequences, not only serving as welcome moments of relief from the weak-sauce love triangle, also hint at the more interesting side-road possibilities of the Twilight universe. (Reed also has a pretty great monologue that made me want to see more of her.)

It is, again, the romantic crux of the story that is ironically the most lacking element here, but thankfully Slade’s slickly poetic visual sensibilities and more judicious use of editing (thanks to previous Slade collaborator Art Jones and first Twilight editor Nancy Richardson) help to salvage the film and give it a real narrative momentum. He also seems to recognize the franchise’s particular set of limitations for adult viewers and, with Rosenberg (who, interestingly, originally intended for the films to have more of a tongue-in-cheek undercurrent before she was vetoed), gives this installment a “wink-wink” vibe which, while sometimes clunky and overly-satisfied with its cleverness, nevertheless helps to lighten the self-serious tone that dragged like so much dead weight in the last movie.

Sadly, a promising first half soon devolves into a “climactic” Newborns-vs.-everyone-else ending that suffers from too-quick edits lifted straight from the School of Michael Bay. Yes, werewolves leap and teeth gnash, but you can hardly get a handle on what is happening to whom, and when; there’s no real sense of space or scope, and thusly we’re lost in a jumble of CG fur and pale-faced smears. Which also brings me back to the effects – the “werewolves”, if you can even call them that, are really just oversized canines that stand in as examples of the worst kind of CG-heavy filmmaking. They’re on-screen, but they don’t possess any real weight, robbing them of any saber-rattling sense of menace in action sequences where that very quality is key to their effectiveness.

At the end of the day, Eclipse comes out far ahead of New Moon but falls just short of being the best in the series (that honor goes to the dreamy, intermittently-hypnotic Catherine Hardwicke-directed first installment). It’s true that in a series saddled at every turn with a cast of mostly-underwhelming young actors and a writer not quite able to get a handle on the material, the relative quality of each film in the series really rests on the shoulders of the man or woman behind the camera. Slade I feel was an adequate choice, but unless Breaking Dawn director Bill Condon can pull an Alfonso Cuaron and salvage the series into something more nuanced and artistic (don’t hold your breath), it’s all in service of a series that seems destined to gum rather than bite.

Official Score