Sunday, December 19, 2010


To review: my friend Wendigo is invalid enough that he can't sit in a movie seat comfortably, and so has just seen the third filmed episode of the Twilight series this weekend. And while he yields to no one in his love for the vampire movie tradition, he defends the work of Stephanie Meyer against all comers, rejecting entirely the idea that her portrayal of vampires is somehow wrong or inherently bad. To date, he has liked Catherine Hardwicke's film of Twilight pretty much unreservedly, while finding Chris Weitz's New Moon a considerable slip in quality while still a tolerable movie.

The third film has David Slade of 30 Days of Night for a director and a new vampire villainess, Bryce Dallas Howard taking over the role of Victoria, the arch-enemy of the benevolent Cullen clan. The rest of the cast remains the same, while the famous triangle of Bella Swan, Edward Cullen and Jacob Black grows more sharp-edged. The young men and their respective clans, Edward's vampires and Jacob's shapeshifters, must quiet their rivalry to defend Bella from attack by an army of newborn bloodsuckers raised by the vengeful Victoria. Newborns, we learn, are actually more powerful (by virtue of retained human blood) than more experienced vampires, and must be handled with extreme care if you're to kill them. Hovering over the entire scene are the imperious Volturii, who offer Victoria no aid but would be happy to see her exterminate the annoying Cullens before they renege on their promise to turn the promising Bella, as Miss Swan herself desires but Edward would rather not do.

For an outsider to the phenomenon like me, Eclipse clarifies the qualities that make the series controversial to many and hateful to some. The main story is the choice Bella must make between Edward and Jacob, and the secondary choice between remaining human and joining Edward as a vampire. Ed and Jake are given ample time to make their respective cases to both Bella and the audience. Watching their debate over a sleeping Bella in a tent, the thought hit me that if Bella were Anita Blake, there'd be no issue whatsoever; she'd take both hunks to bed, maybe at the same time. At that point I realized that, instead of occupying an opposite extreme from traditional monster cinema, Twilight actually sits uneasily (in the eyes of many) in a middle ground between tradition and transgression. In the old days, one presumes, this sort of triangle would have been resolved by Edward and Jacob destroying each other so Bella could go on to live a proper life. The Anita Blake option, the complete embrace of transgression in all its polymorphous perversity, is the opposite extreme.

Wendigo reminds me of the common reading in which Edward embodies an old (though not to him) ideal of chastity. In past comments he's compared Twilight to fairy tales in which marriage is the gateway to happily ever after, while Anita Blake comes out of a different kind of romantic tradition in which sex itself is the consummation. Edward's embodiment of traditional values is what makes him difficult for monster-movie fans to comprehend or perhaps even like. He's a vampire, but not a monster. Wendigo has read the Anita Blake books and assures me that her boy-toys are monsters through and through, though some are reasonably noble. The idea of a monster doesn't preclude the idea of a noble monster; many such creatures are beloved by horror fans. But monsters by definition have an aura of danger, threat, even tragedy that simply doesn't exist for Edward Cullen, for all he talks about how dangerous his love might be. Monsters can struggle for self-control and win our sympathies by failing in their struggle and regretting their failure. By that standard, Edward isn't just something other than a monster, but someone too good to be "true" for many horror fans.

In the Twilight saga evil is a matter of choice rather than identity. In Eclipse, the noble Cullens (above) face off against the feral newborns (below).

Wendigo tells me that Edward had succumbed to temptation in his past, in episodes he recounts in the novels but haven't been shown yet on film. The film audience thus identifies him with an impossible or even offensive capacity for self-control. Because Edward doesn't seem dangerous, he's seen as a goody-two-shoes who, to the extent that he protests about his dangerousness, comes across as a whiner. Robert Pattinson's good looks don't help matters, either. But Wendigo says that Meyer wasn't consciously writing vampire fiction; she's reportedly not a fan of the genre or a steady reader of it. For her, Edward doesn't represent a folk archetype of horror but the complete alien-ness of the significant other with whom, for no necessarily rational reason, you choose to share your life. As Wendigo puts it, he may not be the "best" person for Bella, but he's the "right" one for reasons only Bella knows. The thing to remember, of course, is that Bella not Edward, is the protagonist of the series, which relates the girl's journey toward love and commitment.

Twilight's werewolves can also choose their enemies. In Eclipse, they warily side with the Cullens (above) against the newborns (below) for Bella's sake.

It occurred to me that people don't gripe as much about Jacob as they do about Edward, though he's no more of a monster than Edward is. I asked Wendigo why that seemed to be so, and he suggested that Jake's instinctive enmity toward Edward keys into the modern archetype of the werewolf as the enemy of the vampire, so that Jacob may seem "right" in a way that Edward doesn't. He also notes that werewolves automatically have a kick-ass coolness because they turn into animals and fight all the time. In the films, Taylor Lautner gets to show a greater emotional range, and especially more passion, for good or ill, and that may explain why the Jacob character gets more of a pass, however Lautner might be mocked for his obligatory shirtlessness.

While reading the novels, Wendigo leaned toward "Team Jacob" because even he got tired of Edward's self-pity in print. But after reading Breaking Dawn he switched to "Team Edward" for reasons he can't divulge without spoiling the films yet to come. He still likes Jacob better as a character, but felt that, in the end, Edward was the "right" one for Bella. Wendigo still likes to insist, however, that he belongs to "Team Bella," since Twilight is her story, and he'll stand by the character's ultimate preference.

So much for setting the stage. I agree with Wendigo that Eclipse is a big improvement on New Moon. The direction and the acting is more relaxed; all three lead actors are more casual and personable than last time, and Pattinson is the best he's been in the series so far. Slade makes more of the spectacular locations and the story seems better paced. Where New Moon seemed impersonal, perhaps because it was rushed into production, Eclipse, though just as rushed, has more style and personality. Slade has advanced as a director from 30 Days of Night, but he has more material to work with and plays more to his original material's strengths here than he did when adapting the graphic novel. One flashback scene (the film has three) is imported from another novel, and some of the mechanics of supernatural combat are altered (in the novels, you can only dismember a vampire with your teeth), but the movie is reasonably faithful to the book.

Flashback-a-rama: From the top, the "Cold Woman" battles ancient Indians; Rosalie Cullen remembers a fatal wedding; Civil-War Jasper is beguiled by a vampiress.

Bree Tanner, who became the heroine of her own novella last year, is a somewhat more prominent figure in the film than in the book, but that's no cause for complaint. Victoria's new boy-toy Riley, her puppet-leader of the newborn army, is built up more here than in the novel, but that's only to the story's benefit. The battle scenes with Cullens, werewolves and newborns are violent without being gory, thus keeping the movie safely PG-13, since under Meyer's rules vampires break rather than bleed.

Bryce Dallas Howard as Victoria is an adequate replacement for Rachelle Lefevre, though Howard's big eyes make her inevitably less menacing than the original actress. She acts the part well enough, though she's kept in the shadows a lot early on, as if Slade wanted to hide for as long as he could that Victoria wasn't quite herself. Among the returning actors, Jackson Rathbone as Jasper gets much more to do, both as a tactical leader in the present and in a Civil War flashback recounting a newborn relationship with his maker that parallels Riley's with Victoria. But at this point in the saga Wendigo believes that more credit than ever is owed to Billy Burke as Bella's dad, Charlie.

In the most mundane role, Burke steals every scene he's in in casual fashion. Charlie grounds Bella in the real world even as she discovers more of the fantastical world around her, and there's an understated pathos in his attempts to tell Bella the facts of life when she knows that there's so much more to life (or un-life) than he's ever dreamed of. Since the movies tend to downplay Bella's mundane classmates, Charlie becomes a more important figure reminding us of what Bella stands to lose, and Burke makes the role work.

There's one book and two films to go as Summit Entertainment goes the cynical Harry Potter route to maximize revenue from its tentpole series. Breaking Dawn Part I comes out next November, followed by the conclusion a year later, with Bill Condon directing both installments. Wendigo wonders whether the final novel can be split in a way that doesn't leave the first film empty or the second film nothing but a big fight scene. He also doubts whether Summit will sacrifice the all-important PG-13 to do justice to the novel's more explicit sexuality, violence and childbirth. To date, the film series, in Wendigo's opinion, has been more good than bad, stumbling in the second round like the Potter series did but back on solid ground by the third episode. He'll have to be more patient than most folks waiting for the final films, but for now he's still looking forward to them.


Erich Kuersten said...

I liked the second one the best! For me it's all about mood, angst and excellent emotional sustain and release via song choices and editing... It's basically a childhood fantasia with cool cliques all of whom want to have you for a member, and sexless romance... it reminds me of fantasies I had as a kid enraptured by the TV show Charlie's Angels. It's all about the precipice, and you're right, the sheriff guy is very good and grounded, I think the actors are all really good... it's got to be hard to mouth this dialogue with such a straight face. your review was spot on. NEXT November for the final part one? Arent they worried the fanbase will be in college by then and look askance? They should wise up and hit that shit in the spring before freshman year turns the fans into genuine sex-having, hair and fang-sprouting, beer-swilling womenfolk.

Anonymous said...

Bill Condon making a huge mistake. A year gap is a risk and a gamble. Major cast won't be on site for jumps. Old news, old book by 2012.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, New Moon has the clunkiest film version so far, but I like it's focus on both Bella and Jacob's respective teen-angst journeys, there's also some stand-out scenes in there (the 360 pan around Bella as the months go by, cuz who hasn't been that sad as a teen; the first tracking shot of Jacob in the rain sans hair - and shirt of course, it's a nice reveal having Bella catch up to him and confront him on how he's changed).

Agree with Wendigo, Team Bella is the place to be, her story so far makes for very compelling cinema, looking forward to Dawn.