’Twilight’ eclipsed by the rules of engagement

"The sexual abstinence message is beginning to grate"

Going to see a Twilight movie is not like seeing a regular movie. But this is the third time around, and I’m getting to know the drill. Last night I attended a preview of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. It was neither a press screening nor a gala premiere nor a public promo event. It was billed as “a VIP screening.” The theatre was packed with hundreds of “VIPs”, and we were  welcomed by distribution executive Bryan Gliserman of E1 Entertainment, who told us we were all “very special.” Whatever that means. Judging by the screams, this hand-picked crowd included more than a few Twihards. But I’ve learned that Twilight fans have a weird relationship to the series. They’re a discerning bunch. Many are so devoted to Stephanie Meyer’s books that they regard the movies as a curious facsimile, no matter how faithful they try to be. And given that Meyer regulates the franchise with an iron hand, the films are  faithful to a fault. The problem is, the audience still seems torn on where to drawn the line between high romance and high camp. I still can’t figure out where the comedy is intentional and where it’s not. For example, laughter broke the mood during the most serious romantic moment of this latest episode—ahem, if you haven’t read the books, but still care enough about the series that you don’t want me to spoil the plot, skip this next bit —and I’m talking about the moment where Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her vampire beau, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) finally become engaged. That’s funny? There’s a strange disassociation that seems to have infected the series. It’s as if the actors, consigned to the template of their predestined fate, keep their characters at an ironic distance, and so does the audience—as if everyone intimately involved with Twilight feels they’re superior to the movie.

So how is the movie? Well, I was bored for the first half. The pace seemed utterly leaden. But once the narrative finally gets in gear, there’s more narrative payoff in this third installment than in the two previous films. Bella is about to graduate from high school and  is forced to choose between Edward and his werewolf rival, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who becomes increasingly aggressive in courting her. The plot hinges on a brewing war between the Cullen clan—the virtuous vampires—and a voracious pack of “newborn” bloodsuckers who are wreaking homicidal havoc in Seattle. They are a punk gang led by a leering nihilist named Riley, who looks like he got lost on his way to the set of A Clockwork Orange. Riley, whose latest recruit is a young teen named Bree (Canadian Jodelle Ferland), is being played as an unwitting pawn of the vengeful Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard). And along the way, the narrative takes a number of back-story detours, which may prove utterly mystifying for anyone just tuning in. But basic conflict is classic stuff. As the Cullens prepare to battle the army of bloodthirsty newborns, they make an unholy alliance with the wolves. And it’s against this backdrop that the torrid love triangle involving Bella, Edward and Jacob gets torqued to the breaking point.

Like the James Bond franchise, the Twilight series is getting into the habit of employing a different director for each episode. David Slade, whose credits including the caustic Hard Candy, helms Eclipse. He gives the drama more bite than either Chris Weitz, who buried the previous episode (New Moon) in sentimental sludge, or Catherine Hardwicke, who framed the first installment as romantic comedy. But Slade doesn’t hit his stride until the third act,, when the violent showdown is graphically staged in snowy alpine landscape (courtesy of British Columbia), which unfolds like a rugby game on fast forward. Until then he seems hamstrung by Meyer’s dialogue, as filtered through Melissa Rosenberg, her obedient screenwriter on all three movies. More than once, the script reminds us how important it is to “know the consequences of the choices you’re making.” And by now the message of sexual abstinence is really beginning to grate. Edward, we are told, is “old school”; he may be a vampire but he doesn’t believe in premarital sex. Yes, yes, we get it. No wonder we start rooting for the hot-blooded Jacob, even though we know this buff aboriginal brave doesn’t stand a chance against the chivalrous undead paleface in the stakes of eternal romance.

As Jacob, Lautner breathes some real life into the drama. He makes a passionate argument for being human. But much of time the comedy seems off the leash. At one point, as Jacob stomp off in a jealous huff, Bella shouts “Stay!” I laughed, but when others in the audience didn’t join me, I wasn’t so sure if the canine reference was intentional. Personally, I’d rather give the comedy the benefit of the doubt. When Meyer’s high-minded morality gets serious, it becomes intolerable. So I’m grateful for the any gestures of deliberate wit, especially the droll asides from Bella’s father (Billy Burke), who is a walking anachronism, like a suburban dad straight out of vintage sitcom. At one point during last night’s screening I turned to the friend next to me and said, “I feel like I’m watching Leave It To Beaver.”

“Right,” he said, “but without the beaver.”

Sorry, but stuff happens when two guys start to get bored at chick flick.