In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say up front that this is not a movie review. I am not a film critic (a fact that I am sure is patently obvious to my friends who are film critics and scoff at my preference for Indiana Jones over Citizen Kane and The Princess Pride over Pulp Fiction). I am a literary critic, so what follows is actually a literary critic’s reaction to a film based on a book. In fact, before the film started, a well-meaning former student sitting in front of me asked me the trite “team affiliation ” question, to which I responded stiffly, ” I am Team Literary Unity,” prompting some head scratching from many of the people sitting around me.
In any case, this analysis breaks a number of rules one might see in a film review. Primarily, I will make no attempt whatsoever to keep secrets, so this is a post best suited for the readers who have no intention of seeing the film or for those who have also seen it and would like to join our thoughtful conversation about what works, what doesn’t, and why, on nearly every level, this is the best film of the five, despite some very troubling elements. So drag that rock over here, Emmett, because I am rolling up my sleeve and getting ready to rumble.
One of the things that has impressed me about the film adaptations of the Twilight films is how, as they have gone along, the movie folks have generally been sensitive to what the fans want (and I don’t mean more half-naked wolf boys). Rather, those of us who have enjoyed and analyzed the books are most pleased when the films stick to the books, though we are generally unruffled when changes are made that do not violate the spirit of the book or which, in some cases, streamline the plot and move it along better (Riley’s Eclipse backstory, for example, was fantastic and saved a heap of talky exposition that would not have worked on film).
At the same time, readers want to see, visually that which they have shaped in their own minds. From the beginning, the makers of Breaking Dawn part 2 seem sensitive to these dual desires, bringing us well-executed versions of anticipated scenes. Some of the best among these are the interactions with Renesmee and the newlyweds’ first night in their cottage, which is sweet, romantic, and tasteful. Also wonderful are Bella taking swipes at Jacob upon learning of his imprinting on Nessie, her arm-wrestling scene with Emmett, and Jacob’s transformation in front of a stunned Charlie.
It is a comedy, if a Shakespearean one
These scenes were all ones that brought smiles, or even full-out laughter, from the audience. As always, Billy Burke’s brilliant comic timing proves a bright spot (my favorite moment in the first film is his wonderful shotgun-loading-meet-the-boyfriend-warm-up) as he goes from worried to puzzled to weirded-out in short order, his horrified reaction to Jacob’s strip-down in hilarious contrast to the reaction of Taylor Lautner fans squealing in the audience. Burke’s humor and warmth have always been nice additions to the films, but he also does beautifully with more serious scenes, such as his reunion with Bella, when his reaction to the way she feels in his hug is subtle and impressive. Lautner also gets to be funny, something he has also demonstrated nicely before, with his understated sarcasm. I particularly love his description of some of the Cullen allies “standing around like frickin’ statues.” Refreshingly, Robert Pattison infuses Edward with a nice measure of humor, at last, well-suited to the installment when the pessimistic hero at last gets to look on the bright side. When Bella nearly crushes him in their first embrace after her re-birth or when she is letting Jacob have it for imprinting on Renesmee, his responses are hilarious and well-timed.
In addition to the nice delivery of expected scenes, often word for word from the books (really, Stewart has been warming up for the phrase “moronic wolfy claim” and Lautner has wanted to say “Dracula 1 and 2″ since the book was published), the movie folks also serve up some appropriate additions. When Bella gets the scent of the hiker on her first hunt, he is actually a climber on a rock face who scrapes himself, and she takes off after him, tearing up the rock face in her little blue dress and sparkly wedding ring before stopping herself. We also get more of the Charlie/Sue relationship, a great Jacob training new wolves segment, and a horrifying but mesmerizing scene showing the fate of the Denali clan’s “mother” and her immortal child. Most chilling: Jane roguishly finger-wagging and tsking the blood-smeared toddler who stands among a pile of dead villagers (Just before she cuddles the child and then flings him onto his creator’s pyre, shudder).
Since the film format frees us from the limits of the first-person narrator, it also allows us to follow characters other than Bella to see events we know about but don’t see in the book, such as the reconciliation of Jacob and Sam, Irina’s reporting to the Volturi, and that super scene when Charlie gets to see “a kid I’ve known all his life turn into a giant dog.” The best of these are the Cullen family recruiting tour, with Carlisle and Esme in Egypt to see Amun (and Benjamin showing off with his Aquaman impression) and Rosalie and Emmett gathering Garret from New Orleans. Garret is one of the best surprises of the film. Actor Lee Pace is perfect, and there are some great little jokes about Garret’s military history (he brags of just missing Custer by inches at the Battle of the Little Big Horn), but the most fun for me was the fact that Garret is in New Orleans, griping over a musician’s choice of British music, shortly before having the guy for dinner. From the first time I ran across the character in the book, I saw Garret as Meyer’s clever homage to Gambit of the X-Men: red-eyes, ponytail, girlfriend who has crazy tactile powers. Of course, as our headmaster explains in detail in Spotlight: A Close-Up Look at the Artistry and Meaning of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, the Cullen alliance are mirrors of Professor Xavier’s X-Men (and the Volturi are Magneto’s Brotherhood); several of them even have similar powers. Of course, Meyer’s vampires have always been more like angst-ridden superheroes of the Wolverine mold than like the vampires of popular culture. Gambit, though, is Cajun, with a glorious accent, so putting Garret in NOLA just tipped the hat nicely!
All of the Cullens’ witnesses are well portrayed, though Alistair looks too much like Garret, probably making it hard to distinguish them for those who had not read the books. I liked the couple playing Charlotte and Peter, who even have some nice interactions with Jasper toward the end.
And now for something completely different
And about that end. So the movie folks have been teasing us about a surprise ending, but the surprise is effective primarily because it plays upon the low expectations many audience members have of film adaptations. This is, after all, the same bunch of jokers who have pulled stunts like changing the ending of The Scarlet Letter. So, here’s the breakdown on the cleverest movie fake-out I’ve ever seen in any film not directed by M. Night Shyalmalan.
The previews had already gotten us worried, of course, showing an epic fight scene that is clearly not part of the novel. The beauty of the book’s confrontation between the Cullens and the Volturi is that it is a mind-game, reminiscent of the Merchant of Venice, which Alice uses to convey clues to Bella. There is no violence; rather, as in Merchant, the “head power” of the female protagonist–Portia/Bella– saves the day, and no real harm is done (well, Irina dies, but that fits, too). The filmmakers, though, know we expected them to do some bone-headed revision that would allow them to have a violent climax, and they play us like a Stradivarius. When Aro touches the just-returned Alice’s hand to find out about her information, she shows him exactly what will happen if the conflict erupts into violence. It will be brutal, with crushing losses for both sides.
The trick: the sequence is edited so that the audience has no hint this is only in Alice’s vision and Aro’s head. Thus, the full-on massacre that ensues is edited seamlessly into the film, bringing with it death and destruction, wiping out half the Cullens and most of the Volturi. I’m sure a budding filmmaker could have created some great footage just from the facial reactions of myself and the other “text Nazis” in the audience. My delightful viewing companions were treated to my calling the filmmakers a variety of unflattering names and cursing Hollywood to the depths of Hades. Only after the sequence started to get really ridiculous and began to smack of a studio killing its golden-egg laying geese did I realize what was happening.
One terrifying little monster
The entire theater breathed a huge sigh relief when, just after Bella and Edward tag-team rip his head off in Alice’s vision, Aro takes a step back and makes a tactical retreat with his entirely intact guard and brethren and the whole thing is revealed to have been merely the projection of what would have happened if it came to a fight. I loved the cleverness of using the vision to show Aro ( the maniacally fabulous Michael Sheen chomps scenery with glorious aplomb) the results of his plan and keeping the element of the conflict being primarily mental, but I was deeply bothered by the vision itself, even when I knew it wasn’t “real.” (Well, really the whole thing is fiction, right?) To a degree, this was because it was more graphic than my comfort level, and I don’t care if it is just a “might have been,” I’ve been stuck with the image of Carlisle getting decapitated, ugh (and I’ve never even been wildly enthusiastic about Peter Facinelli’s casting; though he is a classy gent who respects fans and really does a fine job, he just never has looked like the Carlisle in my head). It’s just icky. Though I’ll watch it again when the DVD comes out, I’ll probably fast forward through the “battle”; I was less bothered by the birth scene in part one, so that says a lot.
The other reason that I found the Illusion so distressing was because it turns on the film makers’ “have our cake and eat it too” approach. Of course, they were teasing us a little because we expected them to mess things up here at the end, but they also pull this stunt so that they can at once stay true to the text of the novel and get their big-blockbuster, butt-kicking, violence-laden finale that seems to be the staple of any film with any level of action. What really bothered me was that so many in the audience didn’t find the sequence disturbing. While my friends and I were fussing, others (including many non-readers, apparently) were cheering when Alice dispatches Jane or during other big set-pieces. I am always disturbed by the kind of film making that makes the audience vicariously enjoy violence, so that bugged me quite a bit.
I am willing to forgive the movie folks though, both for tricking me and for being too over-the-top gross, just because the last five minutes of the movie are so wonderful. After the danger has passed and the allies are leaving, Alice has a sweet vision of a future Nessie and Jacob with Bella and Edward, negating Edward’s just-delivered snarky response to Jacob’s wondering if he can start calling him “Dad.” Though this seems to be the CGI Nessie created from images of young MacKenzie Foy and Kristen Stewart, the scene is a nice gift to fans, almost like an apology from folks who just gave us heart failure with their goofy stunt. Even more redemptive is the much-anticipated “shield-lift” in which Bella shows Edward her mind for the first time. The beautiful sequence, with gorgeous music and scenes from all the films, had us all cheering, especially when it was concluded with an image of the book’s pages flipping to that wonderful last page, the page Meyer says is her favorite of the whole Saga, with highlighting on the last word, “forever.”
The page-flipping motif that continues through the end credits is also fantastic. They are even better than the wonderful opening credits that use images of roses and snow to beautifully reflect the story symbols, while the actors’ red names “drain” to white. The end credits are so super not just because they use actual pages from the book that describe the characters, but because this is a complete credit list that goes all the way back to the first film, so everyone, even Bree and Riley, gets one more moment in this reminder that the series is a package, a complete alchemical drama in four acts (or six, if you count the books of Breaking Dawn individually). It’s a wonderful bow on a package that, for the most part, delivers a satisfying concluding adaptation.
Though I remain troubled by the vision sequence, overall, this is the best of the series. Or, more appropriately, this and part 1 together rank that title. The music in both has been wonderful, and I particularly love the reappearance of the motif that was used in the climatic scenes of Eclipse. The visuals are also better this time around, with the wolves being quite believable (and less weird than in part 1) and Bella’s vamp-vision effects are fascinating. The visual alchemical glory of the Volturi and Cullens in the snow works beautifully on the big screen, too. It has been fascinating watching the series come to the screen, even when I have not always agreed with filmmakers’ choices, and I look forward to parsing through further when the DVD emerges. I also look forward to hearing your comments and thoughts on the film and how it connects to the text, because of course, it always is about the books.