Here's why people don't like Twilight: for three films, Kristen Stewart moped around like a heartsick sloth while two strong supernatural studs (and their equally strong families) decided her fate. And the anti-feminist inertia was dulled further by damp cinematography and a self-serious tone that was like a Danielle Steel novel drained—literally—of blood. Point taken. But in the middle of the fourth film, Breaking Dawn - Part One, new director Bill Condon lit the franchise's fuse and in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part Two, it explodes into a ridiculous, romantic, violent fireball. With the five flicks combined clocking in at over 10 hours, this is the Ring Cycle of the multiplex with a climax that sprays the camera with carnage and had me shouting giddy swear words at the screen. Hands down the most satisfying installment in the series, Breaking Dawn - Part Two will rain dollars and brimstone in theaters. Sorry, Harry Potter—this sets the new standard for how to close out a cash cow.
The first Twilight film was already in post-production when Stephenie Meyer published her book franchise's grand finale—a smash-up of sex, pregnancy, and, frankly, pedophilia. Two months later, the modestly budgeted debut became a huge smash, and in the four years that have followed, I've amused myself endlessly by imagining the studio executives' panic as they realized they'd eventually have to make a film where vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) gives human Bella (Stewart) a cesarean with his fangs, only to have dumped werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner) immediately fall in love with their baby. Their solution: split the book into two parts and go bonkers. Brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Breaking Dawn - Part One ends just after the birth/biting/beastly infatuation with Bella awaking from her transformation into a vampire. At the start of Part Two, she stands up and immediately pursues her priorities in this order: 1) kiss Edward, 2) eat a mountain lion, 3) say hi to Jacob, and 4) almost as an afterthought, ask to see her newborn Renesmee (yeah, yeah, nobody likes the name). But between steps three and four, we're treated to the moment when Bella learns that her ex-boyfriend will someday bone her baby. It's Condon's first and trickiest test—the moment when he could lose the audience's empathy entirely—and he nails it, leaving a just long-enough awkward pause after Bella suspiciously asks Jacob, "Since when do you care about Renesmee?" for the crowd to dissolve into delighted giggles. Stephenie Meyer may consider this moment serious, but everyone else knows it's high camp. And Stewart has the sense to play the moment straight with all the protective fury of a shotgun-toting father, growling that Jacob has laid a "moronic wolfy claim" on her child before she's ever even tucked her to sleep.
Now that the franchise is finally allowing its leads to have sex, the films have become orgiastic Twihard porn. The fans know this world, and the creators of this world know them. Cue mutual satisfaction. The first 15 minutes cram in everything devotees demand to see, shifting every 60 seconds to a new delight that has the theater squealing: Bella gazing at her now-sparkly skin, an extended bedroom romp, and the de rigueur moment when Jacob becomes so upset about something that he immediately strips naked. Here, he even takes off the pants, but for my money nothing beats the moment in Part One when Bella's wedding announcement makes him so angry the only thing he can do is tear off his shirt.
I had hopes that the romance between the six-pack-stacked werewolf and his diaper-clad bride-to-be would involve a swoony picnic and a Baby Bjorn, but it plays out more like unpaid babysitting. Especially after strict Volturi head Aro (Michael Sheen with a wicked giggle) mistakenly hears of an illegal vampire child and vows to burn Renesmee in a firepit and tear off every Cullen's head. The coming war between Clan Cullen and Clan Volturi is predicated on the kind of misunderstanding that could be cleared up by a text ("Lol wut? Not a vamp kid, just half-vamp—chill dude"), but instead, the family finds it easier to round up every other vampire they know from the Amazon to Egypt to Romania and convince them to come to hole-in-the-wall Forks, Washington and, quite possibly, die by their side to defend a child who looks like the next star of Toddlers & Tiaras. The cynical among us might guess that this is just an excuse to trot out some exotic vampire eye candy, and we'd be right. But when the ragtag gang gathers by a campfire before the battle dawns, they share old war stories from Little Big Horn to the Irish Rebellion as though Condon is arguing that these vampires aren't just undead bloodsuckers, but freedom fighters. Like everything else in the film, it's rousing nonsense. (But if the studio is desperate to cling to their money-maker, why not have a spin-off with Edward as Che Guevara? They've both got the great jawline.)
Though Kristen Stewart is the technical star of the series, the biggest clamor has always been for Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner. Her character was written to be so bland that she was just a stand-in for the reader's own fantasies—an actual personality would have been a distraction. Even her conversations with the love-of-her-life Edward are astoundingly unrevealing, boiling down to "Save me!" "Do that!" "Check out this!" And Stewart's hushed and mysterious real life romance with Pattinson positioned her as a simultaneous object of worship and envy. Did fans want to be her or did they want to swallow her? And can anyone argue that Twilight has a feminist streak when its devout divided themselves into Team Edward and Team Jacob—who carries the pennant for Team Bella?
But with her new powers both as a vampire and a mother, finally Bella is the thrust of her own movie. Mercifully for all those hand-wringers who thought Twilight was hammering passivity into their daughters, this harder, faster, stronger Bella is glorious. In her first moments as a vampire, she leaps over a waterfall in a blue shift dress—she may be dead, but every muscle in her body flexes with new life. It's like she's been gray for four films just so we can appreciate her sudden full color bloom. And the audience loves it, hooting as she whups beefy Emmett Cullen (Kellan Lutz) in arm wrestling, with one ecstatic fan hollering, "Go, Bella, go!" "I've had a bad habit of underestimating you," admits Edward. We all have. But Stewart has always seen the strength in her character, arguing that today, while the PC thing for a high school senior to do is agonize over which college to attend, it takes a truly headstrong girl to get married at 18 and commit herself to a literally eternal life decision. Mind you, she still cedes control of the details to the Cullen clan, who pick out her house, her baby's room, and even the clothes in her closet. But at least Edward, her perennial protector, can finally say, "It's your turn not to break me."
Bella's ascendance from awkwardness to ass-kickery is the arc of the entire five film franchise. In Breaking Dawn - Part Two, all the somber stiffness bursts into lush, full throttle insanity. The grand climax is a gory vampire-on-vampire-on-werewolf grudge match where the favored fatality is beheadings. Every frame of silent, lip-biting, pent-up tension in the series has been holding its breath for this—a 600-minute soap opera suddenly exploding into a Grindhouse slasher. Gaping at the screen, I barely managed to write down the words "extreme f--king carnage." There's even a slow motion wolf scream, which is hilarious if you can hear it above the audience.
When the shouting stops and the sweat dries, the credits pay homage to every single actor who's been in any of the Twilight films, rolling through the black and white footage like a yearbook montage reel. In the four years since the freshman flick debuted, the films, the cast, and their fans have grown together—and definitely in the case of Condon—grown smarter about their strengths. Now, all must graduate into the great post-Twilight beyond. What's next? For some of the cast, it's an adult acting career. For the rest, it's a lifetime of signing autographs at conventions. For some of the audience, there's plenty of time ahead to question their choice to name their own daughters Renesmee. For the rest, it's a giddy, goofy farewell to the franchise they've loved sometimes in spite of itself. And as for Condon, I hear Star Wars VII is looking for a director...
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Maggie Grace, Kellan Lutz, Peter Facinelli, Dakota Fanning, Ashley Greene, Jackson Rathbone, Nikki Reed, Billy Burke, Jamie Campbell Bell, Michael Sheen, Mia Maestro, Rami Malek, Lee Pace, Joe Anderson, Wendall Pierce, Booboo Stewart
Director: Bill Condon
Screenwriters: Melissa Rosenberg
Producers: Wyck Godfrey, Stephenie Meyer, Karen Rosenfelt
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sensuality and partial nudity
Running time: 116 min.
Release date: November 16, 2012
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