Saturday, November 17, 2012

Vampire Ever After: BREAKING DAWN - PART 2


You can learn a lot of things watching Breaking Dawn Part 2, the fifth and final Twilight movie. For starters, you can learn that decapitating a vampire looks much like decapitating a Lego person. You can also learn that vampires have so many different variants that when they group together they look like undead X-Men.  Most importantly, you can learn that some of the earlier Twilight movies weren’t so bad after all. On a meta level this is the story of a franchise that fell in love with itself, growing ever more thin in plot, ludicrous in tone, confused in implications, and yet approaching each new scene with a sense of suffocating reverence to the Stephenie Meyer-penned source material. What seemed to be cheesy or earnest in Catherine Hardwicke’s original installment or heavy-handed romanticism in Chris Weitz’s first sequel seems in retrospect to be appealingly situated, allowing genuine humor and creepiness to sneak in ever so slightly around the edges of what could easily have become ponderously bonkers. Because, oh boy, Breaking Dawn Part 2 is nothing if not ponderously bonkers.

Having resolved most of the tension involved in the Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) supernatural love triangle way back in the third film and then spending a fourth film limping its way through a dull wedding on its way to some surprising last-minute body horror, there’s nowhere else to go but to bring back the biggest delight of the franchise. They are the Volturi, a scheming group of vampiric overlords based in Venice. Only glimpsed here and there since their introduction in the second movie, they police the hush-hush world of bloodsuckers, maintaining this secret for thousands of years. It’s a fun pulpy concept deliciously devoured by former child-star Dakota Fanning and Michael Sheen with long black hair and glowing red eyes set so agreeably in his pasty pale skin. This time around he gets a fun moment where he lets out a startled laugh that goes up and down and trills around. Anyways, you may recall that in the last film Bella, while still human, was impregnated by Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), vampire. That child poses a threat to vampire kind for one reason or another so there’s the last gasp of conflict.

But the thing is, to describe the film to someone unfamiliar with the material would sound like utter hallucinatory madness. It’s a film with a family of vampires who stand around like they’re posing for a Lands’ End catalog, a creepy CGI psychic baby and her werewolf soulmate, and superpowered multicultural vampire covens that feel borrowed from somewhere else. And yet the film doesn’t even try to live up to its full nutty potential despite director Bill Condon’s attempts to inject some style on occasion. No, each and every moment has to quake with stultifying self-importance. Even the levity feels like forced fan service. Why else include a gratuitous – and coyly edited – scene in which the heartthrob werewolf (Taylor Lautner) suddenly disrobes before changing into his wolf form?

This final installment spends the bulk of its runtime introducing new characters and engineering strange one-last-scene curtain calls for just a couple of series regulars in between rote, sullen recitations of franchise lore. And yet no one found room for supporting character MVP Anna Kendrick, as one of the only human characters left, to stop by and bring a few laughs? By the time the Volturi float in and bring with them a scene of true energized conflict by way of a standoff that explodes into surprisingly satisfying violent, twisty digital combat before a fine rug-pull moment, it’s like finding a cheap prize at the bottom of a box of stale caramelized popcorn.

The longer the series goes on, the more it grows difficult to ignore the ways in which the story runs from its truly interesting aspects. Just look at how the half-vamp child is handled here as nothing more than cutesy, the total opposite of the concept’s inherent eeriness. I’m not asking for Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire level pathos here, simply acknowledgement of the idea’s complexity. The overarching idea of a hundred-year-old vampire falling in love with a teenage girl (and vice versa) has plenty of taboo frissons, a creepiness mingling with forbidden romance. To wish to become a vampire in order to be with him forever is a puppy love desire that dooms forever, limiting the poor girl’s future options, to say the least. The relationship has the potential to literally poison her. That’s why, upon reflection, the first film works fairly well. It marries vampire horror and adolescent angst quite nicely. That film’s final scene, in which Bella almost, but not quite, gets fanged at prom is a fun recognition of the situation’s implications, desire painfully denied for the benefit of all involved.

But now, in its final 115 minutes, the franchise engineers a resolution that works through magical thinking, resolving supernatural conundrums because True Love or something. After two mild entertainments and two films of increasingly slow, dumb storytelling, this finale’s best feat is activating a mild affection in me for the franchise’s earliest days, before it was for True Believers only. I don’t begrudge fans their enjoyment of the series; I just wish that, after a certain point, the filmmakers will still interested in letting me in instead of assuming that I already was.

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