Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, part 2 (Summit/Lionsgate, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, part 2, to give it its full (and rather awkward) title, the fifth and final episode in the Twilight cycle — in which Stephenie Meyer’s final book in the series was split into two films, as had already been done with the final Harry Potter novel and is going to be done again with Mockingjay, the last of the three books in the Hunger Games trilogy. I’ve quite liked the Twilight films, though after the surprisingly good first entry in 2008 and the marvelous New Moon the following year (a film I particularly treasure because its director, Christopher Weitz, cheerily ignored all the rules about how you’re supposed to direct a film for the youth audience — instead of quick, choppy jump cuts and a disinclination to hold any scene for longer than three seconds lest teens whose attention spans have been destroyed by music videos and the Internet get bored, Weitz favored long takes and elaborate camera movements, making New Moon look like a 1940’s film — and despite his flouting the rules for making a young people’s movie, he had a blockbuster hit anyway) they’ve gone steadily downhill. It wasn’t until we watched Breaking Dawn, part 2 that I realized why: the original appeal of the Twilight mythos was its combination of adolescent coming-of-age movie and vampire tale, and that worked only when the vampires (and werewolves) lived among, and interacted with, normal humans.

The entire dramatis personae of Breaking Dawn, part 2 is supernatural, except for Bella’s father (Billy Burke), her stepmother and a hiker whom Bella encounters in the woods around Forks, Washington (where the Twilight films have been centered even though some of them have ranged around the rest of the world) and who looks like he’s about to become her first human victim when she manages to restrain herself from consuming either his blood or that of a passing deer, and instead feeds herself on a cougar who was about to kill the deer. (It’s a neatly done scene but it’s also a bit contrived in the way it allows Bella to feed her literal bloodlust on the least likable of the three creatures involved.) The suspense in the first four films in the series was over whether Bella (Kristen Stewart) would accept being “vampirized” so she and her boyfriend (her husband in the two Breaking Dawn movies) Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) could live together, literally forever, and be the same (apparent) age. Once that happened — and it was disappointing to me when at the end of the first Breaking Dawn Bella was vampirized not as her own choice but to save her life from some weird infection or wound or the weakness Bella went through after the infallible pregnancy at the first sexual contact between herself and Edward resulted in the birth of Renesmee (played, according to, by 10 different people and an animatronic robot because one of the conceits of the cycle is that vampires’ kids grow unusually rapidly — much the way the title role in the film Babe had to be played by multiple pigs because real-life pigs grow fast and it was important for the concept that the pig appear to be the same size throughout), the half-vampire, half-human daughter of Edward and Bella.

It takes about 40 minutes into this film’s running time before the dramatic issue at the center of its plot finally materializes: the Volturi — who were introduced in New Moon as sort of the vampire cult’s Vatican but who in this episode are full-fledged bad guys — have decided that Renesmee must be killed because she’s an “immortal child.” Apparently “immortal children” are people who’ve been vampirized while they’re still human kids, and since vampirization freezes you at whatever age you were at when the transformation occurred, the “immortal children” were total monsters who slaughtered people willy-nilly and killed so many humans that eventually humans reacted and took out most of the vampire cults. Bella, Edward and their friends — including werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner, who throughout the cycle has done far more for both Charles and I aesthetically than the wimpy Robert Pattinson — if there were such a thing as male neurasthenia Pattinson would be the poster boy for it) and his wolf pack (though Jacob is the only werewolf we see in this film on both sides of the human-to-wolf transition — the others we see only in quite obvious digital animations of large wolves) — have to stage a pitched battle between themselves on one side and the Volturi’s minions on the other. The Volturi are led by Aro (Michael Sheen), a queeny vampire who seems to have wandered into Twilight’s world from the Underworld franchise (which lacked Twilight’s romanticism but was more convincing as action fare; it also centered around a traditional enmity between vampires and werewolves and also involved a cross-bred child, though in the Underworld movies it’s a half-vampire, half-werewolf instead of a half-vampire, half-human), though before they get down to any action they do a lot of talking instead on a snowy mountain location. The effect is reminiscent of Kriemhild’s Revenge, Fritz Lang’s disappointing 1924 sequel to his beautiful Siegfried, in which Kriemhild (equivalent to Gutrune in Wagner’s Ring) marries Attila the Hun after her husband Siegfried is murdered and tries to get him to be the instrument of her revenge — only he’s more interested in sulking and pouting than in doing his Hun-like thing and massacring the members of Kriemhild’s family who killed Siegfried.

The action scenes themselves are triumphs of the modern-day special-effects trade (courtesy mostly of  Hydraulx), with people zooming around unnaturally quickly and showing abilities that run roughshod over the normal laws of physics — apparently the conceit in this film, which was only hinted at in the first four, was that all vampires develop some sort of superpower. Alas, all this zooming around and the fast cuts director Bill Condon (who made two of the greatest movies of the last decade, Gods and Monsters and Dreamgirls, but seems to have approached the Breaking Dawn films as works for hire that would bolster his commercial reputation rather than vehicles for his own vision the way Christopher Weitz approached New Moon) uses makes it difficult to follow the action, let alone root for the good guys over the bad guys — who aren’t really bad guys; after an exciting scene in which Aro is beheaded and then his body is burned (this seems to be the primary way to kill a vampire in this version of the legend — Anne Rice’s vampires could also only be killed by fire, and I believe the first use of fire as the one danger vampires are vulnerable to was by PRC’s hack screenwriter Fred Myton in the 1942 film Dead Men Walk), it turns out that that’s just a fantasy shown by one of the good vampires to Aro as what will happen to him if he persists in his war against the Cullens and their werewolf allies. (It reminded me of the way the 1960’s Superman comics designated some of their issues as “novels” — which allowed them to alter the ruling assumptions behind the characters and their universe, and even as a kid I was impressed by the metafictional quality of playing with an already fictional universe that way: “What will our story be like if we assume this instead of that?”)

Eventually the plot gets resolved, sort of, when it turns out that a Native American vampire from Brazil is actually himself a vampire-human cross-breed, and he hasn’t become one of those fearsome Immortal Children — instead he grew to the size and appearance of a young adult and then stopped, and because he’s both vampire and human he can dine on blood and normal food — so the Volturi slink off, assured that they have nothing to worry about from Renesmee long-term, only there’s a final bit of dialogue from Edward to the effect that the Volturi never forget and if Stephenie Meyer hadn’t been so insistent on saying this is the end of the story I’d suspect they were setting us up for a Twilight VI. Breaking Dawn, part 2 is a perfectly decent entertainment movie, but the series really went downhill after the first two (like the Universal Frankensteins!) and this one had too many beheadings (all shown in that clinical, cartoony way that comes with doing the effects work digitally) and not enough beefcake. We do get a nice scene of Taylor Lautner stripping down to his underpants (baggy grey briefs, in case you were wondering) but that’s about it. What we also don’t get — and my biggest disappointment about the film — is many of the marvelous interactions between the vampire and human worlds that made the first two films in the cycle so special; about the only hint of it is a nice scene in which Bella finds herself unable to tell her father that she’s become a vampire. “Coming out to your dad is always a bitch,” I joked.