The Twilight series would be great without the vampires. By which I mean that every time the series — or, more specifically, its heroine Bella Swan — turns its attention from swooning over the dreaminess of the impossibly beautiful and gallant Edward Cullen, it wrestles with interesting issues. Characters develop (unlike vampires, who always stay the same); light is shed on the teenage — and even the human — experience. Eclipse is the first chapter of the film series that widens its gaze enough to let that light in.
This installment finds Bella on the cusp of high-school graduation, after which she has decided to embrace her destiny and become part of the vampire clan. As she and Edward confront the approaching changes, word comes in that mysterious forces are amassing a vampire army in nearby Seattle. The Cullens must confront the threat, because if they don’t, someone will — and not just anyone: the Volturi, ultra-powerful (and sinister) guardians of the vampire way of life. Here’s where the plot creaks, and the audience groans. In terms of narrative structure, the Volturi are an unnatural contrivance, a force from outside the world of the story that is imposed on the action to influence its characters, but has little to do with the heart of the drama. This plot device might work if the Volturi were portrayed as truly frightening beings. But in Eclipse, as in New Moon before it, they are laughable caricatures of bad vampire-movie clichés. Dakota Fanning as their ringleader tries to bring some acting ability to the party, but even her spooky demeanor can’t overpower the fact that one of her cohorts is an undead ringer for Justin Bieber.
But who’s looking at the Volturi, anyway, when Taylor Lautner is flexing his were-abs? Bella’s best friend (and her beloved’s natural enemy), Jacob Black, has made his choice, too — to reveal his love for Bella and fight for her heart. This is where Eclipse works, by becoming more than a teenage love story. Now it’s a teenage love triangle, with allegorical complexities. Jacob tries (and Lautner’s acting succeeds) to convince Bella that her place is with the humans. We may be volatile creatures, prone to exploding into animalistic rage, but at least we live and breathe, eat, sleep, age, and die. Circle of life and all that. Bella must decide if her love for Edward can sustain the loss of her whole human experience. In the light of this conflict, Kristen Stewart becomes ideally suited for the role of Bella. As an actress, on- and off-screen, she often fails to connect. But it is precisely this head-in-the-clouds aloofness that underlies Bella’s attraction to the ultimate outsider, the vampire. Bella’s choice becomes her self-discovery, her coming of age, and the substance of a surprisingly nuanced movie.
Even Robert Pattinson — who, like Stewart, struggles to convey nuance — warms up to a relatable level of depth, particularly in a scene in which he and Jacob discuss their differences over Bella’s sleeping body. That scene between two “monsters” takes place on a mountaintop, but thank God for the one character who keeps the others grounded: Bella’s dad, police chief Charlie Swan, played to paranoid perfection by Billy Burke. His every appearance onscreen is a comedic delight, a welcome reprieve from all the angst, and a healthy dose of humanity. The kids are all right, but I’m on Team Charlie. — Greg Morrison