Silver Screen: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse *1/2

Silver Screen: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse *1/2
Bryan Miller

The third installment of the Twilight series-- sorry, the Twilight Saga-- is the most tolerable and competently assembled of the bunch so far. This, however, is very much a relative statement.

Eclipse opens with our haughty heroine Bella (Kristen Stewart, wearing out her welcome like a flatulent houseguest) trudging through her final year of high school, pretty much ignoring everything in favor of counting the days until her dreamy vampire boyfriend Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson, who has trouble with words) will turn her into a creature of the night, as promised. The only real trouble in their mopey Pacific Northwestern paradise is her lingering crush on Jacob (Taylor Lautner, who appears to be reading his lines off a teleprompter positioned very far away), one among a pack of American Indian werewolves sworn to protect his tribe and others against thirsty vampires.

The rivals for Bella's love must begrudgingly team up when evil vampire Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard, disastrously underutilized) comes calling. She's still sore about her boyfriend's death in the first movie, and presumably her lack of screentime in the sequel, so she's created an army of foundling vampires to come bump off Bella and the Cullen clan.

Unlike the first two meandering, exposition-heavy chapters, the third Twilight movie establishes this single conflict and then moves directly, if a little too slowly, toward the promised climactic fight. The only significant subplot involves Edward's continuing hesitance to vampirize Bella. To become undead is unimaginable torture, he insists, despite the benefits of being super-strong and telepathic and sparkly. It's a curse. It's such a terrible curse, in fact, that he'll only inflict it on her if she promises to marry him at a very young and irresponsible age.

Here's where two movies' worth of metaphor start to fray at the edges. Author Stephenie Meyer, an avowed Mormon, has made little secret of interweaving Church of Latter Day Saints ideology into her faux-spooky romance stories. The most ostentatious of that subtext has long been spinning the classic vampire symbolism of lust and carnal penetration into an abstinence parable.

But in Eclipse, for the first time, Edward and Bella find themselves sprawled on a bed together, and subtext becomes text when she tries to jump his pale (sparkly?) bones. Nope, says the pasty white lunk of a hunk, no sex before marriage, just like God and Joseph Smith and Sarah Palin intended. The literal and the metaphorical have run headlong into one another, and the former is making the latter seem particularly unsettling.

The vampirism-as-loss-of-virginity metaphor, clunkily employed as it was in the first movie, has become increasingly creepy. Despite the protestation of nearly every vampire, each of whom is presented as leading a charmed and mostly perfect life, Bella wants to become one of them-- even though they've made it quite clear that doing so essentially condemns your soul to Hell. How is marriage supposed to remedy this, and how grim and prudish is it that having sex becomes synonymous with losing your soul? Meyer seems confused, very confused, about sex, and that confusion turns her heroine into something of a manic nut. Stranger still is the notion, within a story that so primly flaunts its religious principle, that any level of earthly love is worth literally casting your soul down to Hell. Is there a suitable prayer for, But, Lord, he was so good-looking?

That eighteen-year-old Bella is confused about boys and sex and her future is perfectly reasonable. What's unreasonable is the way Meyer's story indulges and validates Bella's every teenage whim. Her father, Charlie (Billy Burke, who should never be the best actor in anything, but is here), frequently chastises her for spending all her time with her boyfriend and warns her not to get too serious too fast. It's good advice, but the movie plays it for a laugh, as if grumpy old Charlie just doesn't understand the depth of Bella and Edward's love. Yes, they're rushing into it-- by the end of the movie, really rushing in-- and yes, Charlie is right, she is going to willingly sacrifice her soul, but that's okay because their love is destined.

Judged not as woefully misguided metaphor but simply as a series of entertainments, Twilight is shaping up to be awfully inconsistent. Eclipse's David Slade is the third director in as many installments, and the stylistic disparities are becoming increasingly clear. Catherine Hardwicke imbued the first movie with all the craftsmanship of a Lifetime original production. Chris Weitz upped the ante with the action and special effects in New Moon, but-- not unlike his previous failure, The Golden Compass-- that movie played more like a clunky action spectacle.

Slade (Hard Candy, Thirty Days of Night) does the best job of the three so far, but his take on Twilight, though still overstuffed with lame computer effects, is markedly more horrific. That means lots of dismemberment and a good deal more shrieking-violin musical scoring. (The final two movies, Breaking Dawn parts I and II, will be directed by the very talented Bill Condon, director of Gods and Monsters and Kinsey.) When the series is finished and the movies can be played back-to-back in one long, grim film festival, the tonal inconsistency should be significant.

But if its consistency and artistry you're looking for, look elsewhere. Twilight is all cheekbones, doe-eyed stares, and sparkling washboard abs. Consider yourself warned.