Not All who Meander are Lost
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 is at once the worst and best movie of the series. With only a fuzzy recollection of the first three films,* it feels great to finally have a chunk of scenes to be excited about--even if they're buoyed by hours and hours of insulting, derivative cheese.
Three-quarters of Breaking Dawn is terrible, even by Twilight standards. It's as if the franchise's latest journeyman director, Bill Condon, and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg decided to live up to the exaggerated awfulness that critics and Internet trolls have long ascribed to the material--knowing that its considerable fan base would be oblivious either way. The opening sees werewolf heart-throb, Jacob (Taylor Lautner) ripping off his shirt and running half-naked into the woods, and one could shave an hour off the run-time by editing out the interminable, silent gazing between love-struck teens.
Worse yet, Rosenberg amplifies all the annoying qualities of vampire/human power-couple Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Bella (Kristen Stewart) so much that I wonder if author Stephanie Meyer even liked her main characters by the time she wrote the fourth book. Breaking Dawn centers mostly on their wedding and honeymoon, and as the gross pageantry of girlie bridal porn unfolds, we see undertones of the classic abusive relationship play out. It's not as overtly offensive as some have claimed, but I got really creeped out when Bella insisted that the bruises she sustained all over her body after their first sexual encounter were really not that bad. Her subsequent, desperate pining for another ride on the Twilight Express goes on far too long, and reminded me of numerous domestic-abuse movies in which a rage-case boyfriend is begged back by his punching-bag ex. Edward never lays a non-loving hand on Bella, but these scenes play out like the first half of an intervention drama.
I hadn't thought about Twilight in more than a year, and mostly forgot the series' unique take on the rules of vampirism. Before the wedding, Bella gets made up by fun-loving psychic Alice (Ashley Greene) and dour big-sis Rosalie (Nikki Reed); though two of the three are bloodsuckers, they're all visible in the large mirror. The ceremony takes place outside, in the daylight, and is heavily attended by vampires--in a move that reaaally pushes the "it's not direct sunlight" thing. I also had to remind myself that most residents of Forks, WA are unaware of the vampire epidemic, including Bella's parents; it's really weird to see so many undead partying with oblivious mortals, and I would've killed to see at least one joke about Bella marrying into a nice Albino family.
Running parallel to the festivities is Jacob's struggle to find his place in the world. Having lost Bella to Edward at roughly the same point he gave up the right to lead the local wolf pack, he spends more time than usual shirtlessly stalking the woods and moping in the rain. This time out, though, he's the franchise's long-needed voice of reason. He scolds Bella for planning to have sex with Edward before he turns her into a vampire; because she's an idiot, she doesn't listen and winds up pregnant with a life-draining hybrid creature. It's then up to Jacob to keep his relatives from storming the vampires' wooded stronghold and killing what may be the Antichrist. Okay, this isn't a reasonable thing to do, but he at least makes his stupid decisions seem noble instead of bitchily, pointlessly rebellious.
Speaking of Bella, it's nice to see her finally experience some discomfort after three films where her biggest problem was feeling guilty about being saved by a different hot guy. Like Harry Potter, she mostly floats through the series while friends and enemies duke it out, while the filmmakers insist--against mountains of evidence to the contrary--that she's really important to the story. Bella fuels the drama accidentally, making one dangerous, silly choice after another. Let's leave aside having unprotected sex with a vampire and focus on her refusal to get rid of the thing growing inside her.
Before you hyperventilate, please understand that I'm not suggesting all unborn babies are "things"; in the case of Bella's rapidly growing child, everyone else in the film acknowledges that it is as likely to be a world-destroying demon as a bouncing bundle of joy--one that is guaranteed to kill its mother during delivery. One could see her decision to proceed as the ultimate right-to-life stance, or as selfish, child-like mommy fetishism. She's fine saddling Edward with single-fatherhood, and the world with an unstoppable monster; she just really wants a baby, even if she probably won't be around to see it.
Granted, a lot of this has to do with the script and not, specifically with Stewart. In fact, based on Twilight, one could make a case for her being an amazing actress: her cloyingly precious lip-biting, hair-flipping, shy-exhaling-before-almost-every-line affectations have made her a relatable, global phenomenon for similarly afflicted, airhead pre-teens and their desperate-for-eternal-youth mothers. But none of that makes watching the actress any more bearable. Her breathy, half-cough delivery makes me thank Jesus and Gaia that there's only one more of these movies to endure.
So, you may wonder, where does the "best of the series" part come in?
The last twenty minutes of Breaking Dawn are spectacular. Bella gives birth just as the werewolves prepare to strike against the vampires.**The ensuing battle is uninteresting (lots of buff people zipping around, wrestling fluffy CGI dogs), but Condon turns Twilight into a full-blown horror movie as the baby rips its mother apart in the delivery scene. By this point, Stewart has been transformed into a sweaty, skeleton with plastic, gray skin and her death (SPOILER!!!) is so convincing and prolonged that part of me wondered if Condon and company had decided to head into part two sans heroine. Of course, this is a ridiculous idea, which makes the director's expert handling of the climax's drama and terror that much more laudable.
Jacob's solution for preventing everyone from killing each other is as ingenious as it is sick. By the end of the film, he reveals Edward to be the helpless pretty-boy I've long suspected. And for the first time in this series, Condon gives us something cool to look at. His digital effects artists provide an inside-out demonstration of how vampirism destroys and revitalizes a person; the results are as poetic and fascinating as anything you'll see in The Tree of Life.
It's hard to say if I'm giving Breaking Dawn too much credit or not enough. In the land of mediocrity, the the half-way novel idea is king. But I was genuinely gripped by the film's last act--quite a feat, considering my epic struggle to stay awake during the chess-playing montages and abundant PG-13 make-out sessions. The ending shines a fresh light on the rest of the movie--in fact, the whole series. Not that the other films can be considered retroactively good, but we now have an indication that this universe is growing up. Things look to get nasty in part two, and I can only hope that the trend towards darkness and a harsher, more realistic look at character and consequence will push Twilight into the realm of legitimate film--rather than just a multi-billion-dollar, hearts-on-notebooks franchise.
Note: I'm going to put a bug in your ear, and I dare you to shake it off while watching Breaking Dawn. Pay attention to Carter Burwell's score. Awful, isn't it? Doesn't it scream "early-80s-movie-of-the-week"? I never thought anything would send me rushing into the arms of a Twilight soundtrack's emo-of-the-week bands, but this mad genius had me practically clawing at the walls.
*Not a good sign for someone who's devoted nearly twenty-five-hundred words to reviewing the franchise.
**A sure-fire contender for the dumbest sentence I've ever written.