Friday, January 6, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 (Summit Entertainment, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film we chose to go to last night was The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, the awkwardly titled fourth entry in the surprisingly interesting Twilight series (whose makers decided to copy the stratagem of the makers of the Harry Potter movies and split the last book in the cycle into two parts so they could get five mega-blockbuster hit films, and the profits therefrom, out of it instead of just four). Despite being three (Charles) and four (me) decades older than the target audience for these films, Charles and I had enjoyed the first three on DVD and thought it would be fun to see one on the big screen, with an audience (though not much of one: this is the sort of movie to which the fan base flocks in the first or second weekend and by the time it’s been out this long — the release date was November 18, 2011 — only a few stragglers are still paying their way in). It turned out to be a worthy series entry even though both it and the immediately preceding film, Eclipse, seem to me to have been comedowns from the marvelous New Moon (which I’ve loved above all the other Twilight movies so far largely because of the director, Christopher Weitz, who shot it in classic 1940’s style with long, slow takes and a lot of tracking shots that drew us into the story instead of shoving it into our faces with the kind of short shot lengths and quick cuts that are supposed to be de rigueur for a movie aimed at today’s teen audience; it also had by far the subtlest use of music of any of the films, deploying sophisticated alternative-rock songs and keying them to the emotions of the story rather than just including them to sell more copies of a soundtrack CD), and I was a bit disappointed in this given that the director was Bill Condon, who made two of the best movies of the last decade, Gods and Monsters and Dreamgirls, but seemed hamstrung by his material this time around. Breaking Dawn, Part 1 opens with preparations for the long-awaited wedding of normal human Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) to boy vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) — remember that the conceit of this series is that once you become a vampire, you stay forever at the physical age you were when you were “changed” even though you are literally immortal; also remember that Edward has previously explained to Bella that his morals are too old-school to have sex with her until they’re legally married by the laws of normal humanity.

The first half-hour of this 117-minute movie is pretty slow going — Edward explains to her that in his early days as a vampire (which happened to coincide with the original 1935 release of The Bride of Frankenstein, a film Condon had previously referenced in Gods and Monsters, which was about its director, James Whale) he actually killed humans before he joined the good-vampire cult and only fed on animals; Bella has a nightmare in which they’re married against a pure white background and in front of them is a pile of dead bodies with gleaming red wounds; and they fly off in a private plane to a honeymoon on a private island in Brazil the Cullens own. (Charles pointed out that while the Cullen clan was presented at the start of the series as upper-middle-class professionals — the clan’s leader, Carlisle Cullen, is a doctor — here they’re definitely part of the 1 percent; the Underworld movies also posited a vampire clan with no worries about money, but explained it by making them owners of a plasma and blood products company, which not only gave them a seemingly inexhaustible source of income but also allowed them to feed on their own products so they could sustain themselves without having to kill.) While there, Edward and Bella have sex for the first time — and, seemingly, the last, since this movie depicts seriously the same curious dilemma that was played for laughs in the movie Hancock: namely, what happens when a super-powered human male has sex with a normal human female and how does he keep from burning or tearing her insides out in the process. (I always figured that’s why Superman never allowed himself to have sex with Lois Lane even though she’d have been more than willing.) When they’re done Edward’s sheer energy (remember it’s his first time, too!) has torn the bed cover to shreds and turned it into a mass of feathers that float picturesquely around the room when Bella disturbs them by waking up (though why they needed a feather comforter in a tropical climate like Brazil’s is a mystery); he’s also left deep bruises all over her, which for some reason bothers him a lot more than it does her, so they spend most of the rest of their honeymoon playing chess (the “black” pieces on their chessboard are actually red, and this was used as the motif for the cover of Stephenie Meyer’s source novel) and skinny-dipping but don’t get physical again.

Then the infallibly inevitable (at least in the movies!) pregnancy at a single contact occurs — and the film suddenly gets a lot more powerful and compelling as drama. First of all, nobody in the vampire clan has any idea what’s going to happen when a vampire and a human procreate — in fact, they had assumed that would be impossible (which may explain Edward’s willingness to have unprotected sex with his wife) — and a search on the Internet turns up some old medieval texts that indicate the product of such a union would be a particularly vicious and (literally) bloodthirsty baby vampire. Edward and Bella return to their (and the series’) home base in Forks, Washington, and the baby develops so rapidly — it’s ready to be born in just one month instead of the usual nine — it threatens to rip Bella apart from the insides. What’s more, while carrying the child Bella gets weaker and weaker, until one of the Cullens correctly guesses that since her fetus is a vampire, she needs to start drinking blood in order to nourish it and allow it to be born. There’s a surprisingly pro-choice element in the film in which Bella resists the suggestions of the Cullens that she have her baby aborted — though ultimately she decides to keep the child it is quite clearly drawn as her choice, a bit of a surprise from as hard-core Mormon an author as Stephenie Meyer is reported to be — and at the very end of the process Bella finally transforms into a vampire, not (as I’d been hoping all along throughout the three previous films) as an act of love from Edward to grant her immortality and eternal youth so they can share their lives together literally forever, but as a last-ditch injection of a large syringe filled with a grey substance called “vampire venom” (“Did they just happen to have it around in case of an emergency like this?” Charles asked) to sustain Bella through the difficult (to say the least) process of giving birth to the first Cullen vampire of the next generation.

Meanwhile, through all of this Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), the Native American werewolf who was Edward’s rival for Bella’s affections (and quite frankly Lautner, especially once he bulked up for New Moon and became considerably more muscular and butch, does a lot for me aesthetically than the almost terminally neurasthenic Robert Pattinson — and some of the hunky actors who’ve been cast as “bad vampires” in earlier episodes of the series seem even hotter!), has tried to protect Bella from the demands of the rest of his tribe, who had warned earlier in the series that if Bella got turned into a vampire — even if she were willing — that would nullify the peace treaty between vampires and werewolves and the wolves would launch an all-out war. The film has moments that either don’t make sense or seem gratuitous, and several times it verges uncomfortably close to risibility — I had a hard time keeping from laughing when the various Native people in wolf form held a meeting and between dog-like barks, growls and keening screams, they spoke to each other in English through a voice distorter made to sound like English would if a dog (or a wolf) could speak it. (If they wanted to give the idea that the wolves, when they transformed, would still retain the power of language, it would have been better for them to put heavy echoes on their voices and establish that they were “speaking” to each other telepathically even though they were in body forms whose throats could not form words in English or any other human language.) I also could have done without the “inside” shots purporting to show Bella’s circulatory system in action as she underwent the various stages of human-to-vampire transformation.

But this film was mostly taut, exciting drama, intelligently scripted by Melissa Rosenberg from Meyer’s novel and effectively directed by Condon (even though this was clearly an assignment for hire for him rather than a personal movie like Gods and Monsters or Dreamgirls), and leading to a chilling climax in which Jacob saves the Cullens from attack by a wolf pack that outnumbers them by “imprinting” on Bella’s baby, Renesmee (pronounced “Ren-ESS-May” and a compound name Bella made up from the names of some of the female Cullens), which supposedly means that the werewolves can no longer kill them. (Charles pointed out another plot hole: why the wolves couldn’t go ahead and kill everyone else in the Cullen clan is never explained — and the denouement suggests an alternative version of the story in which the werewolves do massacre the Cullens and Jacob is stuck with the obligation to raise the now-dead Bella’s and Edward’s child.) A post-credit sequence offers three almost unbearably effete Quentin Crisp-ish vampires making it clear that they disapprove of the birth of Renesmee and they’re going to take countermeasures against the Cullens in the next (and last) film in the cycle — a rather disappointing conceit that the straight vampires are good and it’s the Gay vampires that are bad — but despite the annoyances and the moments that edge towards the silliness that’s an occupational hazard for fantasy writers, overall The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 is quality entertainment, a gripping tale well told even though it’s hard to sustain the sense of doomed romanticism that made earlier series entries so powerful when the two leads are married to each other and their problems are no longer those of adolescence, but of adulthood.