Last night was the release of Eclipse, the third movie in the Twilight franchise. Theaters were packed; Team Edward/Jacob loyalties ran high; anticipatory squeals filled the air.
The movie that unfolded wasn’t worth any of it.
This has gone beyond cinematic “worth” in the context of inscrutable teen tastes, or a shift in the zeitgeist, or any of the other trends that set their intended audience alight while mystifying everyone outside their demographic. This is about a two-hour movie that has to pull its bookend voiceover into the film to explain plot points it never shows, as the camera pans over a lengthy establishing shot of a forest.
...More than once.
The trend is distinct. Twilight will never be mistaken for a classic (it’s a decent teen flick and a terrible vampire movie), but for all its flaws it’s actually a movie; it has a cinematic vocabulary and a story with a beginning, middle, and end. New Moon was less coherent (though mercifully less blue), more a collection of filmed scenes from the book than a movie in its own right, and it killed time between halfhearted dialogue and CGI fight scenes by blasting its soundtrack as loudly as possible. But Eclipse, which has arguably the most movie-friendly source material of all four books, somehow manages to be the least cohesive, most awkwardly-assembled installment yet.
Why the decline?
First, to better understand the downward slide this franchise has taken, know that a character who has been speaking a regionless accent for two and a half films has a flashback to his time in the Confederate army, and carries the Texas drawl forward with him for the rest of the movie. This is the kind of decision which several people have to sign off on. It is the kind of decision which requires on-set maintenance. Eclipse is the kind of movie in which this decision makes it to the final cut.
With that general quality control in mind, let’s look at some likely factors for the slide.
The first and foremost reasoning is that truly spectacular adaptations of bad literature are rare, and so the movies can only be expected to be as good as the source material. That actually gets the movies a pass on nearly everything (the vacuous and off-putting Bella from the films still somehow manages to top the version in the books). This helps explain why Twilight worked where it did, since it had the initial tension between its romantic leads. It also explains a lot of the problems with New Moon; when your primary romantic lead drops off the scene for 400 pages and your secondary lead had less than a dozen lines in the last movie, good luck carrying that narrative tension. (Also, here is a vampire bureaucracy. You’re welcome.)
However, of all four movies, Eclipse is working with something closest to a real plot: the vengeful Victoria creates an army of newborn vampires (better, stronger, faster than they were before!) to pick off the Cullens; the overseeing Volturi are forced to get involved, which puts human Bella in danger; the werewolf pack and the Cullens face off; and Jacob and Edward both make their claims on Bella’s heart as the final battle barrels down on them.
And yet, with all this cross-antagonism and potential intrigue, the movie flounders as soon as Edward and Bella appear onscreen, and makes little attempt to carry any further tension. (There are several lengthy scenes of characters talking about how they will eventually have to make a decision. Adventure!)
Eclipse does have its almost-accidental moment of real fun, when a grinning Jasper leads a werewolf training session on how to beat the crap out of a vampire, and uses various family members as crash test dummies to demonstrate techniques. Like Twilight’s vampire baseball, or New Moon’s werewolf pursuit of Victoria, the scene transcends the plodding plot and becomes, for a moment, a movie about the thrill of being supernatural. (And, like the scenes in its predecessors, that moment does not last long.)
Those oddly-synchronous moments aside, the disparate list of directors who have helmed these outings are part of the quality problem. Even in the Harry Potter films, which have each made an attempt to be a standalone and engaging piece of cinema, the final product varies wildly by director, and that was with a list of directors who were picked with apparent deliberation, after the scope of the phenomenon was known.
Catherine Hardwicke probably remains the best choice that could have been made for Twilight. Having already made a claustrophobic teen movie or two, she knew her material, and at the time of filming the book had not quite caught fire; everyone involved was ostensibly making a cult movie based on a YA book. (We all know how that turned out.) Chris Weitz, director of the floptacular Golden Compass, was reportedly brought in at the last minute after Hardwicke and Summit couldn’t agree on a production schedule for New Moon, which might help explain the slapdash effects. But David Slade is the man behind the intense 30 Days of Night and the even more intense Hard Candy; with that resume it seems bizarre that we ended up with a movie as milquetoast as Eclipse.
But the most likely answer to the series’ decline, and a sad truth in any case, is that it no longer matters to anyone involved how bad the movies are. The core audience is so wide and so devoted that questions of quality simply don’t apply. If you are seeing a Twilight movie in all sincerity, then you want to see a list of your favorite scenes brought to life on the screen, and the franchise’s only goal now is to provide them. Those who come looking for craftsmanship, or even coherence, will starve.
The good news is that if you are seeing a Twilight movie to mock it, you’ll feast every time.
Genevieve Valentine went to the midnight show to track how devoted the fans are after three years. Two people walked out. She still cannot believe that happened. She talks about the Twilight franchise and other disasters on her blog.