Thursday, February 17, 2011

Eclipse (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) (Summit Entertainment, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched a movie that had been in my backlog for a while: Eclipse, third film in the so-called “Twilight Saga” of vampires and werewolves at war in the Pacific Northwest and in particular Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), normal human beloved of both boy vampire Edward Cullen (Richard Pattinson) and werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). This episode, scripted by Melissa Rosenberg from Stephenie Meyer’s source novel, has a tighter, more structured plot than the predecessor, New Moon — this one stays in Washington state, moving only between the small town of Forks where Bella lives with her divorced father, local police chief Charlie Swan (Billy Burke) and Seattle, with a brief sequence in Florida when Bella goes there to visit her mother and takes Edward with her; New Moon’s plot took us to Italy and introduced us to the Volturi, a sort of vampires’ Vatican that provides overall governance and leadership for the cult — but it’s also not as good a movie.

Part of the problem is a change in director; apparently Chris Weitz thought that post-production on New Moon was taking so long he didn’t feel he could do justice to Eclipse on the one-a-year schedule the producing company, Summit Entertainment, was demanding, so he relinquished the reins to one David Slade, a former music-video director who’d made only two previous features — so the marvelously classical 1940’s Hollywood style in which Weitz shot New Moon was replaced this time with something more frantic, more typical of the modern-day youth-movie blockbuster, with faster action, quicker cutting and an overall sense of speed that worked well enough in the big action scenes but took some of the edge away from the doomed romanticism that has been the series’ strong point throughout. Even the alternative-rock songs, which in New Moon has been used brilliantly — not stuck into the soundtrack to provide “names” to sell a CD but carefully selected to heighten and express the emotional moods of the scenes in which they were heard — seemed more arbitrarily inserted this time, though I still give the series credit for using this more sophisticated form of contemporary pop music (and by acts who, aside from Beck, really aren’t major “names”) instead of slapping a bunch of highly salable pop artists on the soundtrack.

Eclipse actually seemed to get better reviews than New Moon from the critics — whoever does the “underrated/overrated” column in the Los Angeles Times hailed it as an improvement over New Moon and the Eclipse DVD has a cover blurb from Entertainment Weekly calling it “the best ‘Twilight’ movie so far!” — mainly because it is a better constructed plot with an exciting action climax. The story centers around Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), one of the evil vampires from the first Twilight (remember that in Stephenie Meyer’s vampire mythos bad vampires kill human beings and drink their blood, while good vampires feed only on animals — which in the first movie Richard Pattinson’s character, in a nice bit of dry wit, compared to humans living exclusively on tofu: it would keep you alive but it wouldn’t be very tasty), whose lover James was killed in that film’s big action climax. (In the first Twilight Victoria was played by Rachelle Lefevre and James by Cam Gigaudet, who frankly did more for me aesthetically than Richard Pattinson did.)

Victoria has hatched a revenge plot which involves going to Seattle and putting the bite on as many people as she can, thereby turning them into “newborns” — Meyer’s argot for the newly vampirized, who according to a bit of exposition we get (again from Richard Pattinson) in Eclipse, are the most ferocious of all vampires, the ones with the literal blood-lust most blatantly upon them and the most insatiable about them. The “newborns” launch a pattern of random and indiscriminate murder in Seattle, baffling the cops, who attribute it either to a very active serial killer or some sort of ritual cult (the allusions to the real “Green River killer” who terrorized Seattle for years are probably deliberate), and in the end the good vampires —the Cullen clan ¬— and the werewolf pack led by Taylor Lautner’s character have to join forces in an uneasy alliance (since, remember, the werewolves — associated with Native Americans for some reason — are the sworn enemies of all vampires, and we learned in New Moon that if Pattinson’s character Edward puts the bite on Bella and vampirizes her, even if she wanted him to, that would break the truce and the werewolves would be forced to go after the Cullen clan and exterminate them) to beat back Victoria and her vampire crew.

The man-to-wolf transformations of Jacob and the other Native American werewolves are well done, though not quite with the élan of the similar sequences in the Underworld movies (as I wrote about the first Underworld, in the days of digital effects “we’ve gone a long way since the days when John Fulton had to wait patiently for his double-exposure shots while Jack P. Pierce progressively plastered more and more of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s body with yak wool!”), and the wolves look utterly convincing except for the lack of genitalia (enforced by the ratings board, according to an interview Lautner gave to Jimmy Kimmel — so the days of the stupidities enforced on movies by the old Production Code are not entirely gone!) — but to me the film is still strongest in its quieter moments, and particularly in its dramatization of Bella’s dilemma and her choice between Edward and Jacob.

What I think has made the Twilight stories so popular both as novels and as films is the fact that for all the supernatural and horror-film mythical trappings, at base they’re just the story of an adolescent girl blossoming into womanhood and confronted with a choice between two boyfriends: the romantic but neurasthenic nerd who’s pale-skinned and stays out of the big battle, and the butch, muscular guy who not only fights in the battle but gets seriously wounded at the end of it. (Between Twilight and New Moon Lautner went on a bodybuilding course because he was worried he’d be replaced in the role of Jacob if he didn’t bulk up and become as genuinely muscular as the character was supposed to be — and in this episode director Slade gives us plenty of shots of his ripped chest, standing out even among his brethren in the wolf pack, who also get a lot of shirtless shots when they’re in human form.)

This bouncing back and forth between the macho “type” as the acme of male sexiness as presented on screen (Clark Gable, John Wayne, Steve McQueen) and the androgyne (which began as a screen “type” with Valentino and has continued up through Leonardo DiCaprio — who, come to think of it, would probably have been as “right” for a Valentino biopic as he was wrong, at least physically, for one about Howard Hughes!) has been going on virtually throughout the history of movies, and what makes Eclipse work as drama (as well as action) even though it’s hardly as wrenching emotionally as New Moon (and it pretty much ends in the same place, with Edward and Bella at odds because Bella wants him to vampirize her, and he’ll only do so if she’ll marry him — and he’s sufficiently “old-school,” reflecting his real age rather than his appearance, that he doesn’t want to have sex with her until they’re married, either) is the way the filmmakers have been able to portray Bella’s well-worn dilemma as if it were fresh and new.