A Fandango email popped up in my inbox today. I’d used the service Saturday afternoon to purchase a ticket for Eclipse, the third film in The Twilight Saga. It asked, “How did you like [the film]?” That’s a good question that I’m finding it difficult to answer.
Before watching the film, directed by David Slade, I read Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling series and watched the first two films to prepare myself. Although I am not a die-hard fan (you will not see me wearing Team Edward or Team Jacob T-shirts any time soon), I could see why the series created a huge stir: its position on relationships is polarizing.
In an age where women are entering the romantic arena as autonomous sexual beings, The Twilight Saga returns to old-fashioned, love at first sight daredevil antics, where young women are admired for an amorphous goodness and young men fight each other for their virtue. Meyer does a great job tapping into romantic tropes older than Shakespearean plays and as complicated as Jane Austen novels, deftly blending old-school romance with the fantastically strange and popular vampire craze.
Eclipse is the strongest book of the saga, and its movie counterpart is the strongest film among previous releases Twilight and New Moon. So much of the book revolves around choice, desire and obligation. Readers identify with Isabella “Bella” Swan’s relationship prospects that promise wildly different life paths, incarnated in the age-old rivalry of vampire and werewolf.
The movie deals with important themes of teenage life: choices, mistakes, and relationships. People who cannot see the saga’s appeal ride older fans hard about fueling the media frenzy and lusting after the young male characters. But teenage life includes overdramatic death drops into lust disguised as love. It includes devotion to partners that parents and outsiders just don’t understand. The odds are high, the risks are deep, and some of us run off and marry high school sweethearts. For others, the love fades; for still others, the relationship ends brutally and painfully.
Meyer is not a literary genius, and the major flaw of her book – telling everything through first person narration and showing very little descriptively — traces directly to the more painful plot moments in the resulting films. However, the film and the books nail themes teenaged indecision and sexual frustration skillfully. The ideas resonate, even if the story doesn’t carry the same weight.
When I started reading this series and watching the films, my feminist radar was on high alert. I remember young love as nostalgically as the next person; but why are young, emotion-driven trysts like Bella and Edward’s the most popularly marketed in movies, books and television? What message does this movie teach young women about love, and should we be skeptical about the limited roles for young men in these relationships — protector and champion? The scene between Jacob and Edward deciding who would be the best relationship choice while she slept under their guard was disturbing. How deep do choices really run under this quiet princess archetype, with women seeking princes (men only) in any form they can find them?
Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson reprise their roles as lovers Bella (18-year-old human) and Edward (century-old vampire frozen at 17), and the lover’s quarrel resumes with Bella’s adamant demand to join Edward in eternal, blood-drinking bliss. As a compromise, Edward agrees to transform Bella into a vampire on the condition of marrying him — a condition Bella stutters over awkwardly at the end of the film New Moon. The issue isn’t one of chastity; the young couple wants to have sex, and Bella wants sex with Edward almost as badly as she wants to be a vampire.
The reason for Bella’s reluctance – the hasty marriage of her young parents, coupled with an equally hasty divorce – slows her journey to immortal bliss with the man she would die for. Edward remains steadfast to marriage as the most meaningful commitment Bella could give him. But I sympathize with Bella here: if she’s willing to give up her human life to join Edward in a relationship paramount to their existence for all eternity, isn’t that enough of a demonstration of commitment and fidelity? Edward (rather paternalistically) reminds Bella that she does not understand the stakes of her decision and what she will lose being human. Bella, in the end, must choose how commitment and relationships work for her, and that’s a powerful message to send to young heterosexual women in an age where the meaning of marriage evolves politically and socially.
But the couple’s still not out of dangerous territory: vampire Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) seeks revenge on Edward for murdering her mate James. To wound Edward most, Victoria follows James’s footsteps and sets her sights on killing fragile, human Bella. As a strategy, she forms an army of ravenously hungry and strong newborn vampires, and the group terrorizes the streets of Seattle until they head for Bella’s hometown of Forks, Washington.
Eclipse also marks the return of Edward’s romantic rival and the closest person Bella has to a best friend, Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Although Jacob’s love for Bella is a nuisance to the starry-eyed couple, his shirtless appearances and electric performances pump much-needed blood (pun intended) into the movie. Lautner’s camera presence is electric, and he has brilliant comedic timing that’s perfect for Jacob’s wise-ass nature. Oh, and did I mention he’s a werewolf? Yeah, he’s a werewolf, loathes vampires (Bella’s present beau included), and attempts to guilt Bella into remaining human with his friendship–and body. There are no saints in this situation.
Stewart’s acting chops have not improved since the first films, and wisely Slade removes as much of the film’s developing plot from her shoulders as possible. Unlike the Twilight and New Moon movies, we are not forced to watch Stewart stare vacantly and fidget for minutes at a time as she faces a really super mega hard teenaged life decision. Prolonged exposure to Stewart’s blank expressions reminds me of the empty descriptive breadth of Bella Swan’s narration. Pattinson often has to carry scenes involving the two of them, and the tepid chemistry between him and Stewart early in the film makes the relationship barely believable — and not because one of them is a vampire. Perhaps the rumors of their off-screen romance faltering are true, and selling the movie is the higher priority between them right now.
Despite the awkward acting performances by the lead couple, the supporting characters’ flashbacks liven up the vampire army action. (Besides, with Victoria on the hunt, Bella may die involuntarily and without fangs to her credit.) In an effort to convince Bella that humanity shouldn’t be cast off whimsically, Edward’s adopted sister Rosalie (Nikki Reed) shares her violent entry into the vampire world, along with her longing for the choices and lifestyles she can no longer make: the decision to start a family, the ability to grow old with a spouse. To be fair, all human women don’t have these options; however, choosing a path and having outside influences shut paths off entirely are different considerations.
Another great cinematic moment takes place at a council meeting with Jacob’s tribe, when his father Billy (Gil Birmingham) educates everyone on the history of werewolves and their opposition to vampires. With each glimpse into the past and into other people’s perspectives, I was reminded that this movie tries to create some feeble ties to reality by creating histories and installing its characters into different periods and places beyond Bella’s reality.
Another one of the movie’s strengths is it highlights a fundamental plot point marketers like Burger King and fans prefer to ignore: the only person who does not suffer a dilemma over romantic choices is Bella. Bella’s love towards Jacob comes off as more maternal than romantic, and Stewart does manage to convey this passionate protective relationship with Lautner very well. Bella’s reactions to Jacob, along with her defenses of Jacob to Edward and his family, are the only moments in the film where she shows real fire and emotion. The Team Edward/Team Jacob phenomenon is great for selling t-shirts and for permitting audience interaction (I enjoy the catcalling and applause whenever Bella and Jacob earn time alone). But Eclipse curbs the audience’s enthusiasm for anything beyond Edward and Bella.
By the end of the film, Bella outlines all the awkwardness of entering adulthood as her reason for wanting to become a vampire – not really fitting in, excessive clumsiness, seeking a place of belonging and acceptance beyond her family. At that critical stage of life and development, everyone seeks out something else to be, something beyond themselves. Meyer’s solution for Bella is the vampire realm. With the recession and the changing climate for women in the world, maybe a romantic story with an escape hatch is what some women need now. As a feminist, I can’t begrudge readers and filmgoers that wish.
So how did I like Eclipse? I like it as romantic escapism. I like it as a young adult film because it captures zealous early love and all of its awkwardness. I do not think it will win an Oscar; nor do I think it is the greatest film of all time. But once I took the film as a love fantasy – one of many awkward, teenaged love fantasies, and nothing more complicated than that – I could appreciate the best and the worst of it.