In this line of work, there often comes a time when the ability to be objective comes in handy. When it feels great to throw away prejudgments and biases and give a movie a chance, no matter how bad its bloodline may be. Such is the case with The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. There’s bad blood in this family — really bad blood — in the form of two films that were poorly constructed and shoddily executed on just about every level. But like any interesting rebellious child, Eclipse breaks the mold at the hands of a craftsman. It becomes something new — something oddly watchable, at times enjoyable and surprisingly unlike what has come before.That’s not to say that it’s any good, just that it’s much better. The characters are terribly realized by (mostly) inept actors and the baffling poor writing of Stephenie Meyer has somehow channeled its way through a much better writer (Melissa Rosenberg) and made its way to screen. But for a moment — in fact, several moments — director David Slade makes us believe that Twilight can shine. That it has a place among the long line of great stories told about vampires and werewolves, a long line of bloody and beautiful tales of eternal life, unrequited love and basic human instincts. For a moment, it’s like it belongs. But the thought it fleeting.
The story is something you should know by now, Twihard or not. There’s a girl, Bella (Kristen Stewart), caught in one of nature’s oldest predicaments: the love triangle. On one side stands Edward (Robert Pattinson), the cold and stoic man of no age who thirsts endlessly for blood and ways to almost get the love of his life killed. On the other is Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the loyal pup, full of rage and instinct and packed full of oft exposed muscle. What is a girl to do? Perhaps she could sit around and think about what she wants to do with her life long enough to ignite a full-on vampire war. That sounds about par for the course with Bella, one of cinema’s stupidest characters to date. She’s made up her mind and she’s keeping her vampire, and that’s going to cause all sorts of hell to break loose.
Luckily, when all hell does break loose David Slade is there to capture it intimately and with a precision that is yet unseen in this devil’s trilogy. In the opening scene Slade casually strolls the Twilight audience into a different dimension, one where danger actually lurks. And vampires are actually terrifying. It’s refreshing to see real danger and real moments of terror, even if we know that moments later we’ll be whisked away to the top of a mountain where a silly girl and her 100-year old beau are playing the age-old game of “No, I Love You More.” For that moment, we’re reminded that vampires are fast, they lurk in the dark and they want to kill anything with a heartbeat. Thankfully, it’s not the last time that Slade will remind us that there can be some ferocity in this franchise.
In between those moment of ferocity, Slade appears to wage his own behind the scenes battle. The one that pits filmmaker against the insurmountable odds of taming a cast that has seemingly no interest in being on screen. To their credit, the likes of Billy Burke and Peter Facinelli give it their best shot. In fact, Burke is easily spotted as one of the few natural actors of the bunch. He’s charismatic and charming as Bella’s dad, again stealing every moment they have together. Even Bryce Dallas Howard has some fire in her limited screen time as the mysterious and dangerous (and always changing) Victoria. She isn’t much of a formidable villain in this story. But then again, the real villain here is the writing. To survive through all of the brooding and bad dialogue alone should make everyone involved in this franchise feel good at the end of the day.
Then there are the kids, the real victims of the bad source material. Taylor Lautner again displays the fact that he’s the most properly cast of the three. He embraces the rage and overblown attitude of dogboy Jacob, and in several of the film’s most real moments, he sells us on Jacob’s love for Bella. Why she doesn’t go with this shirtless wonder with a shred of acting talent is beyond me. Again, the source material isn’t very strong.
Robert Pattinson stretches his personality a bit in Eclipse, even going so far as to be intense in the film’s climactic moments, but it’s too little, too late. Pattinson is not a dashing hero, not a tortured romantic. He’s not much beyond a slab of concrete with a magnetic effect on Bella. And it makes her decisions more implausible by the moment. What makes it even worse is the astounding lack of chemistry between Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. I hadn’t noticed it until this film, but they are clearly uncomfortable together, especially in those most intimate moments. And at every other moment, Stewart is discontented and withdrawn. Translation: her stock performance.
Perhaps it’s amplified by Slade’s ability to create intimacy with the audience. His camera is often tight, the focus soft. And all at once, the audience is drawn into the moment. For those die hard Twilight fans who could give two shits about what I think, this will be something special. They are about to feel what they perceive to be a wonderful and touching series of moments between to lovers. It’s all an illusion. A very good director making stylistic decisions that cover up for poor character development that happened years before he took the job.
And there is the action. Fast, clean and fluid action. In fact, when no “acting” is taking place, David Slade really shines. Whether it’s vampires fighting vampires, wolves fighting vampires or heck, even vampires running through the woods, it’s more interesting than it’s ever been in this series. It has a lot to do with that intimacy that I mentioned previously. In the first two films, vampires running and sparkling through the woods looked cheap and cheesy. Why? Because everything was shot from a perspective of being twenty feet away. Slade brings the camera in tight and with it comes the audience. We see flashes of vampires passing, the pounding of feet against the dirt and in one or two spectacular — yes, I said spectacular — shots, we get some really violent stuff. It’s intense and effective. It allows the audience to feel the speed, to be surrounded by the crunching of bones and earth. It’s the closest that Twilight will ever get to being an experience.
Experience or not, action or no action, Eclipse still can’t break free from what it is. Sure, it’s not quite as angsty as expected, but it’s still sporting that moodiness with pride. If this were the first film in the series, free of the baggage, I might be inclined to call it a good film. Worth the time of anyone, not just those who loved the books. But the baggage is there, like it or not. And Eclipse is nothing more than a sturdy panel in an already chinked to hell suit of armor. We know this because of the signs. Every moment of action or terror is preceded and followed by a reminder of what makes these movies nearly unbearable. Bella and Edward must brood, endlessly. The big climactic fight must start with a shot of the Cullen family, cut fresh from a pale Abercrombie and Fitch catalog, and Twilight must serve its audience. Without the excruciating love triangle and the idiotic (and mostly unreal) decisions of its central characters, there is no Twilight. There’s no way that it can be anything else. But for a moment, David Slade had me believing.
The Upside: The action is fast and cinematic, with David Slade connecting his audience intimately to the story and its characters. It is unavoidably a more precise technical film than its two predecessors.
The Downside: The characters are still hollow, their brooding lives on and the story is both nonsensical and achingly simple all at once.
On the Side: I have (not so proudly) reviewed all three of the Twilight films now. If you are so inclined, feel free to read my reviews of Twilight and Twilight: New Moon. Spoiler: Eclipse is the best reviewed of the three.