Eclipsing the Rest of the Series ... Barely
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Give it up for David Slade. The director of "Hard Candy" and "30 Days of Night," a rock 'em-sock 'em vampire movie with extremely sharp teeth and buckets of blood, has managed to reanimate the "Twilight" franchise -- sort of. The third chapter in Bella Swan's via dolorosa is still pretty much of a drag for anyone not affiliated with Teams Edward and Jacob, but it certainly eclipses the dead-on-arrival dud that was "New Moon."
Because Slade sees cinematically, he's able now and then to pull his eyes away from breathless, close-up contemplation of Broody (Robert Pattinson), Shirtless (Tayler Lautner) and Our Lady of Perpetual Mope (Kristen Stewart). The world is larger than this, he nudges, elevating his camera to a god's-eye vision of the Pacific Northwest. The movie even leaves soggy Forks for Rain City, opening hot and heavy in the noirish streets of Seattle, where something unseen but lethal dive-bombs a hapless young chap to death. Shock cut to an idyllic meadow, aglow with flowers and sunlight, where, in between soul kisses, Bella agrees to marry her 109-year-old beau, as long as he promises to "change" her.
Slade works that contrast throughout, visually and viscerally: Bella spends most of the film watching and listening, weighing the dark side of vampire life (oxymoron, I know) with ... well, its sparkly-faced aspect. While the boys babble on about whom she loves most, the object of their desire is mulling.
Bella learns the cautionary tales of the "making" of Cullen kids Rosalie (Nikki Reed) and Jasper (Jackson Rathbone), how love led both of them into pain and betrayal. These flashbacks give Slade another opportunity to pipe some "fresh air" into "Twilight"'s claustrophobic environs. In powerful close-up, Rosalie revisits the 1930s, when she was young and innocent, happily promenading arm-in-arm with her handsome husband-to-be. Sunny bliss is eclipsed by night, gang-rape and the "dark gift" with which the Cullen patriarch (Peter Facinelli) rescued Rosalie. Can't Bella see what she will lose -- husband, children, the movement of time -- if she makes the wrong choice?
A Civil War hero, gallant Jasper encountered three lovely belles abroad in the sweet Southern dusk. One turned him into a vampire and brutal lieutenant in her army of "newborns." His salvation came in the form of Alice (Ashley Greene), Bella's BFF, but that old story -- vampire life as abattoir -- is about to be reprised. Red-maned Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) is back, using a besotted boy-toy (Australian import Xavier Samuel) to recruit Seattle street kids for a war of vengeance against Edward and the Cullen clan, with the soulless Volturi pulling all the strings. (Yes, red-eyed Dakota Fanning's back.)
These vampire parables read like variations on Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci": Bella, half in love with easeful death, must wonder whether signing on with Team Undead might leave her "alone, and palely loitering" like the knight seduced by the poet's sexy lady vampire.
Even Jacob's eternally naked chest (for once Edward cracks wise: "Doesn't he own a shirt?") isn't just for show; rather, it's a show with a point. Every time Bella is confronted with wolfboy's golden fur or glowing flesh -- a veritable ambulatory space heater -- she's forced to reconsider freezer life. Let's face it, for all Edward's Byronic charm, he's still an ice-cold corpse. (Gotta love it when Bella quotes Robert Frost's apocalyptic poem "Fire and Ice.") Holed up in a tent on a cold, snowy mountain, it's Jacob whose body warms shivering Bella while the porcelain-pale Edward, looking on, winces at a funny but fanged dis from his on- and offscreen rival: "I am hotter than you."
And yet heat, even more than sex, is what "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" crucially lacks: the tactile sensuality distilled from the juxtaposition of death and beauty and lust that fuels vampire movies with real bite. Titillation rising from repression eventually turns toxic, a turn-on for puritans and Victorians or maybe a generation of arrested adolescents, raised by neutered dads and androgynous moms, gorged on popcult exhibitions of explicit sex.
Leave Bella to her Peter Pan, but don't expect anyone with a taste for pulse-elevating vampire eroticism to get off on these damp "Twilight" teases. Not when one can warm up to Frank Langella's taboo-busting "Dracula," our first glimpse of the molten-eyed devil a close-up of his long fingers trailing lasciviously through rich lupine fur; or shape-shifter Gary Oldman in "Bram Stoker's Dracula," arched backward in blind ecstasy as his consort sucks the transformative blood from his chest; or "Near Dark"'s moist-eyed Lolita, her tongue suggestively stroking ice cream before she samples her teen lover's blood; or this very week on "True Blood," Tara's eyelashes quivering, during vampire ravishment, like hummingbird wings.
Not for nothing did Shakespeare and his contemporaries call intercourse the little death; that's the dark heart of the vampire's crimson kiss, his rosy crucifixion. This enduring myth takes us back to a universal, infantile dream of consuming or being totally consumed by the Other, through a transgressive combo of nursing and sex, and thereby dying into wholeness.
But in Stephenie Meyer's hands, the rich tradition of vampire fiction is robbed of mystery and disruptive power, euphemized into waxworks for solipsistic children given to nonstop staring and sulking and pouting and mushy romance-novel litanies of "you love me -- no, I love him -- but you shouldn't love me."
There's room for complaint about the climactic action sequence in "Eclipse": wolves and vamps locked in battle so summarily edited, its combatants so undifferentiated that the scene plays as perfunctory smear rather than decisive rout. And, as in "New Moon," despite a bigger budget and more masters of CGI, Jacob's pack looks superimposed on every landscape, their paws never quite touching ground. (Somebody should have checked out the heart-stopping real thing on "True Blood.")
But let all that pass. In the end, what drains this movie of authentic emotional impact is the absence of any appetite, sexual or otherwise. Existential drear trumps every extreme -- crimson blood, dark of night and brightest day. Forget the hot thrill of sinking one's teeth into ripe, forbidden fictions: "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" nibbles on teeny-weeny passions, wet kisses and damp embraces.
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.