As the “worldwide phenomenon” that is The Twilight Saga of films (adapted from Stephenie Meyer‘s equally as popular and blockbuster-selling quartet of novels) has progressed through the years, it has become increasingly difficult for those not already inoculated into the cult of human-vampire-werewolf love triangles to process, enjoy, and understand just exactly what they’re seeing on screen. Which is a nice way of saying that the tale of Bella Swan, Edward Cullen, Jacob Black, and a whole mess of other humans and mythological creatures has spiraled almost totally and nonsensically out of control.
Following their star-crossed high school courtship, unsteady human Bella (Kristen Stewart) and her smoothie vampire suitor (Robert Pattinson) have decided to take things to the next level. For most eighteen-year-olds (or ostensible eighteen-year-olds with Edward’s immortal appearance), that would mean getting down in the carnal sense – but for Edward and Bella, that means getting married (his choice) so that Bella can finally be turned to match her lover and his family (her choice). These are certainly big decisions for a girl who is barely an adult, but they’re made immeasurably more difficult by a hairy problem – teen werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), who is just as in love with Bella as Edward is. That’s The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 in a straight-faced nutshell. Yet, even fans of the series must admit that the final entry into Meyer’s series is absolutely crammed with elements that, at their best, could be described as bizarre. In truth, it’s absolutely, completely, and totally bonkers.
It’s nearly impossible to believe that this film was directed by an Oscar-winning filmmaker. It’s as if the film was created by the collected wills of Twilight fans everywhere – not Bill Condon. His mark is barely on it. Condon is the fourth director to take on a Twilight film, following Catherine Hardwicke‘s shaggy first outing (which continues to grow on me), Chris Weitz‘s New Moon (which captured the maddening ennui of the book), and David Slade’s Eclipse (which I am almost pathologically unable to recall), but Condon appears to be the helmer with the least amount of affection for the story or characters. Early promise – a beautifully staged wedding, complete with a barb-trading series of speeches that form the most intentionally funny sequence of the entire franchise – crumbles quickly, turning into an overly languorous and absurd outing that has simply (forgive me) no bite.
Breaking Dawn is, admittedly, a hard book to split, mainly because it is naturally split into three sections – Bella and Edward at the wedding and on their honeymoon, Jacob’s life during that time, and a more collective look at what happens after wedding (and after the newest Cullen shows up). But constant Twilight screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg has done a fair enough job here with the split, weaving in Jacob’s side of things with Bella and Edward’s for a surprisingly natural flow. But, like the final two Harry Potter films, it’s impossible to fully grasp the story that Breaking Dawn is trying to tell, and to judge that story when we’re only given half.
There is a richness to the novel as a whole, particularly when it comes to, if you can believe this, the inter-pack politics of the werewolves. The way the pack evolves and changes throughout the novel has long been my very favorite element of the entire series, and one that Condon does bring to screen with a certain amount of authenticity. But the look and feel of the werewolves in their furry form remains distractingly bad. There was a marked difference, a positive difference, between New Moon and Eclipse, but advances have all but stalled out and the wolves don’t look even remotely believable when we’re focused on them in still form or in close up. The second of the Breaking Dawn films will likely be much more focused on battle, which is unfortunate, because the primary battle of this film, between a mixed bag of wolves and Cullens, is barely choreographed, impossible to follow, and ultimately laughable. Condon doesn’t know action (and, particularly, effects-based action), and that’s readily apparent here.
Of course, with every adaptation, textures and depth are lost, but Breaking Dawn so starkly illuminates what is wrong with the Twilight films so far – some of the most original and lovely details that Meyer has created are tossed away in service to hitting the big notes. Splitting the book into two films should have enabled Condon to spend more time on those things, but all he does here is elongate scenes beyond their due. Most of the big stuff that happens in Breaking Dawn – the wedding, the honeymoon, the pregnancy – could be condensed down to 45 or so minutes. Breaking Dawn‘s runtime is nearly double that. Most of the Cullens are given short shrift (though Jackson Rathbone‘s sole line might be the funniest and oddly prescient of the entire film), and good luck telling the members of the wolf pack apart. By their nature, adaptations are unable to please everyone, but there’s something essential missing in Breaking Dawn that goes beyond the previous three films.
But Breaking Dawn is also wildly unsatisfying in the way all Twilight films are, because Meyer’s books are packed with rich symbolism and blatant interpersonal issues which most of those involved with production refuse to acknowledge – sexual politics, emotional and physical abuse, power dynamics and inequalities, a disquieting take on feminism, an influx of religious beliefs, even issues of xenophobia and racism. Filmgoers looking for this penultimate outing to go deeper (simply because the book has the deepest material yet) will be disappointed yet again. For a film that revolves around the needs of and desires of creatures who are slaves to their hunger for the red stuff, Breaking Dawn is bloodless.
The Upside: Hardcore Twilight fans will get exactly what they want – complete with bed-breaking, flowing blood, inter-species drama, and a wedding and honeymoon worth swooning over. The production, as one half of a complete film, sets up some of the series’ most interesting relationships and conflicts to play out in the second installment.
The Downside: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 will not appeal to anyone who is not a current Twilight fan, and it may even lose a few of Meyer’s followers along the way. Bad effects, laughable line-delivery, underdeveloped characters, an incomplete story, and an absence of any real affection for the material leave much to be desired.
On the Side: Team Jacob.