It’s a scene we’ve all witnessed a thousand times before: “Marry me,” the hero asks his beloved. And she responds…
Excuse me? Anyhow, that’s how it goes in “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” the third installment — and, for those who don’t necessarily cherish every syllable Stephenie Meyer writes, easiest to watch — of the series detailing the difficulties of choosing between a well-mannered vampire and a lovesick teenage werewolf.
Really, what’s a girl to do?
For Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), the decision is deceptively simple. She wants to be with Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), one of the few blood-drinkers around who wouldn’t embarrass you if you took him home to meet Mom and Dad. She’s even ready to surrender both her chastity and her identity as a mortal to him.
But Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the wolf in hunk’s clothing, won’t give up without a fight. The escalating tensions between Edward and Jacob lead to some amusingly snarly sniping in “Eclipse”; at times, you can almost picture Pattinson and Lautner taking the Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn roles in a gender-reversed remake of “Death Becomes Her.” The insults and insinuations get so nasty that Bella finally has to declare, “From now on, I’m Switzerland!”
Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg’s humor, which was the only saving grace of the turgid and tedious “New Moon,” helps to make the film’s swoonier moments palatable. But what ultimately makes “Eclipse” work is the stylish direction of David Slade, whose earlier films such as the psychosexual shocker “Hard Candy” and the ultraviolent “30 Days of Night” might make him seem like a curious choice for a teen angst melodrama, even one with inescapable supernatural overtones. While Slade doesn’t entirely dodge some of the silliness that has marked the series so far — Jacob’s fellow werewolves remain little more than a parade of pretty boys, and much of the “let’s talk about our relationship” chatter between Bella and Edward borders on self-parody — he tightens up the storytelling and successfully builds suspense.
The frenzied finale includes enough decapitations, crushed heads, gushing blood and broken bones to at least partially mollify anyone who doesn’t give a fig about whether Bella hooks up with the chalky-skinned guy with the amber eyes or the toothy Native American who can give her a fur coat. There are a couple of disappointments, such as the diminished roles of the always delightful Anna Kendrick and Michael Welch, and couldn’t Dakota Fanning’s eerie, ethereal Jane stick around for more than two brief scenes? But, for the most part, “Eclipse” is a substantial step up from “New Moon” and better-crafted and more technically impressive than the original “Twilight.”
It also gives Stewart and Pattinson more emotional range than they’ve been able to demonstrate previously. Bella, who was an insufferable sad sack in “New Moon,” actually gets to smile and laugh a couple of times; she’s also permitted to indulge in a bit of lusty behavior with both of her beaus. Pattinson suggests an undercurrent of neediness and ferocity inside Edward, as he begins to realize both his intense yearning for Bella and his fear of what the future may hold in store for her.
There are echoes of “30 Days of Night” in Slade’s attention-grabbing opening sequence, in which a young man is stalked and assaulted by an unseen enemy on the streets of Seattle. It turns out he’s become the plaything of Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), a vengeful vampire who wants to do away with Bella and wipe out Edward’s family as payback for Edward killing Victoria’s paramour, James, in the first “Twilight.” To pull off this bloodbath, Victoria is assembling an army of “Newborns,” freshly christened vampires eager to do her bidding.
With the prospect of a massacre hanging over them, Edward and his clan form an uneasy alliance with their sworn enemies, Jacob and his fellow wolf people, in order to save Bella. Eventually, Victoria dispatches her followers to Bella’s backyard for the battle royale; in the film’s creepiest scene, the Newborns slowly emerge from the bottom of a lake, moving into view like a silent, unstoppable platoon.
While setting the stage for the carnage to come, “Eclipse” also provides insights into the backstories of Edward’s pseudo-siblings, Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) and Rosalie (Nikki Reed). He was a major in the Confederate Army before running afoul of a true femme fatale; she was a Jazz Age beauty “saved” from certain death by sympathetic father-figure Carlisle (Peter Facinelli), who brought her into the Cullen family coven. While Jasper has made peace with his second life, Rosalie has not. In a surprisingly strong moment, she urges Bella not to give up “normal life” for an eternity of anguished youthfulness. “We’ll always be this: frozen, never moving forward,” Rosalie says, mournfully. “That’s what I miss the most: possibilities.”
Speaking of possibilities, cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe never passes up a chance to lavish attention on Lautner, who emerges as the true centerpiece of “Eclipse.” As an actor, Lautner may be hit-or-miss, prone to striking poses instead of integrating himself into a scene. Even so, there’s no denying the camera is as drawn to him as Bella is to Edward: In the kinds of close-ups that used to be reserved for old-school stars such as Lana Turner and Robert Taylor, Aguirresarobe slavishly showcases every facet of Lautner’s physique, from the neck that’s reminiscent of a baby brontosaurus to his almost absurdly perfect abdominals. “Eclipse” already has a surplus of blood, sweat and tears; Lautner gives it a strong dose of testosterone as well.