The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part I (Condon, 2011)

My review of the latest Twilight film originally appeared at Christianity Today Movies & TV.

When last we left the Twilight franchise, vampire Edward Cullen had reluctantly agreed to turn his human beloved, Bella Swan into an immortal yet soulless creature like himself—under the condition that she would agree to marry him. Breaking Dawn—Part I opens with romantic rival (and werewolf) Jacob Black receiving his wedding invitation. The plot of the film centers on the wedding and honeymoon of the main couple and how complications arising from them threaten to end a fragile peace treaty between the vampires and werewolves.

While I do not count myself amongst the franchise’s devotees—I have read the first book and seen all the films, mostly out of anthropological curiosity—I have come to wonder whether some its most hostile critics might be engaged in what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls “paranoid readings.” The characteristic mood of a paranoid reading is contempt toward or fear of the object being scrutinized (as opposed to curiosity about it), and, perhaps, the characteristic critical action is to view the art object as wholly bad, representative of a class, movement, position, or ideology that is both threatening and repugnant to the viewer. Paranoid readings deny any complexity in the art object, and they tend to treat the objects of analysis as static, unchanging. Paranoid readings, too, have a scapegoating tendency, often treating the art object as representative of (or even the source of) all that stands in absolute contrast to the reader’s own ideological purity.

A paranoid reading of the love narrative in Twilight, for example, might characterize Edward as a patriarchal control freak, focusing on those incidents where he seeks to control Bella’s behavior and excluding those areas where Bella actually is empowered to make her own choices—such as retaining and developing a relationship with Jacob or deciding how to handle a life-threatening pregnancy. Alternately, it may characterize Bella as a passive heroine in contrast to female action heroes (Buffy Summers, Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley), a later day Helen of Troy who is the sought after prize in a conflict that is primarily amongst men. Such readings may neglect Bella’s role in saving Edward from the Volturi or her intent to sacrifice herself at the end of Twilight (she does not simply find herself in a position where she needs to be rescued; she places herself in a position of sacrifice as an autonomous choice). The point of such counter-analyses is not that all criticisms of the series are wrong but that singularly extreme ones tend to say as much about the state of the critic as they do about the art object.

That said, it is increasingly difficult to take the franchise seriously as anything more/other than a teen soap opera. Breaking Dawn, Part I arrives at a point in a series where the story should be gathering momentum but instead it lags, with most of the second half of the film consisting of characters sitting around talking about what they are going to do once the climactic moment arrives. The conflicts in a series should develop, deepen, and acquire greater power, but instead they are mostly just endlessly repeated. This franchise operates structurally more like a serial such as James Bond, with essentially the same plot being reenacted with slight variations, than like a series in which individual installments are supposed to both stand alone and advance the larger metanarrive. Jacob despises Edward for endangering Bella and agreeing to take her humanity from her but cannot help but align himself with the Cullen clan when she is endangered. Haven’t we seen that plot before?

From a strictly cinematic perspective, the biggest change here is that Bill Condon takes over directorial duties from David Slade. Condon’s confidence injects some much needed stability—the camera work and editing in Eclipse seemed downright restless—and he manages to expand the film’s color palette through the wedding scenes and most of the honeymoon. Even he seems stumped, however, in how to make the climactic battle scene visually interesting, and a scene in which the wolves argue in human voices extracted more than a few giggles from an otherwise enthusiastic first night audience. Even more problematic is Melissa Rosenberg’s script, which relies on progressively more expository dialogue to tell us what is happening and soundtrack music to tell us how we should feel about it. We are four films into a five-film set, and yet we are still having characters explain to each other what they are doing—such as a key moment in which Edward informs us verbally of what Jacob just did and why it will end the werewolf-vampire conflict. Perhaps in the first film such lines might be useful at bringing the uninitiated up to speed. Here all they serve to do is provide the (admittedly false) feeling that plot points are being made up off the cuff so that the script can cheat its way out of what was initially presented as an unavoidable dilemma.

On the positive side, Kristen Stewart (as Bella) and Taylor Lautner (Jacob) manage to show some range, and they do have genuine chemistry in their scenes together. Robert Pattinson (Edward) is pretty, though he mostly lacks the physical presence to convey actual menace when he delivers lines about protecting his family.

The local multiplex where I viewed the film ran screenings at 12:01, 12:02, 12:03, 12:04, 12:05, 12:06, 12:07, and 12:08, and it sold out all eight of them. I’m not paranoid enough to tell you that is a sign that the end is near, but I feel confident in saying 99.9 percent of the viewers who will think this is better than a 1½-star film will have already seen it by the time this review had been posted several hours later on Friday morning. If you aren’t one of them, this won’t be the film that makes you a convert.

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