Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part One (United States, 2011)

November 18, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part One Poster

With the Twilight movies, you get out of them what you put into them. If you're a fan, this represents a delirious opportunity to see moments and characters from a favorite book come to life on the big screen. If you're indifferent to the hackneyed prose of Stephanie Meyer, the Twilight movies come across as overlong, rambling, borderline camp permutations of Romeo and Juliet with vampires and werewolves. They're not unlike Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, except (at least on some level) they take themselves seriously. That some devotees regard Breaking Dawn as the weakest of the series has not dissuaded Summit Entertainment, in a naked money-grab, from bifurcating the novel for its cinematic adaptation. Given the haphazard narrative structure of the book, this does little to damage the integrity of the story, but it demands two trips to the theater when, one suspects, one would have been more than sufficient.

Breaking Dawn Part One is the movie in which the chastity belt of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) finally comes off. She may be the last teenage virgin, but that could have something to do with the nature of her beau, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). However, in Stephanie Meyer's reality, not only can vampires give and have orgasms, but they can impregnate. I think perhaps the key thing to note about the author's interpretation of the "undead" concept is that we're not dealing with animated corpses empowered by the Devil; Meyer's vampires are akin to an alien species that thrives on blood. Still, the idea of Bella having hot, bed-wrecking sex with Edward is more creepy than erotic, which may be why the filmmakers elected to limit what the camera sees in the honeymoon suite.

Director Bill Condon, the art film darling lured to this big budget fiasco by a fat paycheck, is not known for pulling punches, which may explain rumors that the first cut of Breaking Dawn was destined for an "R" rating. Despite the undeniable fact that the movie's graphic, disturbing content warrants nothing less, such a move would be a commercial disaster, so the necessary cuts were made. Gone are chunks of the sex scene, but not the childbirth sequence, which pushes the envelope.

The plot is threadbare and straightforward. It's all about Bella losing her virginity - the prelude, the deed, and the aftermath. As the movie opens, she's preparing for her wedding. It's a low-key affair, attended by humans, vampires, and a werewolf or two. The honeymoon and deflowering occur on an out-of-the-way island (somewhere in the general vicinity of Rio), which is where Bella discovers, two weeks into her marriage, that there's something growing inside of her. Vampire/human hybrids develop quickly in the womb and Bella is soon fighting for her life. The werewolf community, upset by either a violation of the natural order or the breaking of a treaty (the movie is unclear on this point, although I'm sure readers of the book can enlighten me), decides to kill the baby after its birth. This leads to a little wolf-on-vampire action as the movie races toward its climax (not to be confused with the hardcore stuff in the Underworld movies).

The pacing is uneven, which is expected given the padding necessary to spread the story over two films. The first 80 minutes feels like a Dark Shadows-inspired melodrama, with meaningless drivel standing in for angst-laden, soul-searching dialogue. If Edward was Jewish, he could be played by Woody Allen. The slow, plodding tempo picks up considerably toward the end. There's an unintentionally hilarious scene in which talking wolves debate who has the bigger... umm... teeth. The last reel battle, which is intercut with a tragedy involving Bella, is assembled masterfully (also credit Carter Burwell's score). The final 30 minutes of Breaking Dawn represents good fun and makes up for a measure of the torture inflicted upon viewers getting to that point.

One of the problems with the Twilight movies is they never aspire to anything more than a pre-teen romantic fantasy. I suppose that's the point, but it gets old after a while. The subplots, which feature cruel bloodsuckers, cheesy-looking werewolves, and vampire politics, are forgettable and all we're left with is endless romantic angst. Brooding Edward is generally sympathetic. Jacob (Taylor Lautner) is bipolar and immature. Bella is among the most self-absorbed romantic heroines to grace the screen in the last five years, although she shows signs of maturity in this installment. Still, Edward and Jacob should have run off together and left her standing at the altar.

I refuse to discuss the acting at any length. What's the point? It is what it is. Kristen Stewart once again forgets she's a talented, capable performer and sleepwalks her way through the part, although special effects do an effective job of giving her an anorexic, corpse-like appearance during the pregnancy scenes. Robert Pattinson channels an undead version of James Dean and does his best to look more dashing and heroic than in the three previous Twilights. Taylor Lautner shows off his pecs (in his very first scene!) but the best acting occurs when Jacob is being portrayed as a CGI wolf. There are familiar faces here and there - Anna Kendrick, Billy Burke, Maggie Grace (what happened to Dakota Fanning?) - but the Twilight supporting cast doesn't rank alongside the Harry Potter entourage when it comes to the cream of the crop.

Bill Condon was brought on board after flirtations with Gus Van Sant and Sofia Coppola fell through. Condon brings a lot of indie cred, and gets to toss in a delicious in-joke (note what's playing in the theater where Edward, in flashback, makes his first kill), but it's hard to argue that his style is significantly different than that of his three Twilight predecessors. As in any franchise, the material is bigger than the filmmaker and Condon's contributions are small. He's also either uncomfortable with special effects or wasn't given a sufficient budget, because some of them (especially those featuring wolves) are awful.

Breaking Dawn Part One ends on a perfect note. It's designed as a cliffhanger but, since nearly everyone seeing the movie will have read the book, there's not a lot of suspense. The one-year break is hard to justify - at least Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows waited only seven months in between segments. When assigning a grade, the appropriate mark for Breaking Dawn Part One is an "incomplete." Without Breaking Dawn Part Two, it's difficult to say how the movie will fare when put in a larger context. Fans won't care but others might. As a stand-alone, it's a shaky affair more likely to please lovers of the books than anyone else. But since the Twilight films are made for the former group at the expense of the latter, it will be successful. Here's hoping Breaking Dawn Part Two gives us more of what Part One provided in the final 30 minutes than what it forced viewers to endure to get there.

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part One (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 2011-11-18
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1