By Ann Hornaday
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; C10
Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Team Edward or Team Jacob?
For anyone who has a ready answer to that question, the arrival of "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" is as welcome as a northwestern breeze in the middle of a torrid heat wave. And they will most likely feel well rewarded by this respectful, unfussy installment of their beloved "Twilight" series, in which 17-year-old heroine Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) inches ever closer to becoming a vampire and joining her forbidden love, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) forever.
Of course, there are complications, not least among them Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), her childhood friend -- oh, and part-time werewolf -- who has a knack for showing up at inopportune moments. "Doesn't he own a shirt?" Edward asks mockingly at one point. And it's true, Jake and his posse give more ab action than the entire cast of "300" (with better tattoos).
In "Eclipse," Bella is also being pursued by the flame-haired Victoria (played by Bryce Dallas Howard in a role originated by the unceremoniously axed Rachelle Lefevre), who is busy amassing an army of "newborn" vampires to wreak vengeance on Bella and the whole Cullen clan.
But anyone interested in seeing "Eclipse" knows this already because, like "Harry Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings," the "Twilight" movies are designed not as movies that work as cinematic objects themselves, but rather as illustrations of books whose fans approach them with the exegetical seriousness of sacred texts. As such, "Eclipse" succeeds with honor, if not panache, moving the story along with economy and focused momentum. As Catherine Hardwicke did in the first "Twilight," director David Slade pays close attention to mood and atmosphere, a sensitivity that last year's "New Moon" grievously lacked (somehow both frenetic and plodding, it wound up feeling like "The Da Vinci Code" mashed up with a feminine-hygiene commercial).
With all the talk about the Big Change to come after graduation, with Bella longing for physical intimacy with Edward and Edward valiantly resisting, the cardinal "Twilight" themes of longing, chastity and protection are stronger than ever. More deeply psychological than the first two, "Eclipse" goes further not just in advancing the story but also in illuminating the tension that Bella embodies -- between autonomy and surrender -- and clarifying her desire to become a bloodless, marmoreal being who has no human connections. With Edward, she explains at one point, she feels "stronger, more real, more myself."
Still, for characters with such provocative complications, Bella and Edward are extraordinarily bland, especially channeled by way of Stewart and Pattinson's slurry, reticent delivery and resistance to making eye contact. Barely recognizable beneath pale makeup and brown contacts that give her a dilated, doll-like stare, Stewart registers emotion mostly by looking as if she's just eaten a bad sandwich. The film's most animated scene isn't between her and Pattinson, but between Pattinson and Lautner, as their characters discuss their rivalry with good-natured guy talk. "Face it, I'm hotter than you," Jake says to the cold-blooded Edward.
Filmed mostly as a series of close-ups of people talking, with occasional flashbacks and blurry, nearly incoherent action scenes, "Eclipse" will look fine on an iPhone, which for its teenage audience is probably all to the good. If Slade doesn't necessarily advance the medium with this installment, he nonetheless advances the franchise, with enough lucidity and skill that he's persuaded at least one erstwhile agnostic to take a stand. Team Jacob, all the way. Shirts are overrated.
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
* * *
(121 minutes, at area theaters) is rated
PG-13 for intense action and violence,
and some sensuality.