Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first: Taylor Lautner remains an unreliable, wildly uneven actor. His line readings range from fine to passable to stilted and awkward, sometimes all within the same scene, and you can’t imagine him having much of a career once this franchise runs its course. The wolf pack — the five native Americans of Quilette descent who also happen to be lycanthropes — are played by actors chosen for their six-pack abs, not their talents. Whenever one of them opens his mouth, you are instantly catapulted right out of the movie. And the computer-generated werewolves still look cheap and cartoonish — never more so than in a scene in which they stand around talking (or at least communicating telepathically.) Unintentional laughter is practically guaranteed.
But despite all that, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1 does something that no other previous Twilight movie had achieved: This one draws you close and keeps you there — and, for those of us who haven’t read Stephenie Meyer’s novel, delivers some surprising turns of plot. As the movie opens, the long and tortured courtship between the teenage Bella (Kristen Stewart) and her vampire boyfriend Edward (Robert Pattinson) has reached an end, and they are finally preparing to marry. Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Kinsey) and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg don’t waste any time building up to the ceremony. The film hurtles towards Bella and Edward’s big day with a sense of purpose and drive, giving us hints along the way (such as Bella’s nightmares) that this couple may not necessarily live happily ever after.
“What’s a wedding without some family drama?” Edward ponders after a brief blow-up at the reception implies vampires and humans may not necessarily make the best in-laws. Then comes the honeymoon, which proves that vampires and humans may not make ideal couples, either. Working with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (who shot Pan’s Labyrinth and Jackie Brown), Condon gives Breaking Dawn a visual elegance and style the other films lacked. Right from the start, the movie feels different — more mature and confident and substantial — which is critical, because the story is about to take some loopy twists, pushing up into territory far more bizarre than any of the previous pictures suggested.
One of the most common complaints leveled at the Twilight movies is that nothing ever happens: After the first film, in which Bella and Edward met and fell in love, subsequent chapters consisted primarily of pining and longing and pointless romantic triangles (all that hand-wringing over Jacob, for example). But no matter what you make of Breaking Dawn — and if you adamantly hate all things Twilight, this film is not going to change your mind — I can’t imagine anyone complaining that the movie was too slow. Condon knows that the chemistry between Stewart and Pattinson has been the key to the popularity of this series, and he focuses on their connection as much as he can throughout the film.
A long sequence in which the newlyweds honeymoon off the coast of Brazil and start having sex is easily the best, most engrossing stretch of any Twilight movie to date. While always observant of that PG-13 rating, Breaking Dawn is still surprisingly frank and direct in depicting Bella’s nervousness about losing her virginity (something Stewart conveys in a terrific silent montage) and, later, her cravings for a third and fourth and fifth helping (where the male is usually the aggressor in the sexual arena, the movie cleverly reverts the tables, making Edward the sought-after object of lust.)
The trailers for Breaking Dawn have already revealed that Bella winds up pregnant — and that her baby starts to grow inside her at an alarming speed. The birth of Bella and Edward’s demon-child will have far-reaching consequences, most of which won’t be settled until Part 2 arrives next year. I have no idea where the story goes from here (although there’s a scene that comes halfway through the end credits that gives you a good idea.) But the biggest compliment you can pay Breaking Dawn is that the entire series could have ended with this movie, and I would have been satisfied, ridiculous werewolves and all. Imagine, then, how diehard Twilight fans will respond. Let the feeding frenzy begin.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Peter Facinelli, Elizabeth Reaser, Nikki Reed, Billy Burke, Sarah Clarke, Kellan Lutz, Anna Kendrick.
Director: Bill Condon.
Screenwriter: Melissa Rosenberg. Based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer.
Producers: Wyck Godfrey, Stephenie Meyer, Karen Rosenfelt.
A Summit Entertainment release. Running time: 117 minutes. Sexual situations, violence, a bloody birth, adult themes. Playing at: every single multiplex in the U.S.