So many summer blockbusters pander to their audience in the most excessive way that it is quite a relief to note that THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE is something of a formal experiment – a sort of Anti-Summer Movie. While films like JONAH HEX and PRINCE OF PERSIA work overtime to give the audience what it wants (layer upon layer of more action, more stunts, more special effects, etc.), the makers of the latest TWILIGHT flick rest serene and calm – confident that their audience will take what it wants from the film, whether or not there is anything much up on the screen. Consequently, the filmmakers evince a deliberate, delicious joy in not delivering anything that is expected; they truly push the envelope to an almost unprecedented extreme in terms of filling up two hours of screen time with almost nothing of substance – and do it without alienating the fans. The lesson seems to be that, once viewers are invested in a franchise, they will remain faithful, regardless of weak performances, simple story telling, and bad dialogue. The only job for the cast and crew is to stay out of the way and keep as quiet as possible, for fear that any hint of creativity or cinematic imagination might break the spell that blinds viewers to the filmic flaws.
As a result, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE turns out to be a sort of cinematic non-event, one that feels like a deliberate attempt to drain, vampire-like, every ounce of life out of the events unreeling on screen. The story contains hints of horror, romance, and passion, but actual horror might scare away the target audience, and actual romance or passion might rile the parents who let their kids watch this stuff.
Instead, director David Slade, working from a script by Melissa Rosenberg, adapted from Stephenie Meyer’s book, adopts a sort of dead neutral tone that seems to say, “I don’t really need to be here, but somebody had to shoot this thing.” I can’t say for certain whether Slade harbors contempt for THE TWILIGHT SAGA’s wishy-washy teen-romance approach to vampirism (this is, after all the director of the R-rated 30 DAYS OF NIGHT), but I vaguely suspect he is playing with us in a subtle sort of way. Whereas, in years past, a director like Ken Russell would have taken a campy approach to the material (which is truly rife to be sent up in just such a way), Slade presents it with a sort of bored indifference: “Here it is: take it or leave” – knowing full well that avid readers will take it and like it, no matter what.
Thus, we get a film that treads water almost from beginning to end, rather like old-fashioned soap operas that sought to extend story lines as much as possible instead of resolving them with satisfying dramatic developments. As the opening title fades, we have vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) wanting to marry Bella (Kristen Stewart), who loves him but is ambivalent about her feelings for Jacob, the werewolf-rival for her affections (played by Taylor Lautner). And guess what? After much talking, posturing, hair pulling, and teen angst, that is pretty much where we end up when the final credits role.
So what happens in the meantime?
The vampire Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) is still mad over the death of her lame loser boyfriend, a predatory vampire who was dispatched by the Cullen clan back in the first film. In case the Cullens have forgotten that she is targeting Bella (she wants Edward to feel the pain of loss that she feels), Victoria runs through the woods on the borderline between the vampire and werewolf territory, catching the attention of both sides. Then she disappears for a long time, leaving room for Bella and Edward to do their kissy-face stuff that passes for eternal love.
At least Pattinson avoids the “I’m going to hurl” expression from the first movie, and Stewart is less slack-jawed here. Though prettified to look like runner-up for a role in a makeup commercial, there is still nothing particularly noteworthy about Bella that would account for the flames of desire she ignites in Edward and Jacob. But that’s probably part of the narrative strategy: any hint of individuality would make it harder for teen girls in the audience to easily identify with her; better to keep Bella a blank slate.
In case all of this high school romance stuff has you nodding off, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE occasionally cuts to Seattle, Washington, where a group of “Newborns” – i.e., young vampires – are going on a killing spree and recruiting new members. We see just enough of this to know it’s happening but not enough to care. Which seems to be the reaction of the on screen characters. Although we see newscasts about the events, it’s not as if we see the police doing anything. And the immortal vampire overlords the Volturi show up just long enough to sniff in indifference, looking like a handful of kids trying to imitate their older siblings who happen to be in a Goth band.
Aware of what’s happening in nearby Seattle, the Cullens go full-retard (and everyone knows you don’t go full-retard), wondering out loud about who could be orchestrating the Newborns – but somehow never quite settle on the obvious suspect, who does indeed turn out to be the culprit for the obvious reason that anyone in the audience could have guessed (even one like me who is not steeped in the story and could barely remember the details of the first film).
Thankfully, the Newborn army finally shows up, and the Cullen clan teams up with their werewolf rivals to defeat the intruders – which I guess is some kind of metaphor for cooperation in the face of a common enemy. Kind of like LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. Except instead of Orcs, we get computer-generated wolves, the size of grizzly bears. They are not at all convincing, but they are kind of cute, and I would certainly get one as a pet if I could.
There are a few stray moments of accidental entertainment that seep in, including speech by the class valedictorian, who cleverly (though unintentionally) comments on Bella’s situation, vis-a-vis making immediate, binding decisions that last a lifetime versus giving oneself time to live, learn, and make mistakes now that high school is over.
Even better is a brief moment that only sharp-eyed Goth-rock fans will notice. As a sort of hint that he has a vestigial sense of what’s hip, director Slade gives a cameo to former Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy (he of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”) – here portraying the Cold One, a European vampire, seen in flashback, who is the first to encounter Native American werewolves in the New World, igniting the lupine-vampire culture clash that underlies the Edward-Bella-Jacob love triangle. In a film teeming with young actors posing like vampires, and looking only like bad runners-up at a high school costume contest, it’s nice to see one Creature of the Night who strikes a note of authenticity. (And it really does leave you wondering why nobody put Murphy in an Anne Rice-based movie.)
Other than that, there is not much worth saying about THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE. Not that critics haven’t tried. In an amusingly strained attempt, NPR’s Bob Mondello tries to wrangle a geo-politcal metaphor out of Bella’s statement that “I’m Switzerland” (in reference to her refusal to take sides in the Edward-Jacob face-off). In Mondello’s reading, prissy vampire Edward is the decadent European, unable to fend off the approaching invader without the aid of the robust American Jacob.
Mondello offers his interpretation as an alternate to more standard reading of the TWILIGHT saga, which sees the vampires and werewolves as rival high school gangs. It’s a fun take, but Mondello doesn’t take it the next logical step: THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE is not either-or; it’s both. It’s about taking high school emotions on subjects like love and rivalry – which feel as big and as powerful as WWII – and presenting them unfiltered, without any parental finger-wagging, in a way that teen viewers identify with, because these emotions resonate with the frustrations in their own lives.
It’s life and death, love and honor, reduced to terms that are easy to access and so simple that they could fit into a Bush-era War on Terror speech. And like good ol’ George W., the makers of THE TWILIGHT SAGE: ECLIPSE are smart enough not to confuse their audience with anything subtle that might challenge their acceptance of the simple formula.
Therein, I suspect, lies the true secret of this franchise’s success.
THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE (June 30, 2010). Directed by David Slade. Screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg, based on the novel Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer. Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Billy Burke, Jackson Rathbone, Ashley Greene, Petr Facinelli, Bryce Dallas Howard