There are good and bad aspects about a film series, such as HARRY POTTER or THE TWILIGHT SAGA. The bad aspect is that the story has to be stretched over multiple installments that create a deadening sense of inertia: it’s a bit like reading a lengthy novel that forces you to wade through pages and pages of boring exposition before getting to the good stuff, except in the case of a film series it’s not a few chapters – it’s three, four, or five films of nothing much exciting until you get to the final installment. The good aspect of a franchise is that, when you finally reach that final installment, all the conflict and excitement that’s been held in store for so long can finally come out in one big blast. It worked in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2, and to a lesser degree it works in THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN PART 2.
Throughout the previous entries (TWILIGHT, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: FULL MOON, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN PART 1), the films had set new records for treading water, and seldom if ever did anyone involved seem to feel any imperative to show a little artistic ambition. Even director Bill Condon (who crafted the excellent GODS AND MONSTERS back in 1998) seemed to have had his considerable talent eclipsed by the series: faced with the unenviable task of stretching the final book into two films (and thus stretching the box office), he churned out another indistinguishable entry with BREAKING DAWN PART 1.
Fortunately, he shows a little flicker of his old self in BREAKING DAWN PART 2 – just enough to clear a very low bar and give us the best TWILIGHT film yet. Which is not to say that the final chapter is very good, but it does have redeeming features. THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN PART 2 won’t win any converts to either Team Edward or Team Jacob, but it has enough appeal to extend beyond the hardcore fans who attend ritualistically as a form of tribal identifier, rooting for their beloved characters regardless of the cinematic quality (or lack thereof) on screen.
The technical polish is vastly improved since the first TWILIGHT: the high-speed vampire effects are as silly as every, but there is some nice stunt work and some half-way decent action choreography that (if not up to the level of the best Hong Kong supernatural films) at least is not cringe-inducing. The CGI werewolves are not too bad if you don’t look too closely (although sometimes the attempt to make them look big mars the sense of perspective, making them look close to the camera instead). And some of the visual tricks used to convey Bella’s new vampire perspective on the world are nicely done.
Sadly, we’re still in a world dominated by teenage fantasy and surface appearances, where someone is considered “special” because the dialogue tells us so, regardless of actual achievement or effort. In this way, Bella is the ultimate audience-identification figure for high-school girls because her very blandness makes her a blank slate – she could be anybody, and if Bella is special, who’s to say you aren’t special, too?
Following this course, the first half of the movie recreates much of what was wrong with its predecessors, lingering over scenes of Edward telling Bella how strong and resilient she is while never imbuing the character with any actual strength (nor imbuing their romance with any actual passion, for that matter). Since becoming a vampire, Bella is supposed to be a more fully realized version of herself, but there is little “self” to realize, so the transformation is conveyed mostly through makeup, which makes her look as though she should be on the cover of “Zombie Glamour” magazine.” Unfortunately, Kristen Stewart’s performance hardly adds any depth beneath the surface: the only thing worse than the bland love-look she uses on Edward is the slightly constipated expression she uses later to convey determination and/or anger.
Bella is gifted with a few talents to help cover her lack of personality. In one of the sillier story elements, newborn vampires are supposed to be stronger than their elders (huh?), so she gets to show off a bit and throw a temper tantrum or two, in one case tossing Jacob around after finding out that he has imprinted on Bella’s daughter. It’s a sloppy way to convey female empowerment – better than nothing, I suppose, but odd in a film that is trying to make us admire Bella for the restraint she shows as a newborn.
Fortunately, the aimless love story of the first act is eventually supplanted by something resembling a plot when the Volturi find out about Bella and Edward’s daughter Renesmee. Vampire children being verboten, this means war, and the Cullen clan gather friends and allies to face the coming threat.
One of the problems with the earlier TWILIGHT films was their weak answer to the old dramatic question: “What’s at stake?” At first the stories tended to be about being the girl who got to date the cutest guy in class (even if “cute” meant weird hair and pale complexion). Later, the sequels trended toward having both the vampire and werewolf clans risking their lives to protect Bella, the outsider human, who never really did anything to warrant the kind of personal sacrifice everyone was willing to make on her behalf. With THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN PART 2, there is at last a sense that the stakes have been raised, that the crime (or what the Volturi perceive as a crime) of Renesmee’s existence puts the Cullen family in jeopardy and forces a situation in which the characters must take a stand.
This leads to a pretty decent if somewhat cornball showdown in the snow. THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN PART 2 plays with the all-bets-are-off quality of a final chapter, in which characters will not necessarily survive, because there is no need to keep them alive for subsequent installments. This helps overcome the fait accompli attitude of the series, in which it was always assumed that Bella and Edward’s love would overcome all obstacles, and thus one feels a twinge of something resembling uncertainty if not outright suspense when the characters put their lives on the line. The battle even manages to whip up a little bit of the passion missing from the love story: with beloved characters risking death and dismemberment, for once the film for once engenders a little emotion instead of just expecting the audience to supply it on their own.
Not everything is wonderful. Although it makes a kind of plot-sense to have Jacob ditch the battle so that he can get Renesmee to safety, it feels wrong; he should be in the thick of it with everyone else. Also, Bella’s super-strength is conveniently forgotten when the Cullens face off with the Volturi. Instead, Bella has developed the ability to shield herself and her friends from the magical powers of their enemies. It’s a nice way to make her seem important without giving her much of anything to do except stand around and stare. Which is a rather dangerous gambit in this case: trying to convey psychic powers through facial expressions is a challenge that has defeated far more experienced actors than Stewart.
Nevertheless, the action pays off nicely, with multiple gruesome deaths on both sides, including more severed heads than the entire series to date. Along the way, there is a good bit with an elder vampire, apparently tired of life, who simply accepts death rather than defend himself.* All of which leads to a decently realized twist ending (SPOILER: You’ve seen the surprise before if you have seen SAVAGES.) There is also a nice montage over the credits, showcasing all the major players form this and the previous films – a sort of moving-picture photo album that allows the fans to have one last look at their cherished characters.
As before, most of the cast members act like kids dressing up for a costume party; their photogenic faces and melodramatic posturing seldom convey the sense that an immortal being lurks beneath the youthful facade. The main exception is Michael Sheen as Aro, who does the requisite bad-guy villain shtick but also seem genuinely delighted by his own telepathic powers, approaching each new psychic contact like a kid in a candy store.
Also impressive is Lee Pace (PUSHING DAISIES) in a small supporting role as Garrett, an ally of the Cullens, whose swagger and panache are so impressive in his introductory scene that you wonder why he isn’t the star. Unfortunately, Condon relegates him to the sidelines for most of the remaining running time, lest he steal the show from Robert Pattinson, who never really comes alive until the final confrontation finally juices a little righteous anger from him.
Billy Burke gets a few last laughs as Bella’s father (he has been one of the consistently good, if little used, facets of the series). Taylor Lautner gets to take off not only his shirt but also his clothes in a faux-homoerotic moment (he’s really just getting ready to shape-shift, you see) that feels like Condon reaching back to his work in KINSEY, if only for a laugh.
On the other hand, there are no Woody Allen-inspired jokes about Jacob imprinting on a newborn babe, whom he plans to protect through childhood and then mate when she becomes an adult. On the eww-ick scale, that must rank somewhere close to the Bella-Edward romance, which when you stop to think about it, is really about some really old guy lusting after a high school chick.
In a film at least nominally about immortality, it is worth considering that we tend to think of film itself as enduring through the ages – in a sense, immortal. But this is not quite correct. Although a film may endure as a thing in and of itself (whether on celluloid or transferred to some digital medium), the actual experience of watching film is transitory. Yes, you can watch a film again, but it’s like watching home movies of your wedding: the event itself happened only once, in a past that is receding ever father away, and the video record is just a way of reliving memories, not of reliving the event itself.
Of course, there are classic movies that endure from one generation to the next, because they have some kind of quality that is universal or at least not specific to a particular era. THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN PART 2 is unlikely to fall into this category, but at the present moment in time that is irrelevant; what matters now is the experience of watching the film, not whether it will endure afterward. That communal experience, of joining with a tribe of like-minded individuals to experience something like a rite of passage, is what the TWILIGHT films provide to their audience.
In a culture that offers few formal rituals to help adolescents mark their passage into adulthood, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN PART 2 fills a void. It satisfies yearnings. It provokes debates (even if the subject is as trivial as Team Edward versus Team Jacob). It provides raw material on a simple level that young minds can process as something that speaks to their needs and concerns. So, though it may not be great art, or enduring, it is, in some undeniable sense, valid.
THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN PART 2 (Summit Entertainment, November 16, 2012). Directed by Bill Condon. Screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg, based on the novel Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer. Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Peter Facinelli, Elizabeth Reaser, Ashley Greene, Jackson Rathbone, Kella Lutz, Nikki Reed, Billy Burke, Chaske Spencer, Mackenzie Foy, Maggie Grace, Michael Sheen, Dakota Fanning, Lee Pace.
- Unfortunately, we know he’s old because he looks old, which makes no sense in the context of ageless vampires. It’s another of many signs that no one involved with THE TWILIGHT SAGA has really thought the whole vampire thing through – it would never occur to the filmmakers that the most world-weary vampire might be the most youthful-looking, while one who appeared much older might actually be the baby of the group.