It goes without saying that the faithful will devour “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” the third movie in Stephenie Meyer’s immensely popular supernatural love-triangle saga, and also the one in which Bella must finally choose between her two beastly suitors. The pleasant surprise this time around is that the result finally feels more like the blockbuster this top-earning franchise deserves. Employing a bigger budget, better effects and an edgier director (“Hard Candy’s” David Slade), “Eclipse” focuses on what works — the stars — even as the series’ parent-friendly abstinence message begins to unravel. Summer release should reap Summit’s biggest yield yet.
Taking a cue from the “Harry Potter” series, which maintains continuity on the writing and casting fronts while introducing a different feel with each change of director, the “Twilight” producers have embraced a variety of different visions behind the camera. Capitalizing on her indie sensibility and keenly observed teen insights, Catherine Hardwicke set the tone with the low-budget first film, with Chris Weitz expanding (and flattening) the world with his broader, daytime soap-opera style in “New Moon.” Now, the task falls to Slade, who clearly understands how to work with actors while also demonstrating a welcome competence in the action and melodrama departments.
It’s no easy task taking a piece of material auds already know inside-out and spinning it in such a way that individual scenes still generate tension and suspense. Slade sets us on edge from the outset with an atmospheric vignette merely alluded to in the book, as small-town boy Riley (Xavier Samuel) is ambushed and bitten by an unseen vampire in shadowy Seattle (looking every bit as ominous as Tim Burton’s Gotham City).
Not much happens for the first 300 pages of Meyer’s novel, during which vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) vie for the affections of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), with our increasingly impatient heroine determined to surrender both her virginity and her humanity to the brooding bloodsucker (to his credit, Bella’s 109-year-old boyfriend wants to marry her first).
Slade and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg wisely intercut these puppy-love scenes with uneasy horror-movie jolts. After all, “Eclipse” builds not to a showdown between Edward and Jacob (no matter how often he takes off his shirt, the poor wolfboy will never be Bella’s first choice), but to an uneasy alliance between the Cullen clan and Jacob’s tribe of shape-shifters, united to protect Bella from the vengeance-seeking Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over the role from Rachelle Lefevre) and her army of “newborns,” undisciplined but super-strong new vampires.
Rather than attempting to elevate Meyer’s swoony prose to the level of literature (the poor scribe exhausts herself trying to find synonyms for “perfection”), Rosenberg’s task is to faithfully adapt the material for fans in such a way that works onscreen; that means having the freedom to remove, reorder or completely rewrite certain passages. She also has to contend with “Eclipse’s” muddled message — Bella’s in a hurry to be bitten, while everyone else is telling her to slow down — and devises a nice graduation speech for best friend Jessica (Anna Kendrick) on the merits of not rushing into things.
Despite the somewhat simple-minded source, the producers plot everything as if it were a strategic game of chess, paying off earlier gambles — Jacob played third wheel in the past, but gets the sexier kiss here — while seeding future films. Of particular interest is a wide-eyed young newborn (played by Jodelle Ferland), subject of Meyer’s spinoff novella “The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner,” who serves as an effective tool in setting up the powerful Volturi’s villainy for the two-part “Breaking Dawn” finale.
“Eclipse” feels the most cinematic of the series so far, taking scenes out of the lunchroom and Swan house as much as possible. Slade shares Hardwicke’s aesthetic of using dramatic aerial photography to give the otherwise intimate tale a more epic sweep, and expands on it by repeatedly lining up the various clans like the subjects of a Vanity Fair cover shoot, their iconic group poses helping to make the movie seem as big as its following. Though Slade inherits “New Moon” d.p. Javier Aguirresarobe, his choice of lenses and shooting style (including a fair amount of handheld camerawork) gives things a more dynamic energy.
Visual effects have improved considerably, with no fewer than 11 companies working on everything from Edward’s sparkling skin to CG wolves that realistically blend with live-action characters. A scene of Bella side-by-side with canine Jacob feels perfectly plausible, but nothing beats the sight of vampires and werewolves going at it in the climactic battle. If anything, the digital work outshines the other departments, with bad makeup, lifeless wigs and creepy contacts being the elements that disrupt the fantasy.