The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
I went into the latest installment of the Twilight series expecting to mock it. I didn't hate the previous two, but I didn't think it would be any different. I was planning to do that thing where I don't review the movie so much as I do the (*puts geek glasses on*) sociological implications of the franchise, and I figured I had plenty of fodder in the fact that the Malaysian Twilight fanbase seemed to be primarily Malay girls. I was all ready to comment on how this exposes the patriarchalism inherent in modern Malay-Muslim society, which gives rise to exactly the kind of female submission fantasies that Twilight perpetuates. It woulda been a kickass post, I tellya, although it probably wouldn't have been much of a review.
And then I ended up liking the movie. Which just spoils everything.
Edward (Robert Pattinson) has asked Bella (Kristen Stewart) to marry him, but she demurs; her true wish is for him to turn her into a vampire like himself, a wish that he too is reluctant to grant. And Jacob (Taylor Lautner) has made his feelings for Bella known, causing her to be torn between her vampire and werewolf paramours. But a storm is coming to their town of Forks. An army of newborn vampires is being created, led by Riley (Xavier Samuel), and it soon becomes clear that he is doing the bidding of Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), the vampiress who has sworn vengeance against Edward and Bella. The Cullen clan must unite with the Quileute werewolves to face the coming onslaught of newborns - who are stronger, faster, and more bloodthirsty than even normal vampires.
David Slade previously directed 30 Days of Night and Hard Candy, both of which I thought were pretty good. Both of which employed a brutal, hard-R-rated approach to horror that couldn't be more different from the PG-13 tween-girl-fantasy of Twilight. But bringing Slade on board the franchise was a move that paid off in the best of the series to date. There are some cool action scenes, especially a climactic fight scene that's actually pretty awesome; there's some undercranking (i.e. deliberately dropping the film's frame rate so as to make things look like they're moving faster), but if that's what it takes to make actors like Bryce Dallas Howard look badass, then so be it. And yes, the vampires are actually pretty badass here, even - nay, especially - the perpetually-Gap-beclothed Cullens. Mainly because they finally have a sense of purpose, when in the last two movies all they did was ponce around looking pretty.
Slade also shows a deft touch at building up the suspense throughout the film, so that it's not just action scenes punctuated by boring talky scenes. The vampires-vs-vampires/werewolves battle feels like something the entire series has been building up to, and this film finally makes it worthwhile. The werewolves get a little short shrift - the CGI beasties look too unreal and insubstantial - but the vampires really do appear supernaturally fast, strong and deadly, for the first time in three movies. The film even shows an occasional nasty streak that's also pretty unexpected in a Twilight film; no spoilers, but it involves the brutally matter-of-fact murders of two people who might be considered minors. They may have been in Stephenie Meyer's source material, but I feel quite confident in crediting Slade for making those scenes seem actually horrific.
Of course, the boring talky scenes are still there, and they do detract from the more fun stuff. And of course, the talk revolves around the perpetually drippy Bella and her love triangle between Edward and Jacob, which... isn't too annoying this time, actually. Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg does a pretty damn decent job at crafting the script, despite the occasional tortured dialogue (for which I feel quite confident in blaming Meyer for instead of Rosenberg). She handles the themes and emotional underpinnings quite deftly, employing callbacks and payoffs and all the tricks of a professional screenwriter's trade. And there are also three flashback scenes that continue the job of expanding the Twilight world that New Moon began. One tells the root of the ancient animosity between Forks' vampires and werewolves, and the other two give us some interesting backstory for Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) and Rosalie (Nikki Reed), who were previously nothing more than flower vases. I actually wish we could've seen flashbacks for the rest of the Cullens as well.
The most obvious indication that the writing has improved is that Bella actually displays more of a spine this time. When Jacob makes an inappropriate pass at her, she slugs him; when Edward tries to stop her from comforting Jacob, she spits an angry "Don't!" at him. (Oh, and I didn't really think Jacob was rapey and abusive here; he was just being a dumb and impulsive teenager.) It's still quite Mary Sue-ish how the whole plot revolves around her, and she's still kinda dumb for being more concerned about her superpowered friends than the superpowered bad guys who want to kill her non-superpowered self - but at least she shows a lot more courage and determination than she ever did. There's even a speech she delivers, right at the end of the movie, that almost seems like a response to criticisms of Bella being a hopelessly weak and personality-devoid character.
And it helps a lot that Kristen Stewart plays her. Honestly, Stewart gets a lot of undeserved flack for being in these films, but she's actually a great choice for the role. (Please check her out in Adventureland.) She's a natural at portraying strength and vulnerability in turn, which really helps to balance the way Meyer portrays Bella. Suffice it to say that she's actually, finally, pretty good here. Robert Pattinson also seems to have improved; there's still little real chemistry between him and Stewart, and I'm still not feeling this all-consuming love that they supposedly share, but he gets to display a somewhat wider range of emotions this time - he smiles a few times, and actually cracks the occasional joke. Taylor Lautner is still pretty wooden though, and he has even less chemistry with Stewart. It's becoming even more clear now that he was cast just for his abs. But Billy Burke is really turning out to be the series' secret weapon, as Bella's father Charlie. His birds-and-the-bees conversation with her is really pretty funny.
There was an anonymous commenter on my New Moon review who called me gay for not hating it. (Hon Woon, was that you?) Well, phooey to him, and to anyone else for whom hating Twilight is an uninformed kneejerk response. Then again, my kneejerk response is to hate the books and Meyer's writing, because I really think the movies have been getting better. With source material this bad, I think it can only get better, and I think the films' makers - especially Rosenberg - have been working on it long enough that they can't help but elevate it. I think Stewart's and Pattinson's performances are proof of that, as is hiring Slade as director. Then again, the worst of the source material is yet to come, and I truly do not envy Bill Condon for signing on to make two movies out of it; I doubt even Slade is up to the job. (Perhaps David Cronenberg.) In the meantime, someone else will have to write that Malay-Muslim feminist critique of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. 'Cos I liked it.
NEXT REVIEW: The Sorcerer's Apprentice