Silver Screen: Breaking Dawn Part I *1/2
Now this is the Twilight I've been waiting for.
Let me explain: When the first Twilight film was released, I had little knowledge of the popular teen romance-novel franchise and was curious what all the fuss was about. The Harry Potter phenomenon had seemed a little inscrutable until I saw the first movie and read the books, which turned out to be quite enjoyable. But Catherine Hardwicke's adaptation of the leadoff book in the Twilight series had the dull aesthetic of a Lifetime original movie combined with awkward, SyFy original-movie special effects. Far worse, however, was the movie's leaden self-seriousness, torturous pacing, and flat, mostly despicable characters who seemed only to exist to pine and be pined for.
Subsequent sequels added new directors working with bigger budgets but lapsed even further into shrill teenage pathos conveyed with a mopiness that matched the grayish color palette that further drained the life from the screen. The second (and by far worst) installment of the series literally had as its central conflict star Kristen Stewart pouting for an hour and a half because her boyfriend was away on vacation. It was sublimely awful stuff that catered to the worst instincts and lowest-common denominators, dishing out the fan service by way of winking one-liners that meant nothing to those who hadn't read the books while simultaneously rushing to fill newcomers in on the increasingly absurd and convoluted plot with a flood of stilted exposition.
But somewhere along the line I Googled the plot summary of the four novels and marveled at the description of the fourth and final book, Breaking Dawn, which appeared to veer totally off the rails. The whole series seemed to go vampire batshit crazy. Breaking Dawn Part I-- it's been split into two films for reasons that surely had nothing to do with blatant commercialization, right?-- is finally here, and it doesn't disappoint. For the first time a Twilight movie is, if somewhat unintentionally, moderately engaging.
The movie kicks off by paying tribute to its roots, in that it starts with a crappy looking dream sequence before killing half an hour on closeups of stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson gazing dreamily at one another and then frowning. It's followed by a wish-fulfillment wedding scene with plenty of footage of clothes and flowers.
But things finally get going when Stewart's Bella Swan, now dubbed Mrs. Cullen after marrying her childhood sweetheart at the ripe old age of eighteen years and three days, jets off with vampire hubby Edward to a honeymoon on a private island just off the coast of Rio. There the series's long-gestating abstinence theme finally pays off when Bella can, now that she's married and Vampire Jesus approves, start knockin' Chuck Taylors. Edward, long imagined as a kind of cartoon caricature of a perfectly sensitive yet impossibly powerful boyfriend, fears he might literally nail her to death with his sparkly vampire schlong. That doesn't quite happen, but after all the thongs in the theater are dampened, it turns out that Bella is pregnant, which is a totally awesome thing to happen to someone whose eighteenth birthday cake is still edible and in the refrigerator.
Cue drama: Because Bella is a human and Edward is a sexy and soulful yet ironically soulless vampire, the baby is a mysterious demon that may or may not be trying to devour Bella from the inside. Pretty much everybody wants her to have an abortion, but she insists on carrying the baby to term, which displeases the clan of werewolves who believe it will be a danger to the humans they've sworn to protect. Spurned lover Jacob (Taylor Lautner) is caught in the middle, torn between loyalty to his family or doing exactly what Bella wants at all times, which is the dominant theme of the movies.
It gets so much weirder from there. The movie reaches its feverish climax when (spoiler alert?) Edward chews Bella's stomach open to perform an emergency C-section, then Jacob attempts to murder the child but is stopped when he realizes-- wait for it-- that he's deeply in love with the infant and proposes supernatural marriage to it on the spot.
At long last Twilight lives up to its promise to be a hot mess. The dialogue is still astonishingly bad and the line readings even worse, but it takes on an edge of giddy camp as the plot explodes into a hundred little absurdities. Director Bill Condon, who slips in a reference to his excellent 1998 James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters when Edward takes in a screening of Bride of Frankenstein, is easily the most proficient director of the series and has the good sense to pick up the pace. He lends the film an air of competence the first two lacked, although even his Oscar-nominated abilities aren't enough to make scenes like the psychic werewolf pow-wow any less awkward.
It's still aggressively awful, of course, and to enjoy the shrill stupidity you've got to totally overlook the fact that the movie's message to young girls is to ignore your parents and throw away any possible future for the privilege of getting to spend all your time with your boyfriend, who is perfect in every way. (Here author Stephanie Meyer, a Mormon housewive, seems to have some of her own issues simmering in the background-- seems like the body-warping effects of early motherhood are a stark indignity that might prevent someone from a lifetime of awesome vampire sex, and they might have to just sit around and conjure up emotionally immature fantasies for the rest of their days.)
But, hey, if a movie is going to be bad, it should at least try to be this bad.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.