From The Twilight Saga: Eclipse's first dark moments, as a young man gets attacked and tries to escape from a speedy assailant he cannot see, it's obvious this installment isn't like the others. The menace is set from moment one. It's not shoe-horned in like Twilight, or amped up at the end like New Moon. There's a world of peril lurking outside Forks, and it's this exact risk Bella (Kristen Stewart) faces as she continues her love affair with Edward (Robert Pattinson) and ponders her decision to become immortal.
New Moon ended with a proposal, and as we return to Forks, Bella has told Edward no -- continually -- trying to explain to her love that she's not the type of person to get married right out of high school. That's for the girls that get knocked up, not for young women like her, even if she is eager for the much more permanent bond of immortality.
But Edward persists, while trying to keep his jealousy in check now that he can see the depth of the bond she and werewolf best friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner) forged in his absence. He has a valid reason to fear her Quileute bud. Werewolves are dangerous and the last thing he wants is for Bella to be hurt again, but this fear is drowned out by the envy -- of their closeness, Jacob's romantic suitability, and all the potential werewolf babies he offers.
Miss Swan, meanwhile, tries to remain "Switzerland" between the two, desperate to focus on her vampire future rather than recognizing her attraction to Jacob. She tries to live the last bits of humanity she'll have before she graduates and becomes a sparkly bloodsucker -- but it's close to impossible as the Riley-led (Xavier Samuel) vampiric menace in Seattle turns out to be a super-strong and lethal newborn vampire army intent to destroy her and avenge Victoria's (now played by a mediocre Bryce Dallas Howard) fallen love (James, from the first film).
For the most part, Eclipse plays out like the book, digging into the romance and the danger brewing in Forks. But where Stephenie Meyer was content to focus on Edward's beauty and the pointless love triangle, the film offers fans a glimpse of the horror falling on Seattle -- how Riley deals with his growing army of newborns, and why the Volturi don't smack them down and end the menace. It also strives to remove the passivity from the proceedings.
On the page, Bella lets the danger and information come to her. In the film, screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg does a lot to make Bella an active participant -- Bella doesn't forget her anger when kissing Edward, she doesn't wait for Jacob to steal her away for a day at the reservation, she doesn't whine about every single gift, and she even approaches Rosalie to ask about the beautiful vampire's distaste for her. Though she's still drowning in romantic turmoil, Bella has some strength -- or as much as she can have in a world where both romantic options are super-tough creatures of fantasy.
As a result of Bella's strength, Edward's possessiveness and jealousy reach a fever pitch. With Bella in the driver's seat, he doesn't get to admit his werewolf prejudice and agree to trust Bella's judgment; big-screen Edward stays steeped in jealousy and macho attitude. In cinematic form, this makes him an even poorer romantic choice for Miss Swan, but for Team Edward, they can be comforted by the fact that no matter how Edward acts on the screen, he'll get his girl in the end.
For the most part, Rosenberg's writing and director David Slade's eye bring a welcome freshness to Eclipse. Where Stephenie Meyer writes many pages while saying little, Rosenberg shrinks verbose proceedings into a few words, and infuses it with a decent dose of humor (whether it's recognizing the big running joke as Edward asks if Jacob ever wears a shirt, to fan-centric banter about why Jessica is class valedictorian instead of Eric). Surprisingly, even relatively bloodless, the action scenes thrive, finally giving the Cullens some of the spotlight and some of the fun. This is particularly the case for Jasper (Jackson Rathbone), who seems over his frailty for human blood and is so instrumental in the film that he's even given a different grad year to give him more screen time.
However, for as much as Rosenberg and Slade improve the source material, there are times when their visions falter. For all the strength she gives Bella, Rosenberg's script still falls victim to bland discussion, a strange need to increase the story's already heavy romantic triangle, and a wholly unnecessary and lazy voice-over. In a scene where Bella tries to call Jacob, she speaks over the scene, explaining how Jacob is ignoring her, rather than simply saying that into the phone. These brief and superfluous explanations are awkward and pace-killing pauses between scenes. Likewise, Slade excels with the all-too-brief action, but crashes when it gets too sappy. There is a disconnect between these moments, and it's at its worse with the music cues. Where the first two films fluidly intermingled the indie soundtrack with the emotions on display, the music in Eclipse is often distracting and jarring, as if placed by marketing demands rather than the needs of the feature.
These moments fall secondary to the biggest fault of the film -- that Rosenberg and Slade are tethered to the source. In many scenes you can feel them soaring away from the material and into a more engaging cinematic experience, but all too quickly, the bungee cord reaches its limit and the writing and direction are flung back to the book. One can't help but wonder what would happen if there was just a little more room to take the more solid ideas in Meyer's tome and make them more cinematic and easily palatable -- to pull back a little on the romance and offer more well-rounded people -- to let Bella's cinematic strength expand even more, to give the Cullens more life, and to give everyone a little more to do.
But loyalty often results in happy fans, and moving much further away from the source material would surely elicit upset. Luckily, there's one big gem that makes up for the tethered moviemaking. The most interesting aspect of the books is a heroine who is utterly ill-suited to human life, yet perfect for vampiric life, as if that's Bella's true soul-mate. The world suits her, and while Meyer never really discusses it, Rosenberg rests the whole proceedings on this notion, allowing Bella to explain that becoming a vampire is not just about Edward. It's a life she's destined for. How, even in danger, she's never felt more herself.
It's just a shame this idea wasn't the driving force of the series rather than vampire beauty and romantic angst. If it was, there would probably be a much smaller chasm between the Twi-hards and the Twi-nots. But at least this focus gives the film a boost into more engaging cinematic fare, which Slade sculpts into a vision that merges Hardwicke's art with Weitz's action for a style that should have been present from the get-go.
[For another take on Eclipse, check out what our Eric D. Snider had to say.]