Saturday, August 7, 2010

You Might Say It "Eclipses" the Other Movies

From the very first scene, Eclipse feels less like a scam than the last two Twilight movies. New Moon, in particular, seemed like a movie-shaped placeholder – a $50 millon "OUT TO LUNCH. BE BACK IN JUNE." sign from the producers. While Twilight, the original, managed to succeed as entertainment, it wasn't because of any brilliance on the filmmakers' part – the movie felt as if someone had dropped their latte on the keyboard in the editing room and, by providence, all of its ill-conceived pieces congealed into something idiosyncratic but enjoyable.

Eclipse is an entirely different experience. David Slade delivers assured work – a movie with purpose and a shred of personality. It doesn't cover much new ground – Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga is still a pamphlet fluffed into a phonebook – but this is actually a strength. Newcomers really have no need to look back at the previous films. They can infer anything consequential that happened prior to this story, and will altogether avoid the narrative water treading of the previous films.

I dumped on the screenwriter, Melissa Rosenberg, in my New Moon review. She has been one of the glaring weaknesses in each Twilight film, but she returns once again for Eclipse. It's hard to say that she's learned from her mistakes here. Instead, she's become better at sliding them under the rug. Eclipse has more of a structure than the first two films, but no one's going to be awed by this writing. Plot lines still appear and disappear with an incoherence typical of mediocre book-to-movie adaptations, but this time Rosenberg at least picks a few threads to string consistently through the film.

A group of young vampires is travelling throughout the Northwest, brutally attacking anything in its path. This insatiable hunger for violence is typical of new vampires, but this level of organization is not. Both Edward's family and the local Quileute tribe are concerned by these events and must consider taking action against the gang. This inevitable battle guarantees that the film will have a climax – something I appreciated coming from a movie for which I had such low expectations. This plot line also has some relevance for Bella (Kristen Stewart). She's resolute in her choice of Edward (Robert Pattinson) over Jacob (Taylor Lautner), so she spends most of her time mulling over her impending entrance into the ranks of vampires. These attacks serve as a reminder of what she's bound to experience once she takes the plunge.

Otherwise, Edward and Bella still struggle with the complications of human-vampire romance, Jacob still refuses to accept Bella's decision to marry Edward, her relationship with her father is still strained, and the vampires still have a tense relationship with Jacob's tribe. None of these plot lines are turned on their head in this film, but they are approached from fresh angles and with new levels of filmmaking competence, ensuring that they are moderately engaging. (Hell, the existence of sex is even acknowledged!) Other threads are dead on arrival. Jacob repeatedly mentions a love triangle among three of his friends. We have no idea who these people are; we only know that this is a heavy-handed parallel to Jacob, Bella and Edward's predicament. I'm not sure how we were supposed to gain greater understanding about the protagonists' love triangle by hearing about an identical one. There is also some chatter about a kid from Bella's town who may have been taken by the gang, but this personal connection never gains any significance.

Thankfully, while Rosenberg only improves marginally, the director executing her script has been significantly upgraded. The film opens on Bella and Edward sitting in a field of flowers for the umpteenth time and, instantly, the difference is obvious: The actors are acting. For the first time, the two have chemistry. They are joking in ways that are funny. They are flirting in ways that are romantic. They are fretting in ways that are involving. If one ever needs an example of how vital a director is in ensuring actors do their jobs well, compare Eclipse and New Moon. The difference is night and day.

In fact, there is not a single terrible performance in this movie – something I never thought I'd be able to say in reference to Twilight. Now, there are no Oscars in these actors' immediate futures, but even the cast's weak link (Lautner) seems considerably more comfortable in his role than he has in the past. Perhaps most notable, however, is Stewart's newfound ability to get through a sentence without pausing. In fact, she has shed much of her idiosyncratic behavior, and that goes a long way toward making Bella relatable.

A speech of hers near the end of the movie also helps a great deal. I wish I knew who was responsible for it (whether it be Meyer, Slade, Rosenberg or maybe even Stewart), so I could give praise where it is due. Bella finally stands up and explains that her motivations are not entirely derived from her romance with Edward; part of the reason she wants to become a vampire is that she simply never fit in as a human. She has spent two entire films being a horrendously submissive, impotent female lead who is defined entirely by the men in her life and now (better late than never) she finally asserts a bit of independence. Slade places a fair bit of importance on this moment, shrewdly realizing that it may just be the true climax of the film.

In fact, there are many reasons why David Slade will go down in history as the first director to make Twilight self-conscious. There was more than one scene in this film that made me want to scream "Thank you!" as aspects of the series that were always frustrating get rectified. I said that there are jokes here – not stumbles that are amusing, but real jokes. Jacob dryly sneers to Edward at one point, "I'm hotter than you." Taking a moment to show that these characters are not always serious humanizes them, and acknowledges that this movie is quite silly. He probably didn't write the joke, but Slade could have played that moment many different ways. He chose to let us laugh at the movie as much as we were laughing with it. Ironically, this sort of winking makes it far easier to take the movie seriously.

Slade is also the first director to do Twilight's action scenes justice. Fights are grisly and intense. They have a vital feeling of peril, too. There is no more prancing from tree to tree, growling at a distance. Slade never shies away from showing exactly how a vampire kills and how a vampire dies. In fact, this film pushes the PG-13 rating pretty hard, plainly depicting decapitation, dismemberment, impalement and other assorted forms of gore. An R rating is only avoided because of vampires' tendency shatter into glass-like pieces. It sounds absurd, but it's actually quite brutal. Depicting the battles' violence honestly drives home the point that Bella is about to give up her humanity in more ways than one.

Okay: Twilight's still no high art. Thanks to Slade, however, Eclipse's summer release is not a delusion; this is legitimate entertainment that stands up well against the stuff that the big studios are peddling this year, and it's a pleasantly surprising upgrade over its predecessor.

That is not to say that Twilight is guaranteed the consistent improvement of, say, the Harry Potter series. The next, final book in the series, Breaking Dawn, will be split into two movies and will be directed by Bill Condon, the guy brought us Dreamgirls. The closing moments of Eclipse do represent the first time that I have looked forward to more of this story, but I still do not see enough plot to justify two movies. Ditching Slade is an equally baffling decision, especially when its done in favor of a director who gained notoriety for his work on a musical. Do these producers want to make watchable movies, or are they too busy looking forward to their next lunch break?

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