Twilight: Breaking Dawn—Part 1

An exaggerated—and slightly improved—addition to the melodramatic saga.

Roughly one minute into my viewing of Twilight: Breaking Dawn—Part 1, Jacob took off his shirt and the theater erupted in feminine applause. I realized at that very moment that it would be useless to review this latest installment of the Twilight saga by any normal standards. Aside from a look of dismay on the face of Taylor Lautner and a bit of running, literally nothing had happened in the movie up to that point, and already the crowd was jubilant. I was reminded of seeing the Star Wars prequels a few years ago (guys: stay with me; more on this later), with Lautner’s abs sitting in for the Lucasfilm logo. This late in the Twilight game, it may not matter if Breaking Dawn—Part 1 is a good film, only that it is a Twilight-y one. (Editor's note: Read more about the emotional and cultural impact of the Twilight series here.)

So let’s pause for a moment and consider what the Twilight saga is exactly, because to say that it’s a drama or a romance puts it in the same categories as Schindler’s List or Sense and Sensibility and that just doesn’t make any sense. The Twilight saga is about a teenage girl who loves a vampire a little more than she loves a werewolf. Vampires and werewolves hate each other, so there’s some tension. That’s pretty much the story, right? It’s either a little silly, a little cool, a little sweet, a little exciting, very melodramatic or all of the above. Thus far, the resulting films adaptations have tried to play it safe, featuring a few of these ingredients to varying degrees, but desperately trying to keep a lid on the melodrama. Now, with Breaking Dawn, we have a new-to-the-series director who for the first time has chosen “all of the above"—and because of that choice has managed to make the best Twilight movie yet.

The movie essentially plays out in two parts; let’s call them Part 1-A and Part 1-B. Part 1-A deals with mortal Bella Swan and vampire Edward Cullen’s (Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson) nuptials and the rising tension between the vampires and the werewolves when Bella discovers she is pregnant. The first half (really, two-thirds) of the film plays like a highlight reel of all that has come before, with most things seemingly bumped up a notch to remind us that this is (almost) the last movie. All of the Twilight movie ticks are in full effect, with director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) gently exaggerating each one as they appear. The camera still drifts around the conflicted couple every time they kiss, but the kisses last a touch longer. The charming Anna Kendrick and her high school friends still provide a bit of comedic relief, but the jokes are broader and much funnier. Edward is more afraid of killing Bella during sex, and Bella is angrier at Edward for not sleeping with her, even after he sleeps with her and breaks the bed, which makes him more afraid and her more angry and so on and so forth. Jacob smirks more, gets more jealous and rides his motorcycle a little harder. The slow scenes are slower. The ridiculous scenes are more ridiculous (an argument between two snarling werewolves may be a series worst). Even Bella’s pregnancy seems at first to be the greatest violation in the long list of werewolf/vampire treaty violations that have kept the two parties constantly at odds for three, going on four, movies now. It’s like every other Twilight movie, only more so.

And really, this stuff is all fine if you accept the Twilight films for what they have been: carbon copies of the first Twilight movie. As I sat in the theater through Part 1-A listening to the audience’s adoring reactions to the cut-and-paste renderings of plot points from the book, handled more or less as they have been, I resigned myself to the mild enjoyment many of us Twilight outsiders have experienced for the last few years. Not great, not awful, but a little better than the last one and a decent way to spend two hours if you’re along for the ride.

Part 1-B starts quietly enough with a surprisingly grown-up disagreement about what to do with Bella’s increasingly dangerous unborn vampire child. No one in the vampire Cullen family can decide whether to let Bella complete the pregnancy, and everyone seems to make valid and compassionate points. Bella wants to keep it, Edwards wants to kill it and the family wants the mother to make her own choice. An abortion debate in a teenage vampire movie? This is new …

Then, suddenly, like a key fitting into a lock, like a match to gasoline, like Anakin Skywalker turning to the Dark Side of the Force in Episode III (guys: are you still with me?), Breaking Dawn—Part 1’s themes and meandering plot points click into place and the movie achieves things I never thought I’d see in this series: dramatic complexity and melodramatic excitement. It’s as if Condon the musical director has been paying his Twilight dues for 80 minutes so he can finally break out the song and dance for the last 40. This subdued, moody series has been asking for grand operatic moments, and for the first time in seven and a half hours, we get a whole stack of them. Everyone’s situation becomes desperate and unpredictable. The stakes skyrocket way beyond “Will they stay in love?” to “Will they survive the next five minutes?” as the wolves threaten the Cullens from outside their house while Bella’s baby and Jacob’s betrayal threaten from within. The ensuing birth and death scenes are graphic and unsettling; the change wrought within the lives of the characters is severe. It’s all over-the-top—and it’s actually terribly exciting.

Does all of this add up to a “good movie”? I still can’t tell. But unlike previous installments, I left this one looking forward to the next one. By finally cashing in on many of the series’ repressed impulses with a bit of wild abandon, Breaking Dawn—Part 1 has momentarily redefined Twilight-y for the better. Let’s hope there’s another great 40 minutes waiting for us in Part 2.

Dan Cava is an independent filmmaker and co-host of Moviemakers podcast, available soon on iTunes. Dan's directorial work can be seen at vimeo.com/dancava. He writes film reviews for RELEVANT magazine.

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