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Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

DIRECTOR: David Slade

CAST:

Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Ashley Greene, Jackson Rathbone, Nikki Reed, Kellan Lutz, Elizabeth Reaser, Gil Birmingham, Bryce Dallas Howard, Dakota Fanning, Xavier Samuel

REVIEW:

It took three movies, but they’ve finally gotten it right, or as right as it’s going to be. David Slade has done for Twilight what Alfonso Cuarón did for Harry Potter; inject the third installment with just enough of a darker edge to plant its feet on the ground, dispensing with many of the series’ cornier elements and focusing on what works, crafting easily the most cinematic and the most grown-up Twilight entry thus far, and likely to be the first entry that can both enthrall fans of the book and avoid making the uninitiated want to poke their eyes out.

Despite their reunion and Edward’s (Robert Pattinson) marriage proposal at the end of New Moon, he and Bella’s (Kristen Stewart) problems are a long way from over. Bella continues to be conflicted between her love for Edward and her feelings for Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who views the Cullens, and she by association, as the enemy. Edward has reluctantly agreed to turn Bella into a vampire after their wedding, but is in no hurry to move things along. The Volturi may check in on them to make sure they have kept their promise to change Bella, while the wolf pack may take this as a violation of the treaty and declare the Cullens fair game. Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) is still prowling the woods around Forks. And most alarmingly, Forks native Riley (Xavier Samuel), who went missing in Seattle after being bitten by an unseen attacker, has resurfaced at the head of a fledgling personal army of newly-created vampires who are unleashing a reign of terror on Seattle. But who changed Riley? And for what ultimate purpose has his army been bred?

David Slade, best-known for two well-received dark films, the pedophilia-themed psychological thriller Hard Candy, and the vampire bloodbath 30 Days of Night, caused concern by some that he would inject too much of 30 Days-esque horror into what is intended as a romantic fantasy, but such fears were quickly proven unwarranted. Rest assured the Bella-Edward-Jacob love triangle is faithfully preserved, but Slade’s edginess works wonders for the series in other aspects. Slade is obviously a much more polished director than Twilight’s Catherine Hardwicke, and while Chris Weitz made New Moon ‘look’ better, Slade tones down many of the silly bits that Weitz indulged, and in fact has done an impressive job whittling down the previously vast unintentional humor quotient. I’ll never be a fan of the ‘vampires sparkling in the sunlight’ idea, but it is now no longer accompanied by the ridiculously overdone tinkling sound effect, and the effect itself is much more subtle, now actually looking like Edward’s skin reflects light like a diamond instead of like he got hit in the face with a wad of glitter. The end result might not necessarily be good, but it’s at least about as non-bad as it’s likely to be, mostly because Slade keeps it to a minimum. Likewise, there are no slow-motion shots of Edward walking toward the camera, no sped-up running effects, and Bella’s superfluous classmates (Michael Welch, Anna Kendrick, Justin Chon, Christian Serratos) are kept to a minimum (incidentally, now that Kendrick is an Oscar nominee for Up In The Air opposite George Clooney, the script switched the book’s valedictorian from Chon’s Eric to her Jessica, likely to give the suddenly high-profile Kendrick more to do). The Cullens’ makeup, which was a little much in New Moon, has been toned back down. Rosalie (Nikki Reed), described as beautiful in the books, is so much more attractive here than in either Twilight or New Moon that one of my theater companions asked whether it was the same actress. The dialogue is rarely cringe-inducing, and Bella and Edward and Bella and Jacob and once even Edward and Jacob actually seem to have conversations that mean something substantial instead of reciting swaths of melodramatic prose like ‘you’re my personal brand of heroin’. Actually, there’s plenty of humor thrown around, and, wonder of wonders, practically all of it is intentional, and some of it’s even not afraid to poke fun at itself. The hot-blooded Jacob still traipses about everywhere, even in snowstorms, with bare buff bod on display, but this time Edward deadpans, ‘doesn’t he own a shirt?’. In a nice display of witty self-referential humor, when cold-blooded Edward is forced to allow Jacob to cuddle Bella to keep her warm during a blizzard, Jacob quips, ‘let’s face it, I’m hotter than you’. About the only cringe-inducing element is that the CGI wolves are still terribly fake-looking, but unlike its predecessors, Eclipse never made me feel embarrassed to be sitting in the theater watching it. From beginning to end it’s very easily watchable and often quite engaging.

Of course, Slade also lucked out in that he got to helm the adaptation of the book that had the most plot, and considering Eclipse is virtually as completely faithful to the book as New Moon was but makes a far more watchable movie, that shouldn’t be overlooked. While Twilight was all about introductions and set-up, and tacked on a vampire conflict as an afterthought to inject an 11th hour dose of action, and New Moon seemed to wander purposelessly on for hours without anything really happening, Eclipse feels like it has a drive and a purpose and is going somewhere. One of the problems with Eclipse the book, as with every book in the series, is that everything is seen myopically from the perspective of Bella, meaning Edward is pictured through rose-tinted glasses and various events like the Victoria chase and the newborn battle are talked about, not shown. Here, Slade and series screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg visualize the parts we want to see to play more cinematically, meaning an expanded role for Riley and the newborns, and a large battle scene. We start out with an atmospheric scene that would seem at home in any vampire movie, as the hapless Riley is stalked through rainy Seattle streets by a shadowy, unseen, lightning-fast and superhumanly powerful figure, finally bitten and falling to the ground screaming in convincing agony; later, the now red-eyed, porcelain-faced Riley pays a creepily silent visit to the Swan house. Eclipse features the most regular supply of action of any installment, throwing in early on a fast-paced chase along both sides of the border of the Cullen-Quileute territories, with the Cullens and the wolves simultaneously pursuing Victoria, and later an entertaining sequence with all of the Cullens fighting each other to practice for battling the newborn army. The climactic battle is a fairly brief but satisfying orgy of decapitations and dismemberment that Slade can gleefully get away with in a PG-13 rating because of the bloodless way that vampires’ bodies crack like porcelain when destroyed. It’s no 30 Days of Night, but by Twilight standards, this is balls-to-the-wall action. Alas, the final fight between SPOILER WARNING Edward and Victoria and Riley is over a little disappointingly quickly, leaving it a little anticlimactic.

Importantly, Slade also manages to get more out of his lead trio of young actors than their previous directors managed. Sure, the reduced number of clunky lines they’re forced to say gives them less opportunity to embarrass themselves, but the leads are on their most solid ground in the series thus far. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson tone down Bella’s mopey whininess and Edward’s one-note melancholy brooding and show more vulnerability and humor, making both of them easier to like and root for, and their chemistry is the strongest it’s ever been. These two actually seem to have a strong connection between them this time, which one would hope would exist for two people determined to spend eternity together. And in a pleasant surprise, Taylor Lautner, whose acting was pretty shaky at times in New Moon, is much-improved here, making Jacob a worthier romantic rival. Probably because we’re more engaged by the trio involved, the love triangle is more intriguing; it’s repeatedly affirmed that while Bella loves Edward more, she loves at least to some degree both Edward and Jacob, and Eclipse makes it easier to understand her conflict instead of making her come across as just fickle and indecisive. In fact, Bella has a couple occasions where she actually shows a backbone.

Most of the supporting actors are more of what we expect from them. Billy Burke continues to reaffirm himself as one of my favorite series regulars and a reliable source of both comic relief and fatherly sensitivity, with a hilariously awkward sex talk with Bella, and Peter Facinelli is the cool, composed Carlisle. Cullen siblings Jackson Rathbone and Nikki Reed finally get more to do than hang around in the background and say a couple lines here and there, with flashback sequences showing us both Jasper and Rosalie’s troubled backstories (Jasper was a Civil War officer, Rosalie a ‘30s socialite). In fact, it’s nice to see all of the Cullens get to stretch their legs and get into the action. Also getting to say a little more than last time is Gil Birmingham, who narrates a legend of the Quileute tribe’s first encounters with vampires (which was interminably long in the book and is efficiently abridged to the most relevant parts here). The original Victoria, Rachelle Lefevre, is replaced here by better-known Bryce Dallas Howard (according to the studio due to scheduling conflicts, though Lefevre disputed this), but the trade-off for a bigger name does not leave a bigger impression, and considering Howard has only marginally more screentime than Lefevre (apart from getting chased through the woods early on, she doesn’t appear again until a few scenes close to the end), the switch seems pretty pointless. Granted, Lefevre wasn’t Meryl Streep when she opened her mouth, but she at least looked feline and predatory (and it’s not like Victoria gets great monologues of dialogue to say). Not even red-eyes can make the girlish-faced Howard look menacing. I was hoping for more from the actress, whose Victoria is disappointingly bland. Dakota Fanning makes her second 11th hour cameo of the series, dropping by just long enough to affirm that her Jane is far more hissable than Howard’s Victoria. Newcomers in small roles include young Australian actor Xavier Samuel as Riley, who proves merely a manipulated pawn, and Jodelle Ferland as young newborn recruit Bree, who inspires a flicker of pity although she only appears in a couple of scenes (of course, this minor character will mean more to those who read Stephenie Meyer’s spin-off novella, The Short Second Life Of Bree Tanner). Julia Jones and BooBoo Stewart (no relation to Kristen) as latest wolf pack members Leah and Seth Clearwater (children of Graham Greene’s character from New Moon) don’t have much screentime, but get across their most basic personalities adequately enough; presumably they’ll have bigger roles in Breaking Dawn.

Most importantly, Eclipse has heart, something the previous installments spent a lot of time talking about in lofty melodramatic prose but didn’t actually show us a lot of. The scenes between Bella and Edward are heartfelt rather than cringe-inducing. Even Edward and Jacob have something approaching a heart-to-heart when circumstances force them together for Bella’s sake (the famous tent scene, which fans of the book will be relieved to know has been faithfully preserved), where each is at least man enough to basically acknowledge the other’s love for Bella. Jasper and Rosalie’s tragic backstories give us more context of both Jasper’s standoffish demeanor and Rosalie’s hostility toward Bella. While Bella is unshakably determined to become a vampire, some of those most against it are other vampires, including Edward and Rosalie. ‘After a few decades, everyone you know will be dead’, he warns her. Rosalie poignantly remarks that she’ll always be as she is, frozen in time, beautiful, sure, but she will never sit, gray-haired, with grandchildren playing around her. While it still centers on a love-triangle of three ultra-angsty teenagers, the handling of the material is more grown-up. Bella hints none-too-subtly that she wants Edward to take her virginity before he takes her humanity, and while they don’t end up going through with it, the scene is loads more hot-and-heavy than anything between them so far. It’s not shown but pretty clearly implied that SPOILER WARNING the mortal Rosalie was gang-raped and left for dead by her fiancée (Jack Huston, grandson of John and nephew of Anjelica and Danny) and his drunken friends, making her reappearance before him, wearing a white wedding dress, red eyes blazing like an angel of death, a moment likely to get cheers and applause from some audience members. When Bella visits Mom (Sarah Clarke) in Florida and Mom gives her an unexpected gift, Bella’s sudden seizing her into a tight hug is touching because we know the reason for it, even if Mom doesn’t; it might be the last time they see each other. While the previous entries gave lip service to the dilemma of living forever and leaving everyone behind, Eclipse is the first where it’s felt rather than merely spoken.

Lest my review sound too glowing, it must be kept in mind that Eclipse is part of the Twilight series. Vampires still sparkle in the sunlight. Constantly-shirtless young men still transform into bad CGI wolves. The center of the story is still an angst-ridden teenage love triangle. The villainous vampires are a little more brutal than what we’ve seen before, but the PG-13 rating and fanbase means Slade keeps things considerably toned down from 30 Days of Night. The final Edward-Victoria smackdown is over a little quickly and leaves the movie feeling a little anticlimactic, and the wolves still look fake (with how much money these movies make, why is the CGI so cheap-looking?), and while the movie makes a little mystery out of who’s pulling the strings of the newborn army, and the Volturi are thrown around a little as a red herring, most anyone should be able to guess who the perpetrator is well before it’s explicitly revealed. I’m not saying Slade has made a masterpiece, I’m saying he’s done a solid job with what he was given to work with, and has probably taken Twilight about as far as it can go, which is further than I thought was possible after reviewing New Moon.

As good as Eclipse is- and it’s quite good, good enough to likely make some confirmed Twilight haters give it a chance- I fear it represents the series at its high point. While Oscar-nominated director Bill Condon is tapped to helm Breaking Dawn, he’ll have a hard task ahead of him. Even many series fans felt the final chapter was a misfire, and I would have to agree that it will be difficult to film successfully; it has SPOILER WARNINGS a few fascinating scenes (Bella’s adjustments to life as a vampire, especially her newfound physical prowess and her first hunting outing, and the climactic confrontation with the two-faced Aro and the entire assembled Volturi) but also a lot of meandering around and some downright bizarre material that will be hard to visualize onscreen without seeming ridiculous, along with some (Renesmee’s birth and the multiple sex scenes) that will be tricky to get away with while maintaining a PG-13 rating (despite having written an almost shockingly bloody and grisly scene with Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer refuses to watch R-rated movies, so will she able to watch the adaptation of what she apparently had no problem writing?). It would be a shame for Twilight to pleasantly surprise everyone with a solid entry only to return to form thereafter.

But whatever the future holds for the franchise, Eclipse has at least proven that Twilight can be more than what it has usually been when properly handled. David Slade deserves a lot of credit, the fanbase should be thrilled, and it should have the most mainstream and critical success of any thus far. It’s (intentionally) funny, romantic, occasionally exciting, occasionally poignant. It’s not terrible; in fact, it’s not bad at all. Even if you’re not a Twilight fan, you could do worse on a summer movie night.

***

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