Back in Forks in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Bella and Edward repose in a meadow of soft-focus violets, in which Edward, his ivory skin bejeweled under the sun’s rays, asks Bella once again to be his bride. Bella stares at her lap and twists up her wide mouth on her long jaw and refuses to give him a firm yes or no until he promises to turn her into a vampire. Edward waffles. Better to wait a few weeks, he says, until after their high-school graduation. Restive, the virgin Bella wants to make love with Edward before he kills and resurrects her — so she’ll know what it’s like “while I’m still me.” But Edward is old-fashioned, having come of age a century earlier when “things were less complicated.” Therefore, he says, they must wait until they’re married before they have sex and he kills her. As you can imagine, his pure-mindedness puts a strain on the relationship, and, also, there’s a werewolf at the door: Jacob the Human Muscle Chart, a hot-blooded Native American with no patience for tortured paleface bloodsucker Mormon-esque sexual circumlocutions. He wants Bella to choose him instead of Edward — or, as he puts it, “I want you to choose me instead of him.” Imprudently, he tries to steal a kiss, but she whomps him and sprains her hand. Jacob is chastened. Though bestial, he’s still a gentleman.
It’s tough to think of a love triangle more simpleminded (sorry, “less complicated”) than the one in Eclipse: Like Edward, it seems to have been exhumed from an earlier era. (The obvious white makeup on the actors playing vampires makes you think of an earlier era, too — in movies.) After three films, Stephenie Meyers’s Edward and Bella haven’t gone as far as Buffy and Spike on their first date. But damned if today’s “what-ever” teens aren’t mesmerized. In part, it’s the usual blockbuster-hype hysteria. But most blockbusters don’t move so glacially and withhold so much. This attention-deficit-disordered multitasking sybaritic generation is getting off on deferring their gratification.
How’s the movie? On its own terms, quite good! It’s certainly more stirring than the last one, a barbiturate. The new director, David Slade, made the taut two-character thriller Hard Candy with Ellen Page and the Alaskan vampire slaughter-fest 30 Days of Night, which had an irresistible romantic-tragic ending. I hoped he’d bring a little more push to Eclipse, but at least he’s in control of the (measured) tempo. You can almost hear him off-camera: “Take a beat, don’t rush, we’re on Sequel Time.” After the two-hundredth lengthy monumental screen-filling close-up of one of the three leading actors, I became hypnotized by their complexions. Was their skin tone evened out in post-production? Did computers squeegee out their zits? Half the time the camera is so tight on Kristen Stewart that it slices off the bottom of her chin and the top of her head until she’s nothing but a bobbed nose and two big white front teeth — and there’s still not a pore in sight.
I’ve always liked Stewart because she seems temperamentally averse to emoting, an anti-drama queen. You can tell she has a hard time repeating the same canned anecdotes on talk shows; opposite David Letterman (way off his game) the other night, she bit her lip as if to keep from saying, “What are you jabbering about, you fatuous old fool?” As Bella, she can seem sullen, a little dull, like her dope is wearing off. She doesn’t take many chances. But I think she’s smart to hold something back, to let the audience (especially the female audience) project their feelings onto her face with its well-kept secrets. In Eclipse, she’s a better match for the Jacob of Taylor Lautner, who keeps swaggering into her space while Robert Pattinson’s Edward — with his glowy mood eyes — hangs back looking weak and antiseptic and clingy. Pattinson is another of those Brits who get hamstrung by having to put on a flat American accent: Why couldn’t he use his own voice, which has some zing? But there’s a payoff this time: a good, tense cards-on-the-table dialogue between Edward and Jacob over a (maybe) sleeping Bella that ends in one of those moments where you think, “Oh, why don’t you macho men kiss already?”
Eclipse’s principal threat is an army of vicious “newborn” vampires built by Villains to Be Named Later: maybe the Volturi, led by sociopath telepath Dakota Fanning; maybe the vengeful redheaded chick played by Bryce Dallas Howard, actress No. 3 in the role and, like the other two, upstaged by her wig — although her scenes with Xavier Samuel as the chief newborn bloodsucker have some bite. The upright vampires train with the righteous werewolves to meet their foes on the field of battle, with Bella hidden up in the mountains whining, “Why can’t I do something? I’m so lame!”— or words to that effect. Three historical flashbacks are told in a fast, fractured syntax: Native American werewolves besieged on the prairie by white “Ice people” bloodsuckers; Confederate soldier Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) vampirized by harpies and set loose on settlers; and Rosalie (Nikki Reed) raped and left for dead by her sleazy fiancé and other drunken louts — who are punished, Tarantino-style, by the Bride of Blood. The material isn’t fresh, but the panoramic scenes make a nice break from all the stiff close-ups, and the Twilight Saga could use some political context. Too bad about the music, though. Howard Shore is credited with the score, but most of what we hear is CD-ready alt-rock, none of it especially evocative. Eclipse needs a plangent vampire theme, a love theme, a menacing Volturi motif, a werewolf tarantella. Why hire a first-rate composer and hold him to a few bars?
At least Shore gets to score the big rumble, another hash of smash-cuts and CGI, but surprisingly cathartic after all the tortured silences. My ideal battle scene would have more splatter, but these vampires apparently don’t bleed; they shatter. As my 12-year-old daughter explained, “Vampires don’t have any blood, that’s why they need to keep drinking it.” I said I’d been watching vampire movies for 45 years and they sure as hell had plenty of blood until now and she said, “Dad, these are not your vampires.” Then she asked if I was “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob.” Then she insisted I tell you she loved Eclipse. No vampire has such power to enslave.