(by Dustin Putman
Watching the worldwide sensations that have come of Stephenie Meyer's four-part book series and its first two screen adaptations, 2008's "Twilight" and 2009's "New Moon," have made for a thoroughly confounding, even worrisome, experience. The fanbase is largely female—tweens, teens, their mothers, and even grandmas—and yet, the messages the story sends out are offensively old-fashioned and squarely anti-feminist in nature, wrong-headedly following a high school girl who is willing to give up everything—her family, her friends, her education, her hopes and aspirations for the future—so she can marry, become immortal, and ultimately have sex with the dreamy, pasty-faced vampire she is in lust with. She's also supposed to be in love, too, but the inaugural two pictures did not succeed at displaying this. What happens a few years down the line when their carnal passions cool and they actually have to connect to each other on a deeper level for the rest of eternity? The mind boggles. You see, 18-year-old Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and 109-year-old Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) have nothing in common and share no detectable interests outside of the wholly physical; worse still, when they are together, they both speak to each other in melodramatic phrases and metaphors while looking absolutely miserable, even pained, to be around each other. Bella is an awfully horny young lady, and Edward comes off as needlessly territorial and possessive. Does this sound like a promising start to a relationship worth selfishly sacrificing all else for? For millions of impressionable girls, it must, and that thought is scarier than anything else previously found in "Twilight" and "New Moon." Article continues below
In tackling "Eclipse," the third entry in the franchise, screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg has returned while a new director—in this case, David Slade (2006's "Hard Candy"), a man who once defiantly stated in an interview that he would never dream of directing a film in the "Twilight" saga—has come aboard to replace previous helmers Catherine Hardwicke and Chris Weitz. As it almost unbelievably turns out, a lot of the wrongs of the previous entries have been corrected this time. Dialogue rises above the level of a Harlequin romance and doesn't get nearly as many bad laughs. Edward is given several opportunities to smile and show a personality. He and Bella finally share actual conversations of substance that suggest there might be more going on between them than just randiness. There is a newfound thoughtfulness verging on genuine pathos to go along with Bella's impending life-altering—okay, let's face it, life-taking—decision. She's still terribly selfish, stubborn and narrow-minded for a leading heroine, hastily prepared to jump into a situation she is destined to regret, but at least those that know of her plans are telling her just as much. That their warnings go in one ear and out the other makes "Eclipse" more a tragedy than a love story.
With her senior year drawing to a close, Bella stands on the precipice of all that is to become of the next phase of her life. Adamant that she wants to become a vampire so that she can be with Edward—and required to, anyway, based on a previous promise she made to the demonic Volturi clan—Bella finds herself nonetheless torn by the dissenting opinions of others and her loving friendship with half-man/half-werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), who holds onto hope that she will eventually come around to him. When nearby Seattle is struck by a wave of mysterious killings and a burgeoning army of extra-powerful newborn vampires rise in their aftermath, it is clear that revenge-seeking Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) is behind it all. With Bella in imminent danger, the peaceful Cullen family and Jacob's wolf pack must choose to put their own feuds aside for the time being in order to protect her.
"Eclipse" features a stunningly strong first hour that managed the near-impossible: it put my severe hang-ups over the series' despicably wayward value system to temporary rest. Bella's goal of running away from her life and becoming one of the undead so she can always be with Edward is as icky as ever, but at least this time around the film considers the potential consequences of her actions and imbues in those people around her some common sense that she herself does not appear to have. Jacob, who is destined to consistently come in second to Edward despite actually offering her the chance of a more regular existence that doesn't take her away from her family and loved ones, is irate over Bella's intention to "change," telling her, "Better you really be dead than one of them." Rosalie Cullen (Nikki Reed), Edward's vampiric sister, urges Bella to reconsider (in flashback, we see that she did not have such a choice in the matter). At graduation, Jessica (Anna Kendrick) delivers a valedictory speech about the importance of trying things out at a young age before jumping into anything permanent that should hit home for Bella, but doesn't quite make it through her brain synapse. Even Edward spends much of his time trying to talk her out of it. When Bella visits her mother (Sarah Clarke) for the weekend and gets a taste at the enormity of all she is about to give up, the quiet mournfulness read across Bella's face is touching.
For all that "Eclipse" gets right—in addition to the welcome ruminative tone married to the central conflict, the Cullen family are fleshed out much better than they have been in the past—there are still drawbacks to be had. All of the material involving Victoria, the Seattle crimes, and the rise of the "Newborns" feels like anticlimactic filler that leads nowhere. The same could be said of the Volturi, who show up for two scenes, fail to seem threatening, and promptly exit with, again, no bearing on the end result. These things are cause for a climactic showdown—and the effect of vampire's dying via cracking like petrified porcelain is pretty neat—but by and large the action is an afterthought. Additionally, the film's second half becomes longwinded and repetitive as Bella is faced with vying suitors. A segment set in the snowy peaks of Washington State but looking more like a soundstage posing as Mt. Kilimanjaro particularly goes on past its expiration date.
Kristen Stewart (2010's "The Runaways"), Robert Pattinson (2010's "Remember Me"), and Taylor Lautner (2010's "Valentine's Day") are by now fully comfortable with their roles as Bella, Edward, and Jacob. With less howlers to recite, there are fewer chances to embarrass themselves. Meanwhile, Bella pleads her case for why she should become a vampire, Edward's white face make-up doesn't appear as overpowering, and Jacob pulls off myriad poses with his shirt off and abs rippling. In supporting turns, Nikki Reed (2003's "Thirteen") comes into her own as Rosalie, finally more than just a face in the background, and Billy Burke (2007's "Feast of Love") has some tender moments with Bella as her father, unaware that he is about to lose his girl forever. Meanwhile, Bryce Dallas Howard (2009's "Terminator Salvation"), taking over the part of Victoria from Rachelle LaFevre, is sorely underutilized, and so is Dakota Fanning (2009's "Push") as Volturi member Jane.
Darker, grittier, and a tad more thought-provoking than the previous installments, "Eclipse" is certainly tops among the first three even as, storywise, the characters are more or less in the same place by the end that they were in the beginning. As Edward and Bella lay in an idyllic meadow and set their wedding date—also the night Bella will bid farewell to her mortal life—the target audience around me swooned, their hearts all excitedly aflutter. For this viewer, however, that concluding scene was bereft of romance and thick with a pall of sadness and doom. Bella is about to strip herself of her innocence and her chance at an honest and fulfilling future, and she's going at it with both feet moving forward. She couldn't be more wrong in her decision if she tried. It's a real shame, and one gets a sense that director David Slade and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg know this even if their target audience is too drunk on the sight of hot guys for it to register.