Monday Hangover: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn–Part 2

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Monday Hangover:
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn–Part 2
By Tyson Kubota, Caroline McKenzie, and Justin Stewart

The Twilight franchise has a reputation for lacking subtlety. The choice between a shirtless werewolf boy-man (Team Jacob) and a sparkling vampire (Team Edward) has thus far been the series’ major cultural contribution.

This reputation is perhaps a bit unfair, however. Catherine Hardwicke and Bill Condon, the best in the franchise’s carousel of directors, have both thoughtfully engaged with Stephenie Meyer’s hormonally driven narrative, finding nooks and crannies in which to stash bits of personal vision. In the first installment, Hardwicke mined the story’s awkward teen angst, rendering mundane high school experiences with a charming specificity. Tasked with concluding this five-film saga, Condon managed in Breaking Dawn—Part 1 to acknowledge the campiness of Meyer’s deliriously overstuffed narrative—Bella gets married, has sex, bears a child, and becomes a vampire in the span of two hours—while still embedding detailed, subjective moments: POV shots of Bella walking in slo-mo down the wedding aisle, shaving her legs before a Brazilian honeymoon, gawking at risqué lingerie.

Overall, the series’ aesthetics have moved fitfully away from idiosyncrasy and towards a broad pop grandeur. The original film’s unfussy, practical visuals and Pacific northwest on-location shooting have given way to computer-generated ice fields and Guillermo Navarro’s softly lit big-budget look. On the soundtrack, we’ve gone from Iron and Wine and Thom Yorke to Bruno Mars and Green Day. A cynic might conclude that these aesthetic changes are calculated moves by Summit to lure new viewers to its cash cow franchise, but the most mainstream Twilight aesthetic arrives as the series splinters into increasingly obscure directions: vampire and werewolf clan politics, the biology of “immortal children,” and the development of superpowers.

As a result, this concluding installment, also directed by Condon, is a whiplash of contradictions and hyperbole. Supporting characters from previous films have their dialogue reduced to one or zero lines, victims of the franchise’s merciless drumbeat, even as dozens of new ethnic stereotypes—wild Amazonian warriors! Romanian dynastic heirs! elementally attuned Arabs!—flood the screen. Disappointingly, the half-vampire child Renesmee, the great mystery of Breaking Dawn—Part 1, whom Bella literally died to birth, barely registers as a character (creepily CG-composited baby face notwithstanding). Beyond Bella and Edward assuring each other that “nobody’s ever loved anyone as much as I love you,” Part 2 mostly abandons the series’ central relationship in favor of shaky exposition and one huge (admittedly thrilling) action sequence.

Maybe Condon assumes that because we already have vicariously experienced these characters’ extended courtship over the preceding eight hours, we no longer need smaller emotional moments and hunger instead for whiz-bang spectacle. What he didn’t realize is that those moments—a smirking line delivery here, a fleeting reaction shot there—were the real spectacle all along. —TK

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That vaguely naturalist low-budget aesthetic you mention was fitting for the first three films of the Twilight series. At their core, these are soap operas about kids from opposite sides of the tracks, the supernatural elements functioning as metaphors for otherness writ large. Critics who complained that the special effects were shoddy or corny (and they were, gloriously so) missed the point: the fantastical elements of Twilight always rode shotgun to the love-triangle that was the series’ beating heart. But as the opening credits of Breaking Dawn–Part 2 make clear—the font of each name morphing from the signature Twilight-variant of Trajan to a stark white sans serif—Bill Condon’s intent has always been to make something modern, slick, and (dare we say) clever out of an franchise that was previously florid, emotional, and frivolous.

In Part 1, his aesthetic rupture neatly dovetailed with the moment in the series when the narrative breaks with high-school drama and becomes a re-telling of Rosemary’s Baby for the teenage set, a bizarrely effective mash-up of the demonic and the domestic that wallowed in camp, queasy genre elements and Faustian melodrama. It worked because audience subjectivity was aligned with an awkward, relatable human teenager suddenly confronted with the terror of adulthood. Condon cleverly took advantage of the audience’s attachment to the character to achieve both kitsch and sincerity in the sex scenes, and fascination and revulsion in the POV shots of a graphic Cesarean section performed by vampire jaws.

In Part 2, however, Bella awakens as a perfect, poised vampire, having entirely shed her insecurities and flaws. Kristen Stewart is denied her signature lip-biting and floor-staring, and the love triangle that grounded every prior Twilight entry is eradicated by the fact that werewolf Jacob has “imprinted on” (i.e. asexually fallen in love with) Renesmee, Bella’s infant daughter. Condon does little to reestablish a satisfying locus for audience identification, instead pushing full-steam ahead in creating the supernatural epic that Twilight never was, introducing a parade of international vampires en route to setting up a massive battle.

This is not to say that the film is without its pleasures, of which the battle scene certainly is one. A vampire-on-vampire assault between good and evil, the scene is a tricky genre exercise, somehow getting away with a great deal of gore—heads are grotesquely snapped, pulled, and popped off left and right—despite the film’s PG-13 rating. Condon’s creativity and his understanding of the audience’s expectations are on full display here, as the sequence’s bizarre graphic physicality leads to a doozy of a twist—a giant departure from the novel, designed for maximum shock value to both the casual viewer and the devoted fan.

But the human element is what was always most important to this franchise: the Twilight films and their characters are most delicious when they function as campy validations of the adolescent audience’s own ecstatic, messy emotions—and reminders to adult viewers of what they themselves once were. Condon might have made a legitimate big-budget blockbuster to cap it all off, but he failed the series by ending a narrative based on undying romance with an episode that is action-packed but emotionally flaccid. —CM

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It’s clear to me after reading your two takes that my viewing of this final Twilight film benefited from low expectations. I’m still an unashamed fan of the first film, particularly the tactile, specific sense of place—the verdant forests and craggy romantic mountainsides of Forks, WA (and surrounding environs)—and its reliance on extreme close-ups of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, in all their characters’ solipsistic high-school anguish. The second installment, New Moon, was a surprisingly adult take on deep depression and anxiety (Stewart shrieking into her bed being a fine distillation of outdated notions of virgin “female hysteria”), though I never cared for any of the wolf business: despite the bigger pecs, wolfen, prosaic Jacob always seemed too obviously an inferior fit for the starry-eyed Bella. I checked out after the dreary expository slog of episode three, Eclipse, and only caught up with Breaking Dawn–Part 1 this weekend.

Despite all this, Part 2 had me hooked from the outset. I found the opening credits that you so observantly font-identify, Caroline, to be a cool, stylish reimmersion into that vivid Pacific northwestern landscape. And I was glad to see the lip-biting replaced by a more womanly, intimidating Bella, throwing Edward around and bloodthirstily ripping into elk. Taylor Lautner’s obligatory strip-down is as unnecessary to the narrative as ever, but the film gets comic mileage out of the confused reaction of Bella’s dad (a still miscast Billy Burke) when he reveals himself. Most of the other jokes are lame, again exploiting these super-critters’ misplacement in a normal American town.

The multinational assembled team of vamps is indeed campy in the extreme (half of the white ones look like Eurotrash dirtbags or David Thewlis from Naked), but I don't know, I was on board: this series dragged over five long films, so anything but a rise in grandiosity might've been unthinkable. And a battle as violent and thrilling as the one you both acknowledge as such goes a long way for me. The scraps eventually thrown to the Edward-Bella “undying romance” were enough for me, and even affecting. This 32-year-old man didn't cry in the theater filled mostly with teen females and parents, but the threat of tears was real. —JS