Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Less Than The Sum Of Its Parts, The Twilight Saga Holds Together Poorly.

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The Good: Moments of concept, Portrayal of young love, Cinematography
The Bad: Underdeveloped characters, Melodrama, Stiff acting, Belabored plot
The Basics: The Twilight Saga starts as a charming tale of love between a mortal and an undead individual and drags out a dismal series of conflicts for multiple movies.

There are few movie series’ that have been produced in recent memory that have both such loyal fans and such rabid detractors as The Twilight Saga. Based upon a tremendously popular book series that pretty much defined the contemporary teen paranormal romance genre, the cinematic Twilight Saga was one of the smartest bets by the studios in recent memory. It came with a build-in audience, had a sufficient franchise to draw out and had the potential for mass appeal. And it worked: the success of the first two films made household names of Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, and Taylor Lautner, as well as launched the career of a number of the secondary performers in the films, and inspired the studio to split the final film into two to milk the fan base for additional money and keep the “phenomenon” alive.

But the same things that made the series seem initially strong also gave so much for the detractors to rant about: the films, which feature vampire and werewolf characters, were remarkably bloodless and for a great romance epic, the main couple was shockingly sexless. The acting was mixed and the fact that the film could not keep a consistent director to maintain a singular vision for the films may have worked against it (especially on the press circuit). For my part, I look at what is directly in front of me. Having sat down and rewatched the entire cinematic rendition of The Twilight Saga, there are several things that stand out to me now, looking at the work as a whole. As it will inevitably be viewed as a solid Saga (shocking that when Breaking Dawn, Part 2 was announced for DVD and Blu-Ray, no collector’s series set was announced simultaneously!), it behooves one to consider the entire work.

The Twilight Saga is a rare example where the parts, when put together, make something significantly less than the films on their own. Allow me to explain.

First, The Twilight Saga consists of the films:
New Moon
Breaking Dawn, Part I
Breaking Dawn, Part 2

For those unfamiliar with The Twilight Saga, the five films follow the exploits of Bella Swan, innocent, pale klutzy high school student who moves from Phoenix, Arizona to Forks, Washington when her mother wants to travel more with her new boyfriend. Forks, a mist-covered rural community, is where Bella’s father lives and works as a sheriff. There, Bella meets the mysterious Edward Cullen. Edward, she quickly learns, is a vampire, but a friendly one. Bella and Edward begin a romance, which puts them in danger when a roving trio of vampires comes through and starts killing humans and attacks Bella.

On Bella’s eighteenth birthday, there is an incident and Edward abandons her, ostensibly for her own safety. At that point, Bella rekindles her friendship with Jacob Black, a local who she slowly learns is a werewolf. Jacob’s protective instinct kicks in and while Bella prevents Edward from killing himself so he is no longer tormented by his love for Bella, the attempt draws the attention of the powerful Italian vampires, the Volturi. The Volturi come to Forks shortly thereafter when the villainous Victoria raises an army of vampires to destroy the Cullens and the werewolves and vampires work together to protect Bella and put down the threat of the rogue vampire clan.

After Bella graduates high school, she and Edward get married and during their honeymoon, the unthinkable happens: Bella gets pregnant from Edward and the spawn is something no one quite understands.

What struck me most about rewatching The Twilight Saga all together was what a weak link New Moon (which I rather enjoyed when it originally was released) was and just what a forced sense of conflict the Saga possesses. The initial villains are dispatched fairly quickly and make way for a far less sensible group of villains. The Volturi are visually menacing and creepy beyond belief, but they are basically superpower vampires who claim to be working to preserve the vampires and keep them off the humans’ radar while being the most obtrusive group of vampires: while the Cullens and the other vampires seen in the Saga generally blend in, the Volturi look like out-of-date elves who kill humans with startling regularity.

The love triangle (a term I loathe because it seldom is actually true – and is not in The Twilight Saga, as there is no emotional connection between Edward and Jacob) between Bella and Edward and Bella and Jacob seems increasingly forced as the film series goes on. In fact, outside of most of New Moon, it is painfully clear to everyone save Jacob that Bella has chosen Edward as her love interest. Even more than any problems with Kristen Stewart’s (who plays Bella) acting, Bella becomes a problematic character for the way she makes her choice, yet keeps stringing Jacob along.

Ironically, Eclipse, which might be the least-respected of the films, is a stronger link in the storytelling. With a compelling villain, a cool effect (the battles in this film are bigger and actually have significance) and a real test for the Edward/Bella relationship where Edward’s solution is not simply to run away, Eclipse actually stands up as a solid and engaging film. It is, when viewed as a whole Saga, also the high water mark of the films.

The final two films seem like much more of a coda comparatively. They seem like a necessary evil to the story, as opposed to a vital chapter, a simple fleshing out of the promise at the climax of Eclipse as opposed to an engaging end to the story. Here is why: the wedding is an inevitable, obvious plot point that was pretty much foreseeable the moment Edward returned to Bella in New Moon. The incident with the Volturi is a forced plot point – in a perfect world with the seemingly endless financial resources of the Cullens and the fact that the Volturi are in Italy, Bella and Edward could have easily avoided them for all eternity – and the conception of Renesmee seems an artful dodge for an audience obviously not prepared for an actual adult relationship. In other words, the first year of most real marriages is, frankly, hell (after the Honeymoon period wears off). It takes a real love and patience to survive the first year of a marriage as two people give up doing everything their own way and figure out how to do things “the Us way.” That, however, is not what the audience who wants to gush over an immortal love between a hundred plus year-old man and an eighteen year-old woman wants to watch. So, the writers and directors provide a much more literal hell (and a less-than-subtle admonishment about the dangers of sexuality!) when Bella’s first lovemaking produces a monstrous pregnancy that (among other things) shatters Bella’s spine and leaves her with becoming a vampire as her only viable chance of survival. Instead of taking the fantasy of immortal love and making it seem more real, The Twilight Saga makes love seem more preposterous and uncomfortable and dangerous.

The Twilight Saga has somewhat inconsistent direction but, oddly enough, a consistent sense of spectacle and quality of cinematography that makes the movies eminently watchable. The pacing for the Saga is off and the acting is inconsistent. However, while Kristen Stewart gets the awkward nature of Bella Swan right in Twilight, it is not until the Breaking Dawn movies that she is given more room to express range, so she goes through most of the Saga stiff and portraying boredom over passion. In rewatching the Saga, it is actually Robert Pattinson who stands out for the poor acting. Whereas Taylor Lautner portrays Jacob Black as an invested, interesting, and passionate guy, Pattinson’s role seems to be simply to show up. Edward Cullen is cold, passionless, and frightfully dull and Pattinson does not make the role any warmer. Instead, he is stiff, gives Stewart almost nothing to play off of and yet, when he smiles, that is supposed to substitute for actual personality.

It, alas, does not.

Ultimately, any one of the Twilight films is fine, but when viewed together as the complete Twilight Saga, it becomes tiresome and more of a mess than it ought to. Fans and moviegoers deserve quite a bit more.

For other film sagas, please check out my reviews of:
The Dark Knight Trilogy
The Harry Potter Saga
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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