Grade: Part 1 - D; Part 2 -- C
Both ruffling feathers and sending hearts aflutter for over five years, Twilight's contortion of vampire lore finally arrives at an end with a sprawling, teary-eyed two-part finale, Breaking Dawn. Ever a revolving door for directors, but constantly penned by Melissa Rosenberg with the watchful input from the books' author, Stephenie Meyer, the series' quality has rendered an inconsistent train of gratingly passable supernatural romance, overdrawn and dramatically limp when looked at under any kind of inspection. Finishing off the slate of filmmakers brave enough to handle the material is Dreamgirls and Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon, who, based on his experience, knows how to navigate a larger production and handle tricky thematic material. He doesn't make a dent in the perception of the franchise, though, guilty of the same overspent mistakes as those before him as Breaking Dawn's two halves clumsily struggle against one another, one as drawn-out and sugary as a piece of taffy and the follow-up, while an improvement, a little too wacky and overpowered by comparison.
I'll gladly take absurd over bland, though, considering how Condon handles the maturing relationship between a vampire, Edward (Robert Pattinson), and his dutiful human fiancée, Bella (Kristen Stweart). Breaking Dawn: Part 1 doesn't really concern itself with introductions to this story, as it knows exactly who the target audience is for the events to come: those who have read the book and watched the movies, the people anticipating an emotional pressure release once the two are hitched and able to fully "enjoy" one another. There is another component, though, that being Bella's agreement to turn into a vampire in order to complete their union; without transforming, Edward's strength will hinder their intimacy and, obviously, she'll eventually die from old age. Bella wants to hold onto her mortality as long as she can, at least through their honeymoon, which leads to some unfortunate circumstances not unlike those that might arise with normal couples: pregnancy, something thought to be impossible between humans and vampires.
So, yeah. The wedding, the honeymoon, the pregnancy -- and, aside from a little family drama for both Bella and her werewolf admirer, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), that's about it. Breaking Dawn: Part 1 suffers from a case of acute onset dullness due to very little occurring over two hours of laborious swooning in idyllic locations, where a forested wedding and a Brazilian island vacation home play host to drawn-out smoldering and melodramatic bickering that's supposed to communicate a message of enduring, immortal love. Engineered to tickle the fancy of the franchise's longstanding fans, with little regard for pacing as it provokes the senses and begs for teardrops, it's as if we're watching the home movies of a hybrid couple's matrimony as they break beds, wrestle with temptation, and express how profusely they love one another. Playing chess and going swimming provide character-building diversions while they iron out their wrinkles, faint as they may be, though the content tiptoes along an unsavory thematic line when it addresses how Bella "accepts" the way Edward inadvertently harms her during intimate situations.
The frustrating thing about all this romancin' is that it's technically rather competent and judicious with its resources; the production design's blending of computer effects and practical sets sustains a seamless illusion of scattered locations in Forks and Brazil, while Guillermo Navarro's cinematography remains well-composed while weaving between the stalwart couple. It provides the ideal setting for Twilight enthusiasts to get lost in the soapy wish-fulfillment of witnessing Edward and Bella finally advancing their relationship, from that wispy wedding in a nook of the woods to the waterfalls and bedrooms where they flirt with the idea of "going the distance". There's simply no momentum here, though, nothing propelling their isolated time alone, outside of anticipating what could come of Bella's resistance to transforming into a vampire. Fans with weatherworn copies of the books might get wrapped up in the cursory delight of seeing this in motion, but it's a slog on any cinematic plane.
Part 1 only really picks up at the point Bella figures out that she's pregnant while on the honeymoon, which introduces a preposterous but slightly compelling (and unintentionally witty) dose of body horror once the vampire fetus begins to wreak havoc on her body. Visual effects and makeup work dress Kristen Stewart to appear emaciated, unable to support the life growing inside her, and that visual image works while her family and friends -- enter Jacob, who already met his shirt taking-off quota after receiving the wedding invitation -- argue about what to do about the child and how the outside world, namely Jacob's tribe and the Volturi vampires, will tolerate its presence (hint: they won't). The situation transforms into a mess of loopholes, shifting allegiances, and flimsy flirtation with abortion comments that director Condon futilely attempts to shape into something intriguing, where the agreement for Bella to turn becomes crucial to thwarting the dangers. Just when things get halfway "interesting", it frustratingly ends on a cliffhanger ... but, hey, that's what happens when a largely romantic story gets chopped in half at the escalation point, right?
The divide between the two books creates a disproportion of tones between Condon's films, leaving Breaking Dawn: Part 2 with a jarring perspective on Bella -- and her personal life -- that shifts the Twilight Saga from conflicted supernatural romance to essentially The Avengers ... with vampires. You get the idea of what's happened at the end of the previous film, which zooms in on Bella's (Kristen Stewart) revived body to reveal the opening of a blistering red eye. With her new vampiric form comes new abilities: strength, speed, and confidence, to which much of the film focuses on learning about her enhancements. She and Edward (Robert Pattinson) are posed with a situation where her powers will prove useful: they need to gather vampire "witnesses" from around the globe to attest that their hybrid child, Renesmee, isn't a threat, a young bloodsucker without perspective. If they're unable to demonstrate her innocence to the Italian Volturi, then Aro (Michael Sheen) and his minions will be forced to eliminate the young Cullen vampire.
Going back a bit: let's not confuse Bella's "learning" with genuine acclimation, because she's very quick to pick up on the ways of a vampire and toss aside her lost mortality and the need for human blood. In essence, the Bella seen in Part 2 is conveniently nothing like her previous persona; instead of meek and obsessive, she allows herself to be confident and capable with this shiny new skill set. She leaps and sticks landings across vast distances, scales mountaintops with ease, takes vampires down in games of strength and, yes, glitters in the sunlight -- yet, she doesn't experience much of an internal conflict about it all, something handled better in the likes of The Vampire Diaries. Bella has now become a force to be reckoned with, and that's before the Cullen clan plays around with her hidden "gift". Though the transition is filled with textbook superhero triteness, somewhere between Spider-Man and X-Men: First Class, there's something invigorating about this girl shedding her submissiveness and harnessing power.
While Edward and Bella are afforded some alone time to explore the shifts in their lives, notably in their new, cozy cottage that'll probably send fans' hearts soaring, Part 2 largely stays away from calculating romantic melodrama by focusing on self-referential ridiculousness, resolving the peculiar "imprint" situation with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), and convincing the witnesses. To be honest, discovering these new vampires from the corners of Stephenie Meyer's universe offers one of the more interesting, albeit cursory, experiences out of the Twilight woodwork; we get to know lithe, empyreal Northern vampire sisters not unlike the Cullens, while at the same time being able to experience Lee Pace as a Lost Boys-meets-Fright Night brooding revolutionary and a pair of bronze Amazonian mental projectionists. A huge host of characters, from Egypt to Ireland, file into the Forks location to observe Renesmee's lack of imposition, and while their presence feels nothing but forced, the strewn variation of their personalities -- and brand-new faces -- present a welcome change of pace. Speaking of "pace", I'd totally watch a standalone vampire comedy centered on the Pushing Daisies star.
Breaking Dawn: Part 2 can't break the trend of lackluster films in this franchise, though, despite a few intriguing distractions. Limp attempts at humor break up those scenes where Bella learns about her vampiness, screwing with the film's momentum from the beginning. Magic -- yes, superhero-like magic -- enters the picture in a relatively big way, where controlling the elements and manipulating minds clashes with the smaller-scale clairvoyance, shape-shifting, and mood control that has powered the series. An odd effects decision renders most of the shots of Edward and Bella's child when she's young into unconvincing digital manipulations, while the underlying oddness of Jacob's role in her life never really disappears. And murky, convenient plotting merely treads water so that the characters can interact with one another about immortality and love's perseverance. Oddly, it's easier to overlook these things to witness this more amusing and vivacious film of the bunch, largely because it plays fast and loose with its established rules for cinematic shock value.
The biggest shock arrives at the end of Part 2: that massive, relatively grisly battle you've seen in the trailers, pitting the Cullens, werewolves, and foreign covens against the Volturi. Director Condon orchestrated something pretty extravagant here, a big scene in the expanses of snowy wilderness created with practical photography and digital manipulation. Taken purely on its own, it's an exhilarating showdown with mingling superpowers, flying bodies, snarling wolves and mounting danger that takes quite a few risks with the loyal audience's emotional threshold -- a bold, zany way of capping off a saga with little of this kind of larger-scare conflict. Some will find the action a breath of fresh air; other, however, won't be able to hold back some cynicism once this somewhat daring diversion reaches its end. Ending on this note ensures that the Twilight Saga went out with a bang, though, certainly a substantial improvement over the inert blandness of the first half.
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