In theory, “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” has a leg up in this area as an adaptation of the second of Stephenie Meyer’s immensely popular novel series. It gives the filmmakers a blueprint to start with that they can then examine for weaknesses and underexplored areas, tightening up the core story and the characters and jettisoning unneeded material. More often than not, film adaptations benefit more by staying true to the spirit of the book than the fact of it as the two mediums’ strengths don’t always overlap.
Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, new director Chris Weitz (“The Golden Compass”) has decided to be generally faithful to his source material despite the problems it’s going to give him through a narrative that could delicately be described as ‘sprawling.’
Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) loves a vampire (Robert Pattinson). Loves him so much that she can’t begin to imagine life without him, which means naturally all she can think about it are the different ways she’ll end up losing him. We’ve all been there. Well, not so much the vampire part. But all the rest of it–the clinginess, the overwrought emotional reactions to everything, the feeling that the other person is the whole world and nothing else matters–that’s young love. And at its best, “New Moon” is a decent play on those universal emotions blown up to the nth degree. Fantasy, when it really works, takes the internal that way and fashions it into some sort of impossible physical ‘thing’ that we can engage with, and “New Moon” is no exception.
But the other thing about young love is that passes. Quickly. It feels so intense at the time because it’s new and because that’s the nature of youth, but it doesn’t last. That last little bit isn’t too romantic though, and “New Moon” it turns out isn’t too interested in exploring how young love feels to the young. It’s mainly interested in exploiting it.
Despite having just turned 18 and being only a year into the only romantic relationship she’s ever had, Bella has decided that Edward is ‘the one’ and she is going to stay with him forever. Literally. This naturally freaks Edward out, who likes her as she is, and after another vampire near-miss on her life he decides the best thing he can do for her is head for the hills and let her move on.
Which is a problem because in a story that is supposed to be about the epic romance these two characters go through, it effectively removes half of the pair for the majority of the film. Weitz and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg try hard to keep Edward in the audience’s mind but for all practical purposes he has nothing to do with anything until the last act. That’s quite a long time to be missing in a two-hour film. It might have made more sense to cut back and forth between the two, juxtaposing how each deals with the pain of separation and the events that eventually lead them into crossing paths again.
But they didn’t do that and it’s not fair to judge a film on what it’s not. What “New Moon” has done is to follow Bella exclusively as she tries to come to terms with her loss and figure what to do about it. Which is unfortunate because, and I’m not exaggerating, she’s less interesting than every other character in the film, including the cameos. Because Bella is insane.
It’s the nature of young love to be crazy and irrational, but it’s a real problem when you can’t let go of it and move on, and Bella can’t let go. Once she realizes that she can induce hallucinations of Edward by exposing herself to extreme risk she becomes an adrenaline junky, going for late night rides with strange back alley bikers and the like. And when that isn’t enough, she talks her old friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner) into helping her build a bike of her own.
Which is the point where “New Moon” finally starts to get interesting. Compared with the stuffy, repressed vampires, Jacob is a breath of fresh air. He’s earthy and passionate and Lautner has great chemistry with Stewart. So much so that you can forgive the fact the filmmakers have him running around with his shirt off for half the film in one of the least subtle paeans to a core audience ever. In fact, it’s only around Jacob that Bella starts to resemble anything approaching a normal person as they go through the normal teenage rituals of doing homework and going to the movies, turning into a werewolf and being hunted by a psychotic vampire (Rachelle Lefevre).
Actually it’s in these sequences where “New Moon” works best as a film and a sequel. It combines the fantastic and the real together in a way that makes it all relatable without being ridiculous. It repeats much of what was popular in the first “Twilight” with Jacob, right down to the introduction of his werewolf family and their efforts to protect her from her vampire problem. It works largely because it does recognize how much it is drawing comparisons to the first film, to the Cullens, showing Bella the options she may not have known she had. There’s even some room made for her family and friends, who unfortunately never get as much screen time as they deserve.
But it’s all for naught. Because deep down inside Bella is probably the most dependent person ever born. She’s never given up on Edward and despite a little guilt has no qualms leading Jacob on in order to make herself feel as close to Edward as she can even when he’s not around. She seems to have decided if she can’t have Edward she’ll die, she’s just working up the nerve.
Those sorts of feelings probably are imminently relatable to “New Moon’s” target audience, which really is Bella’s sole reason for being, but human beings are more than just feelings, which can be fleeting and extremely shallow. But Bella isn’t more than that. She’s not a person, even in the limited version a film can offer. She’s a whole bunch of overdone girls’ romance clichés stuffed into a person shaped bag and sat in front of us for two and a half hours. Tedious doesn’t begin to describe her.
When the film focuses on her reactions with Jacob or her friends it describes a lot of the faults and actually makes some headway towards being interesting despite being so obviously targeted as a teenage-girl’s daydream rather than an actual story much of the time. But it backtracks considerably whenever we get any real insight into what is going on inside Bella. She is so one-faceted it’s impossible to stay interested in her.
And that sort of two-steps forward, one-step back feel is all over “New Moon.” The performances are generally much better this time around, except for whenever the vampires show up. Except for Michael Sheen, who knows exactly how to show boat with this type of quiet menace, they tend to drain the life out of everything, not just in their own performances but in the people around them. Whatever charisma Pattinson had the first time around seems missing (or maybe that’s just because he is gone for so long) and all of the life and vitality Bella shows around Jacob turns into stammering shallowness around Edward.
The first film had quite a few visual cracks at its edges, due largely to inadequate effects and an ill-thought out visual aesthetic. A new film and a new director have solved a lot of that, but rather than put a completely new visual stamp on the film, Weitz has chosen to keep some of the first film’s choices and they don’t work any better the second time around. While the “Twilight” films will never offer the visual punch of “Harry Potter” or “Transformers,” they don’t really need it and the werewolf effects are serviceable enough. But for some reason every time the vampires swing into action the film drops into slow motion. It looks silly more often than not and removes any visceral thrust from the films action sequences, including the big climax when Bella rushes off to Italy to save Edward’s life.
If you feel like you just skipped two pages at once, you didn’t, it just feels that way. After two hours of werewolves and missing Edward and left-over plot points from the first film, “New Moon” pretty much jettisons everything that has come before in a last act in Italy that has almost nothing to do with anything that comes before. There’s no emotional build to it, no connection to the themes or subplots, or characters, built on throughout the film. Just, bam, Italy and ending that could generously be described as anti-climatic.
There’s a certain amount of laying new groundwork for the next film (always a problem when the filmmakers already know there will be one) but it doesn’t do much for this film. Every time Weitz has a choice to make between staying true to the material or strengthening the film, he chooses the material. Which probably will make fans happy, but doesn’t do much for anyone else.
“New Moon” is continuously schizophrenic this way and keeps me resolutely ambivalent about it. Every time I think it’s just a piece of teenage-angst baiting melodrama, it surprises me. And every time I start to think it may be better than it lets on, it disappoints. It does a lot of what a successful sequel needs to do, but it’s too hesitant to forge its own identity to go all the way. Fans will like it, and their appetites for the next one will probably be whet, but every one else will probably spend a lot of time looking at their watches.