So Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is really into vampires. Well, a vampire (Edward Cullen). So much so that she wants nothing more to become one so that she can be with him forever. Before that can happen she’s got to deal with the werewolf who loves her (Taylor Lautner), the evil vampire trying to kill her out of revenge (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the army of new born vampires coming to make that revenge a reality. And she’s got to graduate from high school.
The first two “Twilight” films were plagued by pacing issues, an orgy of exposition and internalized artificial angst in place of actual conflict. A lot of that has always had to be expected in a series built largely to appeal to pre-teen girl’s romantic fantasies, where the fact of the fantasy will always be more important than the execution. The fact that vampires were involved, on top of the easy foray into an almost perverse gratification of shallowness they provide, offered up the need for a certain level of horror, suspense and violence as well. But that option was lightly used and the results were often an ill-formed mishmash that barely hung together.
Now, after two false starts, the franchise’s producers have finally found in director David Slade (“Hard Candy,” “30 Days of Night”) someone who can harness both the series’ natural teenage melodrama and monster movie mayhem into an effective whole.
More than that, he’s done something neither of his predecessors were capable of. He’s found both Bella and “Eclipse’s” heart.
That’s quite an achievement because Bella has always been an ideal, not a character. Which isn’t to say she’s some version of perfection, but that she is instead the embodiment of a young girl’s vision of love as it should be: immediate and forever and so intense it threatens to destroy the very people who feel it.
It doesn’t say much for her as a well-developed character in her own right, which is why Bella has been something of the weak link in the series before: interesting to the part of the audience who wants to indulge in that sort of fantasy, and yawn-inducing to anyone else. Slade and returning screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg have decided to confront that problem head on in “Eclipse” as they try and force, if not Bella, then at least the audience into facing the reality of the consequences of major, life defining choices at a young age before you have the experience necessary to properly evaluate your situation.
It’s a none too subtle metaphor about the dangers of premarital sex, but there’s a real effort to try and expand it, and Bella, into the reality of being a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. Sure, it’s a reality that involves vampires, but no one’s perfect.
Bella’s graduation from high school is fast approaching and with it come all of the normal, terrifying questions that are part and parcel of leaving home for good. Mainly, what are you going to do with the rest of your life? It’s more than just a philosophical dilemma for Bella since that’s the day she’s picked to become a vampire and stay with her beloved Edward forever. It’s also how long her old friend Jacob has to convince her he is the better choice for her.
There’s no denying “Eclipse” is still very much a teenage soap opera, but Slade and Rosenberg have finally managed to marry the melodrama with the plot and create real tension.
While Bella ruminates over the very real existential choice she faces, and the werewolf who keeps insisting she loves him no matter what she says, an army of vampires is being created in Seattle. An army with one purpose: to find and kill her. Thanks to the prophetic powers of vampire Alice (Ashley Greene), Bella and the Cullen’s are able to prepare a trap of their own but it’s going to mean doing the unthinkable; allying with Jacob and the werewolves.
It’s not a perfect mix, and the weakest part of it is still Bella herself. The emotional arc of the plot is devoted almost entirely to various characters trying to talk her out of making a choice she adamantly and repeatedly insists she wants to do. Conflict of this sort only works if there is questioning and indecision involved. But on the subject of Edward, Bella has no indecision–it’s the nature of her being a fantasy stand-in rather than a character–and that hurts a lot of the drama.
The performances by the younger actors don’t help particularly much either. They’re not bad but often seem stuck on ‘Earnest’ (or in Edward’s case, ‘Morose’) without much other range, particularly Bella and Jacob. The material is somewhat suited to that sort of delivery and a long awaited conversation between Bella, Jacob and Edward over who she really loves and will stay with approaches a level of Harlequin romance magnificence. And they’re better off than the villains, who over-emote on every syllable.
Still, for everything “Eclipse” does wrong, it does quite a bit right. A few flashbacks interspersed within the film add much needed depth to the Cullen family and comment on how elusive and even destructive the series’ adolescent view of love can be to people who embrace it unreservedly. And despite some of the breathy, on-the-nose dialogue “Twilight” has always perpetrated, the newest version has a wry wit that undercuts a lot of the worst offenses and occasionally even sparkles.
The older actors continue to help with some of the weaker dialogue as well, and quite a few scenes are genuinely excellent, like Rosalie’s (Niki Reed) description of how she became a vampire and Sheriff Swan’s (Billy Burke) awkward attempt to give Bella ‘the sex talk.’
Slade has a good eye for this sort of thing, from character work to monster chases and his film never gets away from him. If anything it could do with some more vampires, it’s when they’re doing their thing that he seems most at ease and in control, but he also understands how important the little pieces are to making a whole. He has some able assistance from a score by Howard Shore (“The Lord of the Rings”) which for the first time matches the film’s imagery.
Most importantly, and most satisfyingly, it finally stops building and starts making with the resolution. It’s been a long, hard slog to get to “Eclipse” but I have to admit, Slade and company make the trip almost worth it. The oh so slowly built threads off the first two films finally pay off and pay off well. Not everything is wrapped up. A secret plot involving the vampire ruling Volturi remains hanging out there, but that’s for another time.
“Eclipse’s” adolescent roots do continue to shine through, but for once they’re made to work in the film’s favor rather than against it. It’s not a great piece of filmmaking, but it’s competent and entertaining and only rarely silly and considering the hole the series has been in, that’s quite a feat.