April 2021

Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (2011)

DIRECTOR: Bill Condon


Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Ashley Greene, Nikki Reed, Jackson Rathbone, Kellan Lutz, Elizabeth Reaser, Sarah Clarke, Gil Birmingham, Michael Sheen


As Warner Bros. Did with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Summit Entertainment has split the final chapter of its young adult phenomenon the Twilight “saga” into two films. It’s easy to be cynical about both decisions as blatant maximizing of profits, especially in Twilight’s case, as while Deathly Hallows‘ density justified unfolding it over two films, it’s debatable whether any Twilight entry, including Breaking Dawn, really has enough that actually happens to warrant being stretched out over two movies. Regardless, Oscar-nominated director Bill Condon has done a respectable job with what he was given, helming a faithful but not obsessively word-for-word adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s novel, but as with every other Twilight entry, the content makes a mixed bag.

 The wedding day finally arrives for Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her vampire beau Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), with her dad Charlie (Billy Burke) giving her away and even Edward’s romantic rival Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) grudgingly accepting the ceremony. Soon, Bella is whisked away on an idyllic honeymoon on a remote island owned by the Cullens somewhere off the coast of South America. She and Edward skinny-dip in the ocean, play chess, and (in a much-hyped scene) lose their virginity to each other (the 40-year-old virgin didn’t have a thing on Edward). But of course things don’t stay blissful for long. To their shock, Bella discovers she is pregnant, something thought to be impossible between a human and a vampire. But not only does the baby exist, it’s growing rapidly, draining Bella of nutrients, reducing her to an emaciated shadow of herself even as her belly bulges, and threatening to crush her to death from the inside out. Edward hits on one desperate hope: to feed her venom at the last minute and save her life by turning her into a vampire. Meanwhile, Jacob’s love for Bella forces him into the position of being an unlikely defender of the Cullens against his own wolf pack, who take Bella’s impending death or transformation as a violation of the treaty between the Cullens and the Quileute tribe, and declare open season on the vampire family.

While the first installment, helmed by indie director Catherine Hardwicke, had a heavily indie look and feel, the subsequent, bigger-budgeted installments, directed by more pedigreed directors like Chris Weitz, David Slade, and now Bill Condon, aim for a more epic appearance, if the subject matter remains frustratingly inconsistent. Condon maintains the eye for scenic imagery of Weitz and Slade, with lots of sweeping picturesque shots of the misty woods of Washington and the sunny beaches of Edward and Bella’s honeymoon island getaway. He also does his best to inject tension and energy into the (as always, too few and far between) action sequences, especially night skirmishes with the wolf pack. While the CGI wolves are still obviously CGI, they’re overall a step-up from New Moon and Eclipse, with more expressiveness in close-up shots. In fact, it could almost be argued that Jacob has more force and personality as a CGI wolf than as Taylor Lautner (not that that’s a tremendous accomplishment). Edward and Bella’s wedding is gorgeously shot, with the hanging white tree branches contrasting with the blood red flower petals (put to effective use when Bella has a bloody nightmare about her wedding party being massacred by the Volturi). While obviously held in check by the studio’s insistence on sticking to a PG-13 rating the book would have pushed if adapted more unflinchingly, Condon brings the much-ballyhooed sex scene in which Edward demolishes the bedroom, and the disturbing “birth” scene to the screen as accurately as the constraints he is working under allow him. Fans will be delighted by faithfully preserved details like Bella waking surrounded by pillow feathers, and while there’s no clear nudity, Stewart and Pattinson show about as much skin as they can without it (of course, the very first scene in which Lautner appears involves him whipping his shirt off). Renesmee’s birth, a jarringly gruesome sequence in the book considering how chaste Meyer’s writing is overall, is an effective example of the “less is more approach”. The PG-13 rating won’t let Condon show much gore, but he skillfully uses quick shots that suggest more than they outright show, close-ups of intense expressions, and sounds of ripping and screaming to bring across the disturbing vibe without showing blood splattered on walls. It’s perhaps the clearest example in the movie of a competent director working around studio rating restraints as best he can (the original cut reportedly warranted an R rating, but the studio, not wanting to jeopardize the audience numbers of a movie whose fan-base is teenage girls who wouldn’t be allowed in without their parents, demanded the necessary cuts to tone it down to PG-13). The biggest thing hindering Condon is not the rating, but the source material itself. Eclipse was the strongest Twilight entry because it had the most drive and momentum in its plot- a culmination of the Victoria conflict that had been simmering since Twilight, ending in a large-scale battle sequence. While Breaking Dawn is not as terminally listless as the aimlessly mopey New Moon, not much happens for the first hour or so besides Bella and Edward getting married and hanging out on a tropical island. They’re not the most exciting couple at the best of times, so watching them play chess, make out, and smile at each other isn’t stirring cinema. The conflict in the plot kicks in about halfway through, when the shock realization that Bella is pregnant forces them to return home, bringing the wolves back into the story and setting up a tense conflict with the pack stalking the perimeter of the Cullen house while inside Jacob and the Cullens try to think of a way to save Bella, who steadily wastes away. The makeup does a good job making Kristen Stewart look anorexic and deathly without going overboard. And since this is Twilight, a few unintentionally cringe-inducingly corny sequences seem inevitable. The worst offender here, unsurprisingly, involves the CGI wolf pack, in a scene where they all telepathically argue in wolf form about what to do. It’s an example of something that works on the page but is awkward and goofy onscreen. At least he managed to make Jacob “imprinting” on Renesmee as minimally creepy as possible. In fairness to Condon, I’m not sure how else he could have portrayed this, but the end result is goofy and generated quite a bit of giggles among my audience (so did the melodramatic, on-the-nose dialogue, but that’s true of every Twilight installment). Even so, considering the haphazard and poorly-paced narrative structures of every Stephenie Meyer book, and the fact that even many dedicated fans of the series consider Breaking Dawn the weakest entry and some consider it an outright misfire, Condon must be given due credit: Breaking Dawn isn’t as good as Eclipse, but it’s also not as interminably lifeless as New Moon or as unintentionally corny as Twilight. As far as the onscreen adaptations, I’d place it second (pending the chance to review and rate Part 2, of course).

The series veterans provide exactly what we expect of them, with neither Stewart, Pattinson, or Lautner varying anything up. Stewart does what the material gives her, which isn’t much, and her nervous, awkward mannerisms get a little annoying after three movies’ worth of them; she can be effective in some roles but doesn’t show range. Pattinson continues to play one mode of glum one-note monotone brooding as Edward, who always looks pained and sullen even when he’s on his honeymoon on an idyllic tropical island where he gets to go skinny dipping and lose his virginity. Bella is not a stirring heroine, and Edward is not a dashing lover, and neither really seems excited by anything, including each other. In fairness, Pattinson does generate some intensity in the birth scene, which is almost certainly his strongest acting moment in the entire series (not that that’s saying much). Taylor Lautner is more energetic but on shaky acting ground as Jacob. The character’s conflict is the most engaging subplot this time around as he ends up protecting the Cullens from his own wolf pack—love makes strange bedfellows—but Lautner is probably the weakest actor of the main three (none of whom are master thespians) and while he’s adequate for the most part, he also has a couple more of the laughably forced emotional outbursts that plagued him in New Moon. Of the others, Billy Burke, Kellan Lutz, and Anna Kendrick get to make hilariously awkward wedding toasts that are by far the movie’s best moments of intentional humor, Ashley Greene acts bubbly, Peter Facinelli acts calm and collected, and Michael Sheen appears for about a minute (you’ll have to wait for an end postscript halfway through the end credits for him to say any dialogue) to foreshadow Part 2. Maggie Grace is around for a minute or two at the wedding, but she’s so in and out that she’s not worth commenting on (although fans know Irina will serve a plot purpose in Part 2).

Fans of the novel of Breaking Dawn who have enjoyed the film adaptations so far ought to be pleased with this one (all those I personally know were enthusiastic about the movie), but the non-initiated will be bored (but the movies aren’t really made for them anyway). Bill Condon does a competent job with what he’s working with as David Slade did before him, but there is little that differentiates Breaking Dawn from its predecessors. I’m more anticipatory of Part 2, which has some sequences that ought to be engaging (Bella adapting to life as a vampire, and Edward teaching her to hunt, and the climactic face-off with the Volturi, which will finally get Michael Sheen’s Aro a.k.a. The Only Entertaining Part of New Moon back onscreen for more than thirty seconds at a time). In any event, strong box office returns are virtually guaranteed, as are the scathingly negative critical reviews, but as with any franchise of this sort, what really matters is the fan-base, and if one thing can be said of Twilight fans, they’re fiercely faithful.


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