Scan the giggly, wiggly tween girls in the audience of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and you can’t help but wonder: are these the type of romantic dilemmas they’re looking forward to during high school? Boyfriend: vampire or werewolf? Post senior year: college or marriage? Adulthood: life or death (or eternal undead life)? Does the love of a werewolf spell a topless lifestyle? Since when do vampires shatter like glass houses? Why can’t Bella find love with a plain old vanilla human being? And furthermore, where were Mormonism’s polygamous options now, just when a gal, faced with two hunky supernatural suitors, needs them the most? Oh, yeah, that’s right — that particular swingtown was solely set up for the patriarch’s pleasure.
It’s tempting to attempt readings of these cinematic Twilight installments through the looking-glass prism of author Stephenie Meyer’s religious beliefs, especially as the series reaches its crucible: will Bella choose the mouth-breathing manimal with six-pack abs or the highly civilized undead gentleman? Check it out: It’s all set up for you in the poster.
We pick up the story as it’s charging ahead full-steam, like a naughty red-tressed vampire on the run. Bella (Kristen Stewart) is hiding out Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard wielding her sad eyes like weapons, replacing Rachelle Lefevre) and her army of “newborns,” newly made vampires who are initially superstrong and thirsty for kills. As with New Moon, the last entry in the series, Bella remains under the care of both vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). The two fight territorially over her like two zombies over a hunk of human flesh, but true to this archetypal young girl’s fantasy, neither dares harm her.
Love here translates as protection, given with little asked in return. Bella wants to be with Edward — as both his wife and as a kindred vampire — yet she still cares for and is fascinated by the oft-bare-chested Jacob (who obviously has many Twi-hards’ hearts; Team Jacob squealed especially loudly at my screening). Much has been made of a taut tent scene with a chilled Bella, who must cuddle up to a nude Jacob for life-giving warmth while Edward and Jacob square off verbally (sorry, adult types, not sexually). Will Bella choose the love of chalkier-than-chalky, living-dead-James-Dean vampire Edward or hunka-hunka-biking-love American Indian werewolf Jacob? Every demographic needs its soap operas, and tweens are no different.
But though Eclipse doesn’t quite match the first Twilight’s standalone fable of girl-meets-vampire, director David Slade (here somehow drawing on his experience with the twisted-girl-power Hard Candy and the vamp horror 30 Days of Night) manages to shape the tortured will-she-or-won’t-she, who-does-she-love melodrama Jelly Belly center of this fragment of a film — unwatchable sans any context and investment developed via the first two movies — around some suspenseful attack scenes and a few intriguing sidebars on the making of two other Cullen vampires. The climax: a full-on, bloodsucker-shattering throw-down between a mob of newbie, know-nothing vampires and the power team of the werewolves and the Cullens
In line with the work of the CGI crew brought in to give Edward his glitter-rock sun sparkle (which seems to have gone a little crazy scouring and touching up the cast’s complexions, giving Stewart a particularly creepy, poreless Michael Jackson-esque cast), the interest here is in the fantasy’s sparkly surfaces and developing dimensions: the emerging meaty metaphors and resonant symbols floating amid the fray, hinging on a battle that pits supernatural boy against boy, bad girl Victoria against good girl Bella. But do the newly made, out-of-hand “newborns” — zombie-like tools of irrepressible hunger and the Eclipse’s villainous army — symbolize a fear of pregnancy and procreation, especially for a human-vampire pair that’s all about warm and fuzzy coupling without dangerous consummation? Or are the newborns, rather, born-agains, weapons that can be misused by a dangerous leader?
In these and other details, Eclipse shows its fascinating hand in the breaks between the battles. In one instance, Edward confesses that he’d prefer to court Bella than to hook up with her. He’s an old-fashioned non-human, representing a kind of nostalgic fantasy concerning some deeply romanticized Victorian values. Never mind that Bella is much younger than your average marriageable woman — she’s the teen bride that Joseph Smith Jr. might approve of. Indeed, the appeal of the Cullen vampires, despite all the screaming for Jacob’s primal power, is their self-repression, their control over their desires. Their appeal lies in the way that they’re artifacts from another age, relics of a civilization past in their least harmful guise — far from the campy, libidinous crew in True Blood, far from the pressures and pitfalls of modern girlhood.