Eclipse, the third of five movies that will eventually comprise The Twilight Saga, conclusively proves the series will never be more than its marketable hook: a love story geared for young adolescent girls populated by innocuous, wimpy monsters.
For all the potential inherent in Stephenie Meyer's premise - and there is, or was, tremendous potential in the story of the teenaged Bella (Kristen Stewart), in love with the vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) - Eclipse, like its two predecessors, is ham-fisted and obvious, a mass-market entertainment with a frustrating lack of imagination, anemic plotting (how were those novels so fat?) and no aspirations toward anything greater than box office ka-ching.
That, Twilight has already attained, formidably, and will repeat with this new chapter, in which Bella's love for her fanged boyfriend is clouded by the persistent wooings of the werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who won't take no for an answer. Their love triangle forms the center of the movie; surrounding it is some business about a brewing war between vampires and werewolves that results in the most anti-climactic battle between monsters ever captured on film.
Director David Slade proved he can sling the gory frights with 30 Days of Night, but he's constricted by that pesky PG-13 rating, which must be rigorously observed so as to not scare off the demographic being courted. Eclipse is a tad darker than the previous pictures - the occasional arm is ripped off, and so are heads - but there were moments in Toy Story 3 that were scarier than anything here. As far as its horror elements go, The Twilight Saga continues to be curiously bloodless, literally and figuratively.
What the new movie does do well is bring the heat back into the touching relationship between Bella and Edward, which had grown dangerously cold and silly in New Moon. The acting in Eclipse is noticeably improved from the last movie. The clock may be ticking on Lautner's 15 minutes, and he continues to have trouble keeping his shirt on, but the actor no longer seems to be reading off cue cards as the heartbroken Jacob. We learn a bit more history about Edward's makeshift vampire family, performed by an ensemble of actors that continues to develop a growing, enjoyable rapport: They're great fun to watch play off each other.
But the heart of The Twilight Saga rests, of course, between Stewart and Pattinson, and the actors regain the emotionally touching vibe they shared in the first movie. Bella has agreed to marry Edward on the condition that he turn her into a vampire, something he's mulling over. In the film's best scene, she pushes him to have sex with her so she can feel what it's like while she's still human, and in the ensuing groping and confused hesitation, Eclipse successfully channels its monsters-and-teens scenario into a metaphor for the awkward, terrifying rites of adolescence on the cusp of adulthood.
Soon, though, it's back to computer-generated werewolves and Dakota Fanning with red contact lenses looking dour. But I'd be lying if I said Eclipse didn't leave me curious as to what happens next. For the legions who have read Meyer's novels, that's the equivalent of a home run.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Billy Burke, Anna Kendrick.
Director: David Slade.
Screenwriter: Melissa Rosenberg.
Producers: Wyck Godfrey, Greg Mooradian, Karen Rosenfelt.
A Summit Entertainment release. Running time: 124 minutes. Violence, sexual situations, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.