Laughter, disbelief and a sort of horrified exhilaration are all perfectly sane reactions to “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2,” a doozy of a finale to a series that, until now, has largely taken its dramatic cues from its maddeningly inert heroine. Not anymore: With Bella reborn as a bloodthirsty, butt-kicking vampire mama, this second of two Bill Condon-directed installments clears a low bar to stand easily as the franchise’s most eventful and exciting entry. Admittedly, much of the credit should go to a jaw-dropping extended climax that will give fans something to chew on besides the delicate matter of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson’s offscreen romance — not that a movie this commercially invincible requires too many talking points.
As demonstrated by last year’s “Harry Potter” capper, the conclusion to a book-based fantasy phenomenon can be counted on to do even bigger biz than usual, and “Breaking Dawn — Part 2,” the fifth and final film in a property that has already grossed $2.5 billion worldwide, should prove no exception. Summit can expect plenty of repeat attendance, and it’ll be interesting to monitor reactions beyond author Stephenie Meyer’s distaff fanbase, this being perhaps the first “Twilight” picture that some men in the audience might find themselves actually enjoying.
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Transformed into a vampire by the Cullen family at the end of “Part 1” so as to avoid near-certain death in childbirth, Bella (Stewart) opens her cold red eyes on a strange new world. Now possessed of superhuman strength, speed and senses, she can sprint, fly, disembowel large mammals and even overpower her hulking vampire brother-in-law Emmett (Kellan Lutz). Best of all, she and her husband, Edward (Pattinson), can retire to their Thomas Kinkade-style cottage and enjoy a life of uninhibited carnal pleasure, as demonstrated in a borderline-explicit love scene notable for its cloying soft-rock accompaniment, amber-lit closeups and artful methods of vampire junk concealment.
But Bella 2.0 also has her disadvantages, namely a nagging thirst for human blood that results in some mild complications with her dad, Charlie (Billy Burke), as well as with her rapidly developing half-mortal, half-immortal daughter, Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy). In a twist of fate that really brings out Bella’s aggressive side, Renesmee’s destiny turns out to be intertwined with that of Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the abdominally superior teenage werewolf who once rivaled Edward for Bella’s affections.
The considerable humor with which Condon and scribe Melissa Rosenberg tackle these developments has a disarming, even invigorating effect on the proceedings; on occasion, the film skirts so close to self-parody (the context in which Lautner’s Jacob loses his shirt gets a laugh as well as the usual screams and swoons) that it stops just short of expressing contempt for its audience. It’s a nervy approach and also the right one, grasping the intrinsic entertainment value of material that has never begged to be taken too seriously.
Yet things do turn serious, gravely so, once Renesmee’s existence draws the attention of the Volturi, the Italy-based vampire clan that has posed a dormant threat to the Cullens since the events of “New Moon.” And so “Breaking Dawn — Part 2” builds to its most audacious stroke, a lengthy showdown that, as already teased for months on Internet message boards, at once subverts and honors the outcome of Meyer’s source novel. In the context of a series whose pleasures have always been predicated on delayed gratification, this howlingly effective sequence can be viewed as a climax to roughly nine hours’ worth of foreplay. Even uncommitted viewers who have begrudgingly followed the movies up to this point will find themselves jolted awake, so unsparing and frankly mesmerizing is the picture’s stealth attack on audience sensibilities.
However auds wind up feeling about the denouement, there can be no denying that Condon, in fully embracing his genre-filmmaking roots, and not being afraid to go a little nuts in the process, has succeeded in drawing real blood from the franchise at last (while staying just barely within bounds of a PG-13 rating). Playing to the story’s cinematic strengths rather than its literary limitations, the helmer stages a coup that gives the picture the feel of something more vital than just a perfunctory sendoff.
Even before that point, however, “Part 2” has the bonus of a livelier Stewart performance than fans have been accustomed to. No longer a mopey, lower-lip-biting emo girl, this Bella is twitchy, feral, formidable and fully energized, a goddess even among her exalted bloodsucker brethren. With the tedious Edward/Jacob drama now settled, Pattinson and Lautner are largely decorative presences here, giving some of the ensemble’s supporting players room to shine.
As Aro, the devious leader of the Volturi, Michael Sheen offers another exquisitely controlled study in courtly malevolence, while Burke, as the ever-quizzical Charlie, can do more with a raised eyebrow than most of his younger co-stars manage with whole mouthfuls of exposition. Casey LaBow, Lee Pace and Rami Malek make strong impressions among the influx of actors donning pale makeup and red contact lenses to play the Cullens’ vampire allies.
The integration of CG and live-action, never one of the series’ strong suits, shows some improvement in the visual design of Jacob’s dependable wolf pack. Yet the f/x work reaches a nadir in the rendering of Renesmee, played by bright 10-year-old actress Foy, her features digitally tailored to suit the character’s many different ages. The result resembles a PhotoShop experiment gone wrong, especially during the child’s infant stage; Renesmee is supposed to be an otherworldly being, but that doesn’t mean she should evoke Marlon Wayans in “Little Man.”
D.p. Guillermo Navarro’s lush establishing shots of the Pacific Northwest (interiors were largely filmed in Louisiana), Virginia Katz and Ian Slater’s propulsive editing, and Richard Sherman’s woodland-chic production design demonstrate just how far “The Twilight Saga” has come, at least on a technical level, from the rough indie aesthetic of Catherine Hardwicke’s original “Twilight” four years ago. A lengthy roll call, singling out cast members across all five pics, ends things on a classy note.