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Cool as a cucumber, Edward (Robert Pattinson) is back full-time in Bella’s (Kristen Stewart) life. Hotheaded Jacob (Taylor Lautner) is none too happy about it because he fears that soon Bella’s going to surrender to the dark side and allow Edward to transform her into a vampire — spiritual enemies to Jacob’s werewolf (shapeshifting) tribe.

Bella is hot for Edward, although she’s also stoking a little heat for Jacob. It’s too bad that there are a couple of other players out there with murderous intentions for Bella. Or maybe not.

The fact that vampy vixen Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) initiates a plan to kill Bella as revenge for Edward slaying her vampire lover, and that the vampire overlords — the Voltari, led by young ice queen Jane (Dakota Fanning) — watch and wait to see if Victoria’s best-laid plan lines up with their own nefarious aims, means that a truce allows Bella to have both Edward and Jacob close by to make swoony moony faces and attempt to generate more passionate award-winning lip locks.

Having read all the books in this teen fantasy series that mixes vampires, werewolves and enough over-baked teen drama for several television spinoffs — both reality-based and scripted 90210-styled soaps — I continue to wish and hope for an adaptation daring enough to deviate from the suspense-free writing of author (a term used loosely here) Stephanie Meyer. But screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg remains slavishly faithful to the text, which hinders director David Slade who, despite working against the material, has crafted the best film in the series to date.

When Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) shepherded the first installment to the big screen, critics bent over backward to praise the feminist indie sensibilities she brought to play, and many felt that much would be lost as she failed to secure the follow-up.

Chris Weitz helmed the second installment, New Moon, and rendered the action a bit better but missed the opportunity to make the evolving relationship between Bella and Jacob a palpable, credible alternative to the Bella-Edward dynamic, which places Slade in a bind.

But Slade brings the best from his previous works (Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night) to the fore and proves that the combination is perfectly in line with this story. He gets that bad-girl vibe of Victoria and how she would be able to manipulate a new vampire pawn like Riley (Xavier Samuel) into doing her bidding. It would have been intriguing to see more of their rather twisted story (which, to be fair, is not a major part of the book), since it represents a parallel to one of several Eclipse backstories aimed at fleshing out members of the Cullen clan.

And speaking of the Cullens, Slade also exploits the darkness of Rosalie (Nikki Reed) as a counter-balance to the gung-ho desire of Bella to join the Cullens. In these moments, it seems that Slade works overtime to visually capture the sense that there is more going on here than Meyer or Rosenberg imagined in their shared simplistic take. For them, the only thing that matters is the morality of Edward saving Bella from her own base instincts.

There is something oddly paternalistic in this portrayal that runs in opposition to the female-centered perspective we should embrace through a character like Bella, the young girl eager to claim control of her life and sexuality. The text says that Bella needs to be saved from such female empowerment by her old-fashioned chaste lover, but if left to his own devices I would like to believe that Slade, even more than Hardwicke, would have freed her from those moral handcuffs and allowed her to slap them on either Edward or Jacob instead.

Besides these dreamy narrative alternatives, Slade does the best he can with the action sequences, the intended epic battles between vampires and werewolves and such. The swirling images approximate action and movement much better than Hardwicke was able to and the feel is a bit more realistically rendered than Weitz’s take. But, again, the problem is that the story doesn’t generate sufficient tension. We know good and well that no one we are supposed to care about is in any danger, so what’s the point?

Edward, please turn Bella into a vampire and end this soapy mess once and for all. Grade: C+. (tt stern-enzi)