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So I have finally crossed paths with the unstoppable cultural juggernaut that is Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga, in the form of the laboriously titled The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1.

For those, like myself, who have been outside the know, a token amount of plot: Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), a perfectly amiable but rather bland teenage resident of Washington state, has found herself in a love triangle with the centuries-old vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and the shape-shifting werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). Bella has decided to marry Edward, and following a long sequence covering the couple’s nuptials, it’s off to a honeymoon on a Brazilian island. Things go awry when Bella finds herself pregnant with a blood-thirsty, human-vampire-hybrid demonbaby, which is literally starving her and breaking her bones as it matures. As Edward and the other Cullen clan vampires attempt to save Bella’s life, Jacob’s werewolf pack concludes — for reasons of tradition I’m still fuzzy on — that the human-vampire-hybrid demonbaby must die. This drives Jacob and some of his kin to turn on their fellow werewolves, forging a shaky alliance with the Cullens in order to defend the expectant mother.

All of this turns out to be an exercise in incessant mediocrity. Save for some early moments of recognizably youthful romance and emotional excess between the couple, the writing is really quite lifeless. The direction and visual choices are uninspired – and often palpably constructed to disarm scenes that would otherwise earn an “R” rating – while the special effects are subpar. Even the opening titles look like something from a commercial for a “tranquil melodies” compilation. One particular scene, in which the werewolves debate their next move via telepathic voice-over, is so poorly performed and constructed it borders on Dadaism. The whole thing has the feel of a made-for-television movie that got a bit too big for its britches.

Lautner manages to conjure a certain bitter witticism as Jacob, but beyond that the performances never rise above the merely serviceable. This is a particular let down coming from Stewart, who has demonstrated a genuine depth in films like Adventureland and The Runaways. Of course, she is left utterly adrift by Twilight’s material, which provides no one but Jacob a noticeable interior life or character arc.

Chivalry should not be boring, though Edward manages to make it so, and Bella remains entirely passive except for the single momentous decision to go through with the pregnancy. This bit also produces one of the strangest instances of submerged abortion politics I have ever seen in a film. Edward is insistent on “taking it out,” while Bella inexplicably insists on an ill-defined emotional connection with the child. And in the single most unlikely performance of the issue’s moral metaphysics I can imagine, two secondary female vampires have a forced debate over whether to refer to the human-vampire-hybrid demonbaby as “the fetus” or “the baby.”

I can believe – and honor – that a character would engage in this level of self-sacrifice, but the movie provides no exploration of why Bella makes this choice. There is no rage, terror, or determination; in short, there is no evidence of the brute confrontation with mortal limits such a decision would entail. She stubbornly remains a cipher for the entire film, her actions undertaken for no apparent reason other than this is what Meyers and her teenage audience apparently consider the proper course in this kind of Victorian-sexual-fable-cum-vampire-mythos.

A good deal of ink has by now been spilled on the manner in which Twilight’s narrative functions as one giant, juvenile metaphor for conservative norms of sexual abstinence and traditional femininity. (One aspect of the film’s early dramatic tension is concern that Edward, in the throws of his vampirically-enhanced sexual passion, may literally kill Bella when they finally consummate their attraction. I am not kidding.) I won’t rehash it all here, except to point out there’s no inherent reason this kind of thing can’t work. Jane Austen, after all, was able to tell extremely compelling stories based around similar mores of gender and sexual control. But in Austen’s work, these structures become an opportunity for personal discovery and creative invention on the characters’ part. Not here.

And while Austen may have considered those structures morally necessary, she still recognized them as distinct from her characters’ struggle for happiness. Breaking Dawn – Part 1 makes no such differentiation. It’s literally fantasy as the fulfillment of proper sexual, parental, and marital etiquette. The result is something that manages to be a bit perverse and exceedingly unimaginative at the same time. Despite all the putative pathos, all the glowering, and the occasional gore, the whole thing just kind of sits there, as lugubrious and immobile as Taylor Lautner’s chiseled pecs.


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