Yes, I drew the short straw. It was hardly a nubbin. Up front, I’ll just say that this review is spoiler laden, because let’s face it, you already know what’s going to happen because you’ve read the novels, or you have not the slightest intention of actually seeing this movie. Or at the very least, you’re going to see it out of some sense of irony just for the entertainment of it. In any case, given those realities of this particular film, it makes more sense to speak in specifics rather than vagaries. They can’t be spoilers if no one can be spoiled.
I come to this film having not seen the previous three films, because I am not a masochist and I did not previously draw the short straw. If that makes your face pucker, then I might suggest you are reading the wrong review on the wrong website. I get that some commitment to journalistic integrity and quality might suggest picking up those three previous DVDs in advance of viewing this film, but then a basic commitment to artistic integrity and quality precludes the existence of this entire series, so we’ll just call it even.
The midnight showing was not nearly as crowded as one might have expected. The mall had twelve screens playing Breaking Dawn, but it seemed that each was only about half full. That’s still a lot of people for a midnight showing, but hardly the frenzied camping out mentality conveyed by local news. So my city gained a few points of respect in my opinion.
The crowd seemed to be almost exclusively twenty-something women and boyfriends dragged along for good measure. Scattered applause and shouts erupted as the title card showed after several hours of trailers, but nothing like the glorious roar that shook the walls when Star Wars was re-released back in the mid-nineties. The loudest crowd contribution was a guy yelling “I love you Jacob!” in the silence after the title card applause, though he was promptly punched in the arm by his female companion. While there were quite a few people tittering in excitement and uttering animalistic squeals at points in the film, for the most part these women were in the company of at least a half dozen others who seemed more bemused than anything. My impression was that rather than a rabid horde of Twihards, most of the viewers were there because it was something to do.
The film itself was interesting in a sort of academic sense. Adaptations generally change the plot and story around however the directors sees fit, usually making a story worse. But for certain particularly beloved books, change must be kept to a minimum, because rather than the readers composing some small percentage of the film audience, the readership represents a massive proportion of the audience. That can be a great thing when it comes to a franchise like Harry Potter, where the source material is damned good, and so that imposed source fealty acts as a form of quality control. But directors of the Twilight franchise are doubly screwed. They are working with atrocious source material in addition to a requirement that they more or less stay faithful to it. This makes the Twilight films a sadistically interesting set of films. They hire talented directors, give them perfectly respectable budgets, and then tell them they can’t fix any of the problems with the story. It’s like hiring a world class chef, giving him the finest kitchen and ingredients, and then requiring him to prepare a menu composed entirely of sewage. It’s Iron Chef: Septic Tank.
Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls) is the talented director who got saddled with the final two films of this series. What is fascinating in watching the film is how it can be simultaneously excellently made, while being a terrible film. There’s something almost admirable about watching a talented director try to bend horrible source material into something watchable. The end result is a film that is actually gorgeously shot, even while the plot makes no sense whatsoever. Ironically, the most idiotic parts of the story end up being the best parts of the film. Take for example the imprinting of Jacob on the infant Renesmee. It’s a bit of plot that is at face value bizarre at best, and disturbing at worst. But Condon manages to twist it into something beautiful on screen, a vision of watching the child grow and defending and helping her, emphasizing whatever she needs. It’s a weird event, but Condon has just enough room to play with it that he can convert it into something intriguing rather than just creepy.
But of course, there’s only so much Condon can do when he is faced with the broader structures of the plot. The bottom line is that there is no conflict in the film that couldn’t be solved by four seconds of conversation. Werewolves want to kill the fetus because they think it will be an evil abomination! Um, the vampires are fully aware of this, and plan to kill the thing if it ends up being a monster. So … we’re all on the same page? The problem of course is that they have to fight because the book says they do, and there’s just no way to salvage the idiocy of fundamental plot points that can’t be altered without bring down the entire edifice of the film.
A case in point is the first half of the film in which Bella and Edward get married and go off to a hidden island to get their freak on. There is no conflict here, there is no story, it is just going through the motions of the events in the book. Readers of the book want to see that wedding, and want to see the sexing, so they have to be checked off. There is no getting around the fact that nothing is happening in all these scenes.
There is also no getting around the fact that Bella and Edward are not characters but blank slates. Their honeymoon consists of hiking and playing chess. They do not talk except about their drama. They have no interests, they have no future, they have no dreams. Fans have repeatedly emphasized that these blank slates are what is appealing about the characters, that they can map themselves onto the characters. But only being able to empathize with characters devoid of anything that might distinguish them as individuals is terribly emotionally immature. Empathy is the ability to empathize with those who are different, requiring them to be blank slates so that you don’t have to empathize with any degree of difference is just the softer side of sociopathy.
And here is where Condon most has his hands tied. He cannot add characterization, he cannot do anything to directly make Edward and Bella interesting characters. But what he can do is indirectly add emotional complexity to give some semblance of a third dimension. Rather than shooting the interactions between Edward and Bella straight up from the script, he shoots them as if they are both shy and nervous eighteen year old virgins. He takes the essentially castrated vampire element out of the equation and plays it more as a couple of naive kids who can’t quite figure out if their terror of sex outweighs their eagerness.
He is able to strip out some of the weird chauvinism of the novels, the brutality of the sex between Edward and Bella, and channel the tone into something not quite innocuous but at least mapping onto different metaphors. The oft-quoted criticism of the novels that this series for young girls features a male lead who terribly injures his lover, who then apologizes profusely on his behalf, is quite fair as being completely unacceptable. But Condon is at least able to soften this by focusing on Edward’s reluctance to have sex at all, in his abject terror at hurting Bella in the least. Whatever the back-story of the character says, Condon shoots these scenes, and Robert Pattinson acts in these scenes, as a naive kid who is terrified that whatever he does is going to hurt the girl he loves. And as disturbing as the subtext is in the novels, Condon does an excellent job of editing the subtext even if he’s not allowed to touch the text in any meaningful way.
Dracula and the nineteenth century resurgence of the vampire myth in the western world were invariably intertwined at least in the subconscious with the tension of Victorian moralistic repression and the simple desire for sex. Vampirism as a sexually transmitted disease was the deeper metaphor that rang in reader’s mind. Twilight has tapped into some strange similar vein, but with the messages mixed up. Sex is terrifying because it will hurt, pregnancy is terrifying because it will hurt. This story manages to out repress Victorian repression even in the midst of the archetypical myth the Victorian age generated to deal with that repression. That’s an achievement of sorts, as depressingly regressive as it is.
The long and short of it is that this is a terrible movie on its own merits. Yet it is also a supremely fascinating film on a meta level. Bill Condon deserves a Best Director award of some sort for this, sort of in the way that Peyton Manning deserves the MVP this year from the bench. The film might not be any good, but the way that Condon subtly tweaked anything that he actually had creative control over made for an impressive effort at the least.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.